A Cobbler for Your Christmas
Rod Serling had an inimitable way of introducing Twilight Zone episodes, so I can't sound like him. But I will put before you a cobbler for Christmas; a simple maker and mender of footwear. See him in his shop surrounded by shoes. Little does this cobbler know he's about to take you to the Twilight Zone for Christmas.
You need a cobbler for Christmas, evidently. In our text, the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers did. After being told they were a bunch of snakes, after the ax was laid at the root of their tree, after the fires of hell are kindled before them unless they bring fruit in keeping with repentance, they all ask "what should we do?"
Evidently they needed a cobbler for Christmas, and I guess you do too. You need to be told what the fruits of repentance are. You need to be told to live lovingly with your wife; you need to be told to stop cheating on your taxes; you need to be told to obey your parents; you need to be told stop worrying, coveting, lusting, gossiping, and every other ing that is contrary to the Commandments.
I wonder; did any of you come in here thinking you could hang on to the sins common to your station in life and walk out of here with Jesus? Did any of you think you could escape the coming wrath of God against sinners by clinging to your sins, small or great? So what is with the obvious question from the crowd, tax collectors, and soldiers: what shall we do? I think a cobbler can tell us.
St. Anthony was a monk who lived around 251-356 A.D. He is known as the father of Christian monasticism. At about 20, in order to live an exemplary Christian life, he moved out of his family's home to live alone. He endured violent temptations, spiritual and physical. He overcame them all and so drew a following. When he was about 60 he went to live in a cave and remained there the rest of his long life (Saints, 49-50).
So where's the cobbler for my Christmas? He comes by way of Anthony. Anthony asked God to show him how he was progressing in the Christian life (AP, XXVII, 35-38). He basically asks the question of God that the people in our text ask of John the Baptist. What shall I do? He was shown in a dream a cobbler in the nearby town of Alexandria.
Anthony left his cave in search of the cobbler to observe him, speak to him and determine his spiritual exercises, to find out what made him so special that God would use him as an example. This is how our Lutheran Confessions relate what Anthony found. "He heard nothing except that early in the morning the shoemaker prayed a few words for the entire state and then worked his trade" (Ibid. 38). So Anthony saw that this cobbler got up, said the Lord's Prayer (What other prayer in such few words prays for all?) and then went about cobbling. He didn't live in a cave; he didn't gather for worship with other cave-residing monks several times a day; he didn't keep his nose buried in a Bible.
Neither does our text describe the repentant life in any other terms than pursuing your daily calling. There was no call for everyone to be a minister; no call for everyone to be an evangelists; no call for everyone to be reading so much of their Bibles, or saying so many prayers a day. And there was no call for that particular kind of piety I call Reform that has leaked into so much of Lutheranism.
Luther makes the distinction between Lutheran and Reformed piety this way. I should tell you when some of you fact checkers look this up, you will find scholars who say Luther never said it and it's contrary to his theology. First, for the most part those scholars are Reformed. Second, some of our theologians attribute it to Luther. Three, I think Lutheran scholars are in a better position than Reformed to determine what is and isn't contrary to Luther's theology.
The Luther quote is about a cobbler. He says a Christian cobbler makes good shoes not poor shoes with tiny crosses on them (Benne, Ordinary Saints, 169). He doesn't drizzle the name of Jesus, or love, or God over what he does, says, or thinks like you drizzle frosting over a cinnamon roll. He doesn't live with a list of do's or don't's. He doesn't live with chart where his progression of holiness is recorded. He doesn't live taking his spiritual temperature hour by hour, day by day, or at all.
John didn't send the repentant souls out with admonitions to say their prayers, share the gospel, or drizzle piety over everything they did. The crowds weren't commanded to share clothing or food with, "God bless you." The tax collectors weren't told that living the Christian life meant putting a fish symbol on their tax invoices. The soldiers weren't told to tattoo themselves with Christian symbols. They were in effect given a cobbler for Christmas. They were to go about their day to day calling as a Christian in the glad confidence that they weren't made Christians by their calling. No their Christianity made holy whatever their calling. Their calling was holy not because of how they did it or what they did but because they pursued it as Christians.
