Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Straight Paths for Service. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (C), preached on Sunday, December 5, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

     We struggle with good works.  We struggle with them as forgiven sinners because we know we should do them, but so often we don’t.  We struggle with good works as Lutheran Christians because we know they can’t save us.  We’re saved by grace through faith.  That’s the Good News.  That’s the Gospel.  Salvation comes from Christ and His cross, not by what we do, but by what He has done for you.  And because of that, out of a fear that we and others might become self-righteous, trusting in ourselves instead of Christ, we shy away from talking about good works.  But John didn’t, and neither does our Lord.  Christ has set you free from sin and death so that you can do good works.  Baptized in Him, He’s prepared you for lives of service.
    It wouldn’t be Advent without hearing that voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  At the proper time, God sent John to prepare His people to receive their Messiah.  He was to fill the valleys, make every mountain and hill low, to straighten the crooked paths, level out the rough roads.  But what does all that mean?  It means removing all obstacles that would prevent people from seeing their Savior.  And John did exactly that.  It couldn’t have been clearer than when He physically pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  But even then, some wouldn’t see their Lord because they were blinded with their own self-righteousness.  That’s the mountain that John had to level; a mountain of self-righteousness that only looks inward towards oneself.    
    Some of the strongest words of Law and condemnation came from John’s mouth.  You can’t help but be taken aback when you hear him call the Pharisees and others a brood of vipers.  Calling those men that implied that they were Satan’s children.  Pretty harsh words.  But true words.  And John had to speak those words to get their attention.  
They were self-righteous.  They looked to themselves.  They looked to their works, and they looked to their heritage.  They falsely believed that simply because they were blood descendants of Abraham that they were on the right side of God.  And because of that, they weren’t ready to receive the Savior.  They didn’t think they needed one.  So John had to show them otherwise.  He showed them their sin.  He spoke God’s Law and pointed out their failure to keep it.  He called them to repent and to bear fruit of repentance, because if they didn’t, they’d suffer the fate that all fruitless trees face: they’d be cut down and thrown into the fire.
When the crowds heard this, many were cut to the heart.  Their eyes were opened to their sin and they repented.  They asked John what they must do.  And he told them:  “Do good works.”  “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”  The good works that John directed the people to do were works of service.  
Around this time of the year there always seems to be an increase in service work.  Charitable giving goes up.  Winter clothing drives collect coats and mittens and hats.  People spend their time helping out at soup kitchens and donating food to food banks.  Angel Tree gifts get purchased.  Coins and bills are dropped into red kettles.  All of this is good.  We should be thankful for all of the service that happens around the holidays.  But it does make you wonder…why don’t we do things like this year around?  If those kinds of good works are beneficial during November and December, wouldn’t they be good the other 10 months?  
    John wasn’t telling the people to do a few good works and call it good.  He was calling them to a lifetime of good works, a lifetime of service.  That’s what you’ve been called to, a life of service, service to the Lord and service to your neighbors.  
    Good works are necessary.  The Lord calls you to do the good that He commands.  The 10 Commandments don’t just say what not to do, but what to do.  And there’s no option here.  You don’t get to pick and choose.  In the Small Catechism, Luther’s given us the Table of Duties, obligations for us based on our vocations.  These duties come straight from Scripture, and they’re all about serving: husbands serving wives and wives serving husbands; parents serving children and children serving parents; neighbors serving neighbors; employees and employers; pastors and hearers.  All of us are called to serve each other, we’re commanded to serve, to do good works.  And this isn’t a dreadful thing.  We welcome serving opportunities.  
    That’s what we prayed for in the prayer for today; Stir up our heart, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You.  We want to serve our Lord.  We want to serve those around us.  We want to do good works, because that’s the fruit of faith.
    When John told the people what good works they need to do he wasn’t commanding works righteousness.  He wasn’t saying that if they shared their coat they’d be saved.  Instead, he was directing them to lives of faith.  That’s the fruit he spoke about, the fruit of faith, faith that doesn’t look to oneself and works; but faith that looks to Christ and His work.  
We have no good works of our own.  The people who came to see John had no good works of their own.  Our works are sin because we’re sinners.  Like those Pharisees, we’re a brood of vipers, under Satan’s control.  We confess this very thing in the Baptismal liturgy.  At the beginning of that rite, we acknowledge that we’re all conceived and born sinful and are under the power of the devil until Christ claims us as His own.  And that’s exactly what your Lord has done.  He has claimed you as His own.
He claimed you with His death and resurrection.  He purchased you from all sin, death, and the power of the devil with His holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  He’s placed the mark of His cross on your forehead and on your heart, marking you as one His redeemed.  In the waters of baptism He raised you, a new man, a forgiven saint, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  It’s because of this, because of what Christ has down for you, that you live a life of faith.  Christ has set you free for this life, and in this life it’s a joy to serve; just as your Savior has served you.  
Luke 3:18 is a verse that can often get overlooked.  In it, Luke summarized John’s work.  “With many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.”  John came to preach the good news, to proclaim the Gospel.  He pointed to the Savior.  But with that proclamation, he encouraged the people to live by the faith they received.  With the fruit of faith, trusting in the Savior, you are free.  You’re free from sin and death.  You’re free from Satan’s control.  And with that freedom you follow your Savior in service, in good works that reflect His love and good work.  In Jesus’ name…Amen.

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