You Can't Get There From Here
Have you ever been driving in the country and lost your way? You know where you want to go, but you're not exactly sure where you are. When you stop and ask directions, the kindly country person says to your surprise, "You can't get there from here." What? Does this road I'm on suddenly drop off over the next hill? Has it disintegrated behind me? What does he mean, "You can't get there from here?" That seems like a foolish thing to say when you're talking about traveling on a road. But when you're talking about religious matters, it is very true to say that there are some places you can't get to from where you are.
We want to get to serving God in holiness and righteousness. That's what we pray in the Collect for this Third Sunday in Advent. We pray "grant that we may...serve You in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives." We want to be in God's service knowing that those who don't serve God serve Satan. There's no third choice. A person is either in the service of God or Satan. We want to be holy and do things for God and our neighbor. We want to be righteous and do the right thing in all the situations where we are tempted to do the wrong thing. We want to to control our tempers, curb our lusts, and love our neighbor. That's where we want to get to.
This same sort of desire drove the crowds out into the wilderness to John the Baptizer. They wanted to do right things. They wanted to do holy things. They didn't want to serve Satan to their eternal destruction. They knew that God had already set a day of judgement when He would return to destroy and damn the unholy and the unrighteous. They didn't want to be in that number. They wanted to be different.
Wanting to be different is a theme in most Christmas specials. We can identify with that, and so we are drawn to them. We with Charlie Brown don't want to be caught up in the commercialization of Christmas. We with the Grinch know that because of sin our hearts are indeed too small. We know with Scrooge that we have not had the compassion we ought to have had on the Tiny Tims of the world.
Also, along with all the legends of children standing outside the manger, we want to give the perfect gift to the Christ-Child, one holy and righteous. But all we have is sin and guilt; all we have are filthy rags according to Isaiah. Even as little drummer boys our rum-pum-pum is polluted with shameful thoughts. Even though we stand outside the manger and cry because we have nothing but sin to offer, our tears don't fall to the ground and sprout beautiful red plants as they do in the legend of the pointsetta; no they sprout thistles and thorns.
Well, don't make the mistake the crowds in our text do. Don't stop at John. Don't think the way to get to holy and righteous service of God is to be made to feel bad at what a lowlife you are. The crowds came to John because they knew they were not what they should be. John tries to make them move on by preaching sharp Law to them. "Don't you dare take comfort in being children of Abraham," he says. "If you lack good fruit, you will be cut down. The ax is already laid at the root of the tree. God has already taken His practice swings. Any moment He is going to raise the ax and bring your miserable life to an end and cast you into hell."
This is sharp Law preaching, but not sharp enough. The crowd stays with John. Still trying to get to holy and righteous service of God from there. We know this because they respond to the preaching of the Law with, "What shall we do?" This is what the Pentecost crowd said when Peter made them guilty of the death of Christ. This is what the Philippian jailer said once he saw that he was guilty of cruelty to the missionaries of God, Paul and Silas. This is what Scrooge said once he saw where his greed and hard heart would lead. This is also what the rich young man said who came to Jesus sure that a person is saved by doing.
John does what Jesus did to the rich young man. For those who haven't had enough of the Law, Jesus gave them more Law. So John gives sharper Law still. He tells people who lived hand to mouth that if they have any extra, they must share with others. He tells tax collectors and soldiers who made their living by what they could get above and beyond what they were suppose to charge, to stop. But such harsh Law preaching still doesn't turn them from John. They still thought that John could be the Christ.
How blind they were. John 1 plainly says, "The Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Christ." And, "from His fullness we all received grace upon grace." Yet, the crowds came to John who told them do this, don't do that, and they thought they had found the Christ. Likewise people today flock to preachers of the Law. Let a preacher tell people how wretched they are and that they must do better or else and people will hail him as very religious, very godly, very holy. Let a preacher tell people how to have a godly marriage, how to raise godly children, how to live a Christian life and people love it. That's real Christian preaching. I need that pastor. I need to be told what to do and how to be. That's why every Christmas story, even those written by Christians, has people being told to be different and ends with them being so.
It's true; we need to serve God in holiness and righteousness. It's true; we are to share what we have, and be content with our wages. It's true; we're to have godly marriages and children and live Christian lives. But you can't get there from here. You can't get to holiness and righteousness from commands or how to instructions. You can only get to guilt or what's worse self-righteousness if you stay with John.
