Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
December 16, 2018
John the Baptist is the quintessential preacher. What does that mean? It means that John is the best. He is what a preacher essentially should be. If preachers were 2x4s, John would be used to measure all the other boards. Jesus himself says as much, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? … A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” John perfectly did what every prophet was called to do before him and what all pastors are called to do after him. John prepares the way of the Lord. The Baptist prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry in Israel by preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Preachers today prepare the way of Christ into the hearts of Christians, also by preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
Immediately after our Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Pastors are not a superclass of Christians. They are not superior to others within the kingdom of God. Yet, the office to which preachers are called and the task entrusted to them is greater than any other on earth. It is through the ministry of the word that God calls sinners to repentance and gives them saving faith in Christ. St. Paul goes so far as to say to St. Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
So, preachers may very well be the least in the kingdom of heaven, yet their preaching is the most important work in the kingdom of heaven. Through it, God saves sinners. Through their preaching, God prepares the way for Jesus Christ himself. This is why our Lord said to his apostles, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16) If you receive the preaching of God’s messengers, then you receive Christ Jesus himself. If you reject their preaching, you are not simply rejecting a man, but you are rejecting Christ himself.
John sets the course for all ministers to prepare the way of the Lord by preaching Law and Gospel. That is what he is doing when he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The preaching of the Law is a call for repentance. The law tells you how God demands us to live, such as in the Ten Commandments. The Law is good. It expresses God’s will to us. God’s will is for us to love him with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Try to find fault with that! Yet, the Law shows us our sin. It demonstrates to us that we do not do as the law requires. This is why Romans 3:20 states, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
All this is expressed in that little word, “repent.” To repent means to turn course. That God’s messenger commands you to turn course tells you that the course you are on is wrong. You are a sinner. You must stop doing what you are doing, because it leads to death and hell. And you must turn to do something else. What must you turn to? Well, before you can begin to be on the right course, you must receive the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of sins is the Gospel.
Well, actually, Gospel means good news, like when the angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” So, strictly speaking, the Gospel is the good news that God became a human being in the womb of the Virgin Mary, was born in Bethlehem to the adoration of shepherds, grew up as a righteous man before God and man, fulfilled the law in our place even under severe temptation from the devil, suffered, died, and was buried for our sins, and rose again on the third day. That is the Gospel. Yet, you can believe the details of the Gospel without truly believing in the Gospel. You can have knowledge of all Jesus’ marvelous birth, life, death, and resurrection, yet not believe in the forgiveness of sins. Yet, the goal of the Gospel is for you to believe in the forgiveness of sins, just as the goal of the law is for you to despair of your own righteousness, repent, and turn to Christ for forgiveness.
The Gospel fulfills God’s demand for love. Jesus completed all works of love in our place as a human being. God himself could not find any fault in Jesus whether in thought, word, or deed. The Gospel fulfills God’s demand for justice against all law-breakers. Sinless Jesus took on the sins of the whole world, became the only law-breaker in the eyes of the law, and was punished in our stead, like a lamb to be slaughtered, as John himself said of Christ Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) That is the Gospel. Not only the various details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but what they mean: forgiveness for you and me.
Both the Law and the Gospel show us God’s perfect righteousness. The Gospel differs from the Law in that it is God’s work, not ours. We receive the Gospel (and with it the forgiveness of sins and salvation), through faith. The Law presents God’s righteousness as something to work for in order to obtain it. Scripture says, “for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Romans 2:13) The Gospel presents God’s righteousness as a gift to be received by faith apart from our works.
Both the Law and the Gospel show the righteousness of God, but the Law fails to save us, because it depends on our works. Rather, the Law makes us aware that we need to receive God’s righteous and salvation as a gift through faith. This is the relationship between the law and the Gospel.
The Law and the Gospel must never be mixed. This is done when it is said or believed that your good works in some way merit your salvation. But your good works can never merit your salvation. Salvation is a gift to be received through faith in Christ. The Law and the Gospel must never be mixed, but they must also never be separated. The Law without the Gospel leads sinners to despair or self-righteousness. Both lead to hell. But the Gospel without the Law becomes meaningless. It is like giving dessert to someone already full. It is nauseating and despised.
If the Law does not convince you of your sin and bring you to repentance, then you cannot accept the Gospel. The Gospel is indeed preached to the whole world, but it is only the poor in spirit who receive it. This is why it is always necessary for preachers to preach the law. However, the law is not popular. People don’t like to hear of their sins. Especially if you get specific. The idea that one ought to actually stop doing what he is doing that is wrong and say sorry to God seems archaic and humiliating. Well, yes. It is archaic. And it is humiliating. God’s word is from everlasting to everlasting. And the humble will be exalted.
However, sadly, many preachers are too afraid to preach against sin and call sinners to repentance. People might get mad or leave the church. But to forsake preaching the Law does no service to the preaching of the Gospel or to the sinner trapped in sin. God spoke to Ezekiel in chapter 33, “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” (7-9) and further God says, “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (11)
John was not a reed shaking in the wind, and so pastors are also called to resist the pressures of the present culture, and to speak only the word of God. Notice that at the beginning of our text, John is in prison. Why is he in prison? Because he preached against the unlawful divorce of King Herod’s wife from her husband Philip and the unlawful adulterous marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife. John was not afraid to preach the law, even to King Herod. He called him to repentance. Yet, instead of humbling himself and receiving the forgiveness of sins, Herod threw John in prison.
And so, preachers today should not let fear keep them from preaching against the sins gripping society. If homosexuality, divorce for any cause, adultery, gossip, or drunkenness becomes acceptable, the preacher is still called to be a servant of Christ and steward of God’s mysteries. He must preach the whole counsel of God, calling sinners to repentance. Repentance must be preached, so that sinners can receive the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins as a gift.
The Gospel must predominate. This means, the entire message of the preacher must work toward the goal of Jesus dwelling firmly in the heart of the hearer. My goal in my preaching is for you to have certainty that God accepts you for Christ’s sake. This is the wonderful message of “Comfort, comfort, my people, … speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” The message of every minister of Christ is comfort. Christ comes to dwell in your heart through faith. He forgives your sins and gives you peace with God. With a heart repentant of sin and trusting in Jesus, you are ready to welcome Christ when he comes to you. And this Gospel is a sure comfort, because the word of God stands forever. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.