Paint Me a Birmingham
On the way back from my niece's wedding in 2005, we drove through Birmingham, Alabama. I said to the girls. "This is what that song "Paint me a Birmingham" is about." The 11 year old said, "Huh, I thought it was saying paint me a butter ham." I asked, "How in the world would that make sense with the rest of the words? Besides what's a butter ham?" She didn't know, and the inconsistency hadn't troubled her. The Third Sunday of Advent can seem inconsistent. It's historically known as John the Baptist Sunday, and more recently as the Sunday when joy is highlighted. That's why the pink candle on the Advent wreath is lit. Are we lighting the pink candle but not really hearing John's preaching? Is he painting a Birmingham and we're thinking butter ham? Let's have a look.
We start with the color of wrath. This isn't unfocused anger; this isn't short-lived rage; this isn't shallow mad.' This is settled, determined, deep-seated, long-lived wrath. John paints wrath as an approaching wildfire. You can see the line of smoke in the distance; see an occasional fountain of flame here or there. And John says we are like a bunch of snakes that sense the fire before it gets there and we're slithering to get out of the way.
Standing with his back to the black, billowing smoke of God's wrath, see on the canvas John thundering, "God has no grandchildren." That was a favorite saying of my mom's. Saving faith is not passed on physically like genes. The Jews thought because they were physical descendants of Abraham they were automatically God's people. I meet people who think because their mothers, fathers, grandparents were confirmed in this church no matter how long ago, no matter how little they themselves come, they are members. No they're not. Don't even begin to say to yourselves, "We have LCMS parents and grandparents; therefore we must be saved." I tell you God regards rocks as good of members as those people."
As John stands there bellowing the Law in front of the billowing cloud of God's wrath he pauses and says, "Look down at your feet." See the ax there? It's all ready to chop down any person that is not bearing fruit in keeping with the repentance he or she professes. As Luther said, "God is not merciful so that you might have the right to be wicked" (LW, 58, 167) He goes on to say in another sermon that fallen human reason is not even so irrational to think that Christ has redeemed me from sins so that I might sin again. "But now this [view] is widely accepted" (LW, 58, 296) even among God's people. John is here to chop that down. And the painting we end up with is not a butter ham or a Birmingham but "The Scream."
That is what we get if we stop painting here, but our text goes on. It paints the real baptizer. From John saying elsewhere, "The reason I came baptizing with water was to reveal the Christ," to him saying, "Jesus must increase; I must decrease," to John pointing away from himself to Jesus saying, "Look there is the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world," John is all about Jesus. Scripture calls John the Baptist" but Jesus is the real baptizer.
John paints Jesus here as "one more powerful than I." Jesus did what no sinner can do. He kept the law perfectly. You think you do okay because you don't rob banks, most everybody thinks you're a good person, and you meet your own standards of keeping God's laws. But the truth is with every move you make, every breath you take, you break God's laws, and it's impossible for you to do any better. You and I are like Pigpen in the Snoopy comics. Everywhere we go a cloud of sin, guilt, and broken laws wafts about us. But that's no how it was for Jesus. He was strong enough to keep all of God's laws all the time. He never had a sinful doubt or lust. He never lied or gossiped. He never sinned in what He did.
John paints Jesus as stronger than sinful men and even stronger than a perfect man. Jesus is going to pour out the Holy Spirit on sinful man. He won the right to keep the Holy Spirit as a man by never forfeiting Him by sinning, but to pour Him out on the likes of us, that's another matter. Think of a snow white dove. It won't land in a cow patty. It won't land in filth. But John says Jesus will pour out, apply, baptize, people with the Holy Spirit? How? By carrying their sins away from them. Jesus we established is perfect. No sins on His record. But He takes yours on His. He takes the world's on His record.
The goat bearing the sins of the Old Testament church was slain and its blood taken into the Holy of Holies and poured into the mercy seat. God dwelling above in a cloud could no longer see the tablets with the Commandments on them in the Ark because the blood of the sacrifice covered them. Were there is no law there can be no sins. Jesus the true Lamb of God was sacrificed on the cross and Hebrews says He carried His blood into the true sanctuary of God in heaven thereby covering up the sins of the entire world below.