Go ahead; keep the Law before you eyes. Monitor your every thought, word or deed on the basis of it. Realize that you'll not be saved because you've been a Lutheran all your life. Realize you've not treated your spouse or kids the way you should. Realize that your lust, your greed, your prejudices will damn you. Resolve to be different from now on. What you will find is one of two things. Either you'll be keenly aware that you can never do what the Law demands and so have a perpetual guilty conscience. Or you'll come to believe that your efforts at keeping the Law are good enough, and so live in damning self-righteous pride.
You can't get to holy and righteous service of God by stopping at John and hearing what you are suppose to do; you must move on to Christ. This is what John tries to do for the crowd. John doesn't point them to another Baptism by Jesus as if his own didn't have the Holy Spirit in its waters. Just because John says, "I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire," doesn't mean John is thinking of two different baptisms.
Just because John says Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire doesn't mean he has the Sacrament of Baptism in view. Elsewhere Jesus speaks of the baptism of His passion; He's not thinking of the Sacrament of Baptism there. And the Bible speaks of the Pharisees baptizing their couches and hands. Just because the word "baptize" is in a text doesn't make it a reference to the Sacrament of Baptism.
So here. When John speaks of Jesus baptizing them with the Holy Spirit and with fire, He's using the word according to it's everyday meaning in Greek. It means to wash, deluge, or inundate. John is pointing to Jesus as the source of his baptism. The source of the Holy Spirit and purifying fire that John is speaking of and distributing in His baptizing and preaching is Jesus. Jesus as the Source is as much above John as a master is the lowest slave. Jesus is the One they need to get to. The don't need to stop at John. There is no holiness and righteousness in John for sinners. That comes from Jesus.
We make a mistake when we think the last paragraph of our text is Law. John is preaching Christ in this last paragraph. The last verse plainly tells you that. Our insert translates, "With many other words, John exhorted the people." The word exhorted could be translated "comforted." If you remember your Old Testament, the Isaiah passage that predicts the ministry of John begins with the words, "Comfort, comfort ye My people." Also the last paragraph ends saying John "preached the Good News to them." John preached the Gospel to these distressed sinners who wanted to be different.
And so I preach it to you. To you who are disgusted with yourself because you are not holy and righteous enough; to you who know you ought to be different; to you who know you ought to share more and take advantage of others less; to you who know that your heart is small and your lust and greed great, I preach Good News to you. Christ Jesus has come with the fullness of the Holy Spirit (He has it without measure the Bible tells us.) to give you forgiveness, life and salvation. Christ Jesus comes with the fires of judgement to burn up your sins so that they are no more.
To see the fire as the Good News it is, however, you have to examine John's words carefully. The chaff you know is the stuff that encases the wheat, holds it prisoner so to speak. This is what our sins do to us. They burden us; they shame us; they damn us. But wheat cannot separate itself from chaff. The farmer must do it. So Christ Jesus has done for you. He separated you from your sins something that you can't picture, feel or experience. To you, your sins and you are one. Not so to Christ. He took your sins from you and put them on Himself. Then He suffered the full punishment your sins deserve on the cross.
The chaff here represents yours sins. The fire represents your forgiveness, the Gospel. This is what Luther taught. This also goes on along with other passages about Baptism. John is speaking of his baptism being rooted in Jesus the source of the Holy Spirit and the forgiving fire. In no Bible passage is Baptism associated with judgement but always with forgiveness. Furthermore, farmers didn't burn the chaff but saved it and fed it to the cows. Here it is burned. This fits in with the Old Testament. You confessed your sins on an animal, and then the animal was burned.
Your sins are no more. They have been separated from you and burned for good. There is no trace of them before God even if you can still find them in your conscience. What counts is not what your conscience says about your sins, but what God says, and He says, "They are no more." What's more, you are safe in Christ's barn. In Christ's barn there are no sins only righteousness and holiness. You live and serve in that barn so all that you do is righteous and holy before God.
Friends, this is what we have always confessed in the explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles Creed. We say that the purpose of Christ redeeming us is "that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness." Though we still be sinners, though we still sin, Christ has redeemed us from our sins, from the chaff, and now we stand in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. That's how God sees us right now.
The reason we are slow to share, quick to take advantage and even quicker to criticize is that we don't see ourselves this way. We see ourselves with God's ax laid at our root ready to chop us down. We see ourselves as always having to do better or different in order to get into God's barn. We see ourselves always outside of God's righteousness and holiness which takes away any desire to serve God or our neighbor. The truth is that Christ has brought us into His barn taking care of our sins and placing us where His righteousness, innocence and blessedness perpetually cover us. In our Baptisms, in Absolution, in the Holy Communion we are always righteous, always holy before God. From here, we get to service that is always righteous and holy before God even though it is feeble and faltering. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent III (12-17-00) Luke 3: 7-18