A movie opens with the click of a shutter. A picture is displayed. Another click another picture. The writer and/or director mean for there to be a message in those pictures. Our text has several vivid pictures. Some are of the Law; some are of the Gospel, but they all preach.
In good Law and Gospel fashion, we begin with the Law. See a brood of vipers. We don't commonly use the word brood' or viper.' A brood' refers to that which is born of man or animals. It's only used 4 times in the Bible; only John and Jesus use it and they use it only of the Pharisees and/or Sadducees. A viper' is not the same thing as a snake. In Matthew 23 Jesus calls the Pharisees both. "You snakes, you brood of vipers." Viper' is a generic term for a poisonous snake.
John calls the popular and official leaders of the church of his day a bunch of poisonous snakes, the offspring of the serpent of old, Satan. See the clutch of snakes that engulfed the man crossing the river in the movie Lonesome Dove. See the twisting, churning, slithering snakes that Indiana Jones saw when he drops the torch into the room. See the snakes fleeing from something but to no avail; they are going to be caught.
Got the picture? Here's the reality. It is estimated that John baptized between 200,000 and 500,000 people (Buls, Exegetical Notes, A, Gospel, 6). This was a popular movement. The church leaders wanted something to do with it. Perhaps John would welcome them with open arms and gladly baptize them. Instead he calls them a brood of fleeing vipers. They're running from God's wrath, but they aren't going to make it because impenitence only runs toward His wrath never away from it.
Are you in this picture? Is repentance something that others need to do, but not you? O sure you're a sinner, but you're not that bad. You say, "I a poor, miserable sinner," but those are just words you say with your lips not mean in your heart. Where's the fruit of your repentance? Where's your changed life? Why are you no different this Advent than you were last?
Picture this. An ax beside the root of a tree. The text says "trees" but I have a hard time picturing that. I can picture a tree; how about a nice green Christmas tree? And an ax, how about one of those with a wood handle, a red metal head that gives way to a silver blade? Imagine getting a Christmas card with that on the cover? "Merry Christmas" blazes across the bottom, but when you open the card the Christmas tree has not only been chopped down but it is in a roaring fire. That's part of the picture. Although the insert translates "will be cut down and thrown into the fire," the whole verse is present tense. "Already the ax is right next to the root of the trees; therefore, every tree not making good fruit is chopped down and into the fire cast."
It wasn't an idle question I asked in connection with the other picture. Where is your fruit of repentance? You think you're really repentant of having other gods when you think government, medicine, or men in general have more control or influence over your life than God? You think you're really repentant of misusing the name of the Lord when not 60 minutes after calling upon the name of the Lord in here you're out there using the name of God as an exclamation point? Do you think you're really repentant of not gladly hearing God's Word when you look for any reason not to hear it?
Picture the trees talking in the Wizard of Oz; picture the Geico commercial where the tree falls in the woods. God's ax has chopped you down, and God's law is dragging you to the hellfire you deserve, but you're still yapping. You've been a Lutheran all your life. You went to Lutheran day school. You went to a Lutheran high school. You went to seminary! Two things. First, you don't think people really say things like this; they may not say the words but they make the point. Second, God could care less. Your confessional Lutheran pedigree is no excuse, let alone answer to your sins.
The final picture exposes the secret lie we all nurse. I may indeed get burned for my sins, but surely I won't go to hell. But hells where our photo display ends. True; John doesn't picture the chopped trees burning in hell, but the chaff is burned up with unquenchable fire. Jesus says that prostitutes, and other open sinners like homosexuals, drug dealers, and contract killers are more likely to be heaven than church leaders because their sense of shame can lead them to repentance. Our sense of not being that bad fools us into thinking the unquenchable fires of hell are quenched in our case.
Do you know what chaff is? It's dried, broken up straw. Do you know how easily and hotly it burns? The winnowing shovel of the Law of God is in God's hand. See Him getting every piece of chaff off the threshing room floor. See the roaring fire behind Him. See Him pitch the shovel full of chaff into the maw of the fire. The fire is so hot it doesn't even smoke. So hot it burns up your very best defense of your sin, your very best reasons for thinking they weren't worthy of hellfire, your very sincere promises to do better, and you with them.