First John paints Jesus as the one who is strong enough to win the right to baptize sinners in forgiveness. Then he paints Him as the Coming One. John doesn't say as the insert has "one more powerful than I will come." It's not future tense, but present. John says Jesus comes. Not just in the future but today. With every Word of God spoken, Jesus comes. With every drop of baptismal Water, Jesus comes. In every crumb of Communion Bread, Jesus' Body is present in its entirety. In every droplet of Communion Wine, Jesus' Blood is all there.
John is not done painting yet. He paints Jesus as the Great Separator. But isn't this mistaking a picture of judgment for one of grace, thinking you're getting a butter ham when you're really getting a Birmingham? Earlier in the text separation was a preaching of judgment; here something different is going on. Here the emphasis is not on the chaff being burned up, but the wheat being gathered. That's why St. Luke can say right after this image, "With many other words John preached the good new [the Gospel]."
There's Gospel in this picture of separating. Jesus the true Baptizer is able to do what you can't. He can separate saints from sinners, but that's not what really troubles you. What troubles you is that you can't separate your old adam from your new; you can't separate you, the fallen, sinful, person from you, the saint. Jesus can. Though to you these two are inextricably tangled in your soul, that's not how they look to Jesus. They look to Jesus like the nerve in my back did to the doctor who operated on me. He told me that through his instruments my tiny nerve looked as big as a chair to him.
That's how clearly Jesus sees your old adam and your new man; your sinfulness and your saintliness; your desire to be freed from your sins and the chains of your sins. Jesus comes in Baptism and drowns the old man and rebirths the sinless, new man. He comes in Absolution sending your sins away and can see nothing but a saint left behind. He comes in Communion and by His Almighty Body and Blood breaks the chains of your sins and grants your heart's desire to be freed from them.
John the Baptist has painted our judgment. He has painted our Savior from judgment. It remains for Him to paint the joy. Did you hear the plaintive cry from those sinners who had been baptized, freed of theirs sins, delivered from God's wrath and judgment? "What should we do?" That is the natural question of the reborn new man, the forgiven sinner, the person who's been freed from his or her sin. They know they are different. They know freed persons act differently than enslaved; forgiven sinners different than guilty ones; found saints different than lost sinners.
John doesn't paint us as doing great works in the eyes of the world but doing our vocation. Men share with their fellow man. Tax collectors collect taxes and soldiers soldier. As the refrain of an old negro spiritual sings, Jesus the king is "coming by and by, And He'll find me hoeing cotton when He comes" (Barclay, 34). The fruit of the repentant sinner is doing his or her vocation. It's moms changing diapers; it's dads cleaning gutters; it's employees doing their work; it's citizens paying taxes; it's pastors preaching the word; it's people hearing it. These are the fruit of repentant people in the eyes of Jesus.
But don't fool yourself. Such fruit is not only scoffed at by the world, it's rarely produced by it. In John's day starvation and freezing we're real issues. You kept anything extra against the day when you wouldn't have enough. Tax collectors made their living by charging more; soldiers lived from what they could extort and there has never been a solider anywhere at anytime who thought he was being paid enough to put his life on the line. So the picture John paints of a repentant sinner is radically different than the world they or we live in. It's turning a Birmingham into a butter ham.
That takes a miracle. If you try to bear the fruit of repentance in your strength, by your determination, with your resolve, you will fail miserably. No you must be clothed with the Spirit first. The forgiveness of sins must be poured over you by Baptism so much so that you're dripping wet with forgiveness. Your sins have to have been sent away from you by Absolution so far that you can't see them any more and have no idea in what direction they went. Your body and blood have to have been given so much life and so much salvation from the Body and Blood of Jesus you ate and drank in Communion that it is no longer you that live but Christ who lives in you.
That happening is what produces, what gives birth to the question, "What should I do then?" The radical, total, miraculous gospel flooding your life, forgiving your sins, making you a new creation can't help but bring forth this question. The person who asks what should I do now that I've been baptized, now that I've put on Christ, now that I'm a new man, knows he is without condemnation, knows she is free of guilt, knows they're no longer enslaved by sin. This is joy; and John the Baptist in painting a Birmingham brought us this butter ham. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20121216); Luke 3: 7-18