This is what our Lutheran Confessions says about the cobbler incident. "Here Anthony learned that justification is not to be assigned to the kind of life that he had entered" (Ibid.). Anthony was not saved by living in a cave for Jesus; I am no more saved by being a pastor for 30 years than you are for being a dishwasher. The crowd didn't need to come live with John in the wilderness. The tax collectors, who were excluded from the church, didn't have to give up their jobs to be Christians. Not even the soldiers, part of the force oppressing the Church, had to leave the military.
Is that what you usually take away from this text? No, you take away, "What shall I do" and that question rings in your ears till you conclude that you obviously haven't done enough. You take the images of a dried tree, an ax, and fire. You take way images not of being gathered into a barn for eternal safekeeping but images of being burned with unquenchable fire! Why is that? Clearly because you never been given a cobbler for Christmas. Let's change that toot sweet.
The cobbler wasn't saved by making good shoes or of repenting of making cheap shoes that cheated his customers. He was saved by the One who walked far more than a mile in his shoes, and those shoes pinched. The Second Person of the Godhead, One who Psalm 22 says is enthroned as the Holy One and who inhabited the praises of Israel humbled Himself to descend into a virgin's womb. That's the only way He could put our shoes on. And He walked and walked and walked in them. He was the perfect cobbler, desert monk, citizen of Judea, tax collector of Rome, and solider. He was the perfect you. Go ahead think on that. Think of all that God's Law demands of you in your place in life. Jesus walked those miles in shoes not made by a cobbler but by a virgin's womb.
The cobbler was saved, not by his piety, not by his love, not even by his faith. These weren't the agents, the cause of his salvation. No, the cobbler was saved the only way anyone ever has been: by the One who did all in his shoes and then was punished for as if He hadn't done it at all.
People can understand why society has to hold people accountable for breaking its laws. They get why people have to be jailed, fined, or even executed for every infraction of human laws even down to traffic violations. Yet, people think it should be different with God. He should Santa-like ho-ho-ho' away our breaking of divine laws. Can't happen; will never happen. God's eternal wrath against man for breaking His laws is only satisfied by the punishment of Jesus on the cross, and it wasn't a tiny cross but a huge, ugly, eternal one. The cobbler saw that cross hanging over his life, work, and death and you are to as well.
Luther tells a story about another hermit. Shortly before death he was sad and motionless for 3 days with his eyes fixed on heaven. When asked why, he said he was afraid of death. His pupils comforted him by saying he had lived a very holy life and had no reason to fear death. He responded, "'I have indeed lived a holy life and observed the Commandments of God, but the judgments of God are quite different from those of men'" (LW, 26, 149).
The judgment of God is that the only tree that ever produced good fruit was the tree of the cross. From it flow the fruit of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The judgment of God is that the One who has the power and the right to pour out both the saving Spirit and the judging fire can easily separate the wheat from the chaff, gathering one and burning the other. Go by the judgments of God not by that of men. God judges in Christ that all Laws are kept, all broken Laws are paid for. God judges in Christ that you are a good tree and therefore bear good fruit.
Did you listen to the Collect we prayed? I'll bet it bothered some of you. We prayed, "Grant that we know this salvation and serve you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives," and some of you stumbled. You thought of your lack of holiness that showed on the way to church and the unrighteousness of your lurid thoughts. You've got to stop thinking Collects are Law. Prayer is a gift from God. We prayed: "grant" that is "give" that is I don't have holiness and righteousness on my own so you must give it to me "through Jesus Christ our Lord."
This sermon has a chance to wrap up neatly the way say a cobbler can tack together a shoe. Serving in holiness and righteousness should have struck a Lutheran cord. In the explanation to the 2nd Article of the Creed this is what we confess is the result of being redeemed, purchased, and won by Jesus' holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. We say He did all this, "That I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness." In Christ God sees you as righteous, innocent, and blessed this Christmas whether you're a tax collector, soldier, or cobbler. You seeing that puts whatever you do in a different light, say a halo. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20151213); Luke 3: 7-18