If you stop looking at the pictures at this point, you might think you've been scared straight. "Okay Pastor, I'll try harder, do better, be more serious about my faith." If this is your reaction, you didn't really see the last picture where all your promises, efforts, seriousness are as pieces of chaff heading for hellfire. The Law can't scare the hell out of you. The Law can drive you to look at other pictures. It can open your eyes to pictures that you have taken for granted or didn't think you needed.
The pictures of John aren't the stopping point. John is the forerunner of Another. He is announcing the arrival of Someone else, Jehovah. John quotes Isaiah saying he is the one preparing the way of the Lord. Lord there is Jehovah. John goes before the one born of the Virgin Mary. This means that the God who dwelled in the cloudy presence, the God whom neither Moses nor Elijah could see face to face, shows His face in the Person of Jesus.
See a picture of Jesus with His nail pierced hands spread wide to receive you. John says the One coming after him is greater than him. The Gospel is greater than the Law. Your wretched, ugly sinful life is trumped by the perfect, holy life of God the Son. Your many sins that are more than you know, worse than you think, and impossible for you to bear, were borne away from you on the back of Jesus.
Picture Jesus welcoming you into His forgiving arms not begrudgingly, not hesitantly, but eagerly, happily, relieved that you've come. Into those arms went the broken woman at the well and the one in Simon's house, the woman caught in adultery and Zacchaeus caught in greed, the denier Peter, and the murderer Paul. Picture them all in the arms of Jesus, and look, there you are too.
Don't think you can make it, do you? None of them made it on their own strength. What do you expect of stones, of rocks, of hearts that are rock hard at the bottom? See a picture of children being raised from stone. See the living chess pieces in that Harry Potter movie. On our own we are nothing but stone-cold sinners. We are no different than Babylon portrayed as a millstone. When the waters of judgment descend we can only go to the bottom with her. Unless the waters of Baptism have claimed us first.
Baptismal waters also drown, but they drown the Old Man, the sinful nature, that can never be conformed to God's Law, that can never get any better. You sinful nature will always have other gods, want to misuse the name of the Lord your God, and not want to go to church let alone Bible class. You can't change it, reform it, reason with it, convert it. Baptismal water, however, can drown it.
Baptismal water joins you to the death of Christ says St. Paul. Down, down, down the sinful nature sinks with Christ till it breathes no more, thinks no more, lives no more. And that same Baptism joins you to the life of Christ. A new man, not made from the old, but made after the image of Jesus, totally righteous and holy emerges and arises from the font. Picture it. A stone goes in dead to all that is God, all that is holy, pure, true, and good, and out comes a living, breathing, holy, good, new person. Don't think I'm making this up. This is exactly what Ezekiel 36:26, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."
From stone-cold sinners Jesus' blood and righteousness, placed by His Word into the baptismal waters, raises up children of the heavenly Father. And Jesus gathers them together. Picture this. When you sweep a threshing floor the fine dust is diffused by the sun's rays. I know you can see the sun beams streaking through now. Our word halo' is based on the Greek word for threshing floor halon because of this (Browser's Dictionary, 169). Secondly, the Greek word for "gather" here is the Word the Greek Church used for Communion because in Communion Jesus gathers His children to Himself (Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship, 35).
Right now the Lord Jesus is winnowing His threshing floor by means of His Law and Gospel. The Law stirs up a cloud of dust so as in Pilgrim's Progress you choke on your many sins (56). The more you use the Law the thicker the dust cloud becomes. The answer to sins once confessed is never more Law, or more excuses and promises in response to the Law. The answer is the Gospel. In Pilgrim's Progress that is pictured as water, but we're told the water stands for a person's faith. Even so its "Gospel" only settles the dust leaving it to the person to sweep it out. No, Baptismal water sweeps away sins completely leaving behind the halo of holiness. Jesus then gathers us holy grains to grind us down but only so we may be baked into the one loaf of His Body.
Now that's a picture. Fire burns chopped down trees and chaff, but it bakes bread. The fires that will judge the world will only bake those gathered by Jesus into sweet smelling bread. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20131208); Matthew 3: 1-12