January always brings change. After all, it kicks off a new year. You get to throw out the old calendar and hang the new. Yet, January does more than mark a new month, it (1) changes your routine. Depending on your Christmas spending habits, how many you shop for, and the number of Christmas lights strung around your house, your expenses might be higher than normal. The winter season changes from cool to cooler and dark to darker. The family which has been migrating from house to house will soon return to their downstate responsibilities. January alters your routine. Not just that, January might (2) introduce a year of firsts. First anniversary not celebrated. First birthday without a spouse. First vacation not taken. First summer without the house. First year away. Even bigger events might occur; January may (3) start new life-changes. You will graduate. You will start college. You will be Mr./Mrs. You might move and have new neighbors and friends, as well as a new routine. Even if nothing life-altering lies ahead, January brings at least one change: (4) your birthday. You will be another year older and another year closer to some significant life-change, be it a new school, a new child, retirement, or Social Security [benefits]. January ushers in so many possibilities, so many adjustments.
That can be an unsettling truth. Change happens by force. You cannot stop time; you cannot control what events enter your life or how those events will impact your life. Change rolls on— either with you or dragging you. That’s not always a pleasant feeling.
So, how do you enter a New Year with confidence? How can you chase away those fleeting fears and anxieties? Look to your God. The Lord Does Not Change-- even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same.
Grace brought (the nation of) Judah home. ‘Grace’— that is, ‘undeserved love from God.’ For 70-years Judah lives locked inside the Babylonian empire. That’s 70-years of not working your fields, not running down the street to your hometown grocery store, not playing in your acreage. Every familiar comfort is gone. Your grandparents are the last ones whose eyes marveled at Solomon’s breathtaking temple. The king does not consider your Jewish interests; your culture just melts away. That was then, this is now. Now, 50,000 Jews stand in southern Israel (Nehemiah 7:66-69). Now, city walls are rebuilt (2:11-20). God’s temple stands reconstructed now (Ezra 3:7-13). Jewish leaders govern. All this— because God made it happen.
For Judah it was not good enough. Yes, life trended better, but it was not like it was in the past. The new temple was not splendid enough. National boundaries are not large enough. Leaders are not spectacular enough. Life was not as good as it was before captivity. It looked like God changed his blessings, that God chose to hold back the good life from Judah.
Know the feeling? Relationships change. Children tend to grow older. That means, your daughter will get a driver’s license and hang out with friends. Your [grand]kid will trek off to school. Your son will move away for a job. Your daughter may leave father and mother and be united to her husband and become one flesh (Matthew 19:5). That brings adjustment. Your daughter may not be able to stop her chores (like she used to do), leave her family, and appear on your doorstep every single time you call. Your [grand]son who lived at your house (when younger) will probably spend more time at his house. That adjustment is not always welcome. It becomes easy to complain how life was not as good as it once was. It becomes easy to complain that your family does not meet unrealistic expectations. To accuse your own child of no longer caring about you. You (and I) can act as though God has taken away a blessing.
Comfort levels change. Life may still feel nonstop busy. The calendar is littered with practice times and game days. Work calls for longer hours and extra days. School heaps only more work and deadlines. Maybe it feels as though every friend took turns inviting you to their house, to some restaurant, to their holiday party. Just when you finished one job, another three jobs popped up— in the rain, in the kitchen, at your brother’s. No matter how hard you tried, you just never could get ahead. That activity brings adjustment. You cannot sit and relax as you might wish. Schedules create stress. Responsibilities get postponed. You feel sapped. You feel overwhelmed. You (and I) can grow even tired just relying on ourselves. We can act as though God is no longer present to hear our cry or carry our burden.
Life changes. Another year brings age-related events. You love her, but she still dies. You exercise and eat well, but you must still downsize. You live a Christian life, but people still hate you. That brings adjustment. You try to control life, but your best-intended wishes fizzle out. You might think God either (1) cannot work things for your good or (2) choose not to work for your good (read Romans 8:28).
You see, worry erupts because we think God has left us. That God is not for us, but against us (consider Romans 8:31). That God does not have authority over heaven and earth (consider Matthew 28:18). That God does not hold us in his righteous right hand (consider Isaiah 41:10). Worry declares that God has changed and does not keep his Word. And if God has changed, then you (and I) can no longer rely on him.
Dear friends, do not confuse God’s changelessness with our change. Put this way: We change, and so we think God changes too! But, The Lord Does Not Change. Even in a changing world, God’s grace remains the same.
God himself says that: I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. He does not merely say this; he proves it.
Judah had every reason to be wiped off the earth. Before their 70-year exile, God exposes their wickedness, pleads with them to turn, and promises to protect them. Yet, no one treasures that Word. Then, even after exile, Judah sees how wicked they can become! Parishioners drag blind and diseased animals into God’s temple for an offering— animals not even fit for a king (1:8). Christian men marry women who worship false gods. That marriage introduces strange beliefs in Christian homes (2:11-12) and priests do not care enough to correct it (2:8).
Worshippers are afraid to give God too much money (3:8-12). God saves them and they respond by turning away! Yet, God keeps his promise—a promise to send Jesus through Judah (Genesis 49:10). That is ‘grace,’ undeserved love from God.
Even though Judah’s love changed, God’s love remains the same. He proves that by bringing his Son into the world. He proves that by sending his Son to the cross. He proves that by holding Jesus accountable for our lack of trust. He proves that by raising his Holy One out of death. He proves that by declaring you “Not guilty!”—and repeating those words each week. Each day he leads you to the foot of the cross and says, “My Son died for you.” The Lord Does Not Change. God’s grace— the love God richly lavishes on you-- remains the same.
That undeserved love affects our lives in tremendous ways. A new year is upon us, but you do not enter it alone. You live each moment under the protecting hand of a God who never changes his promises.
Think about how this looks in a changing world. Your congregation might have changed from the first time you started worshipping here. And it will— because time passes! Time adds age. That means people get older. When we get older, our situations change. We become adults and leaders, parents and grandparents, active and retired. Time brings change to appearance— and we may not like that change because it takes us out of our comfort zone.
Even though change happens by force, God has not changed. And if God has not changed, then his Word of promise remains the same. God will always point you to peace in Jesus. Regardless of how many people are here. Regardless of what the future holds for your congregation. Regardless if church is full today and empty tomorrow. God still speaks peace in this place, to you. That makes your future certain. What is there to worry about?
God’s Word will still work in the heart. That means, you do not need to worry about how long your congregation will remain. Ten-, Twenty-, Thirty-years? Longer? The Lord Does Not Change. That means, [F]aith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). God has not made it your job to create faith. It is not your job to bring people in, fill your church, make it big, and make the community notice it. Nope. God simply hands us the job of remaining faithful to his Word. In this New Year, you will have opportunities to do just that. To grasp it. To share it. To preach it.
God’s grace remains the same. Not only is its message unchanged, but God still deals with you (and me) in grace. God, in undeserved love, still hears your prayers. Whenever you have anxiety, cast it on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Even if your concern appears so insignificant, call on him in the day of trouble. He will deliver you and you will honor him (Psalm 50:15). How do you know? Because your unchanging God has promised: The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry (Psalm 34:15). The reliance on self shrinks. The reliance on God grows.
Your God gives you strength for whatever might come this new year. If you must say good-bye to a fellow Christian, be confident that person is in heaven. God’s grace remains the same. Jesus says that: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). If someone ill recovers, then rejoice! Appreciate the blessings God will still give through that person. If you feel completely overwhelmed, then Be still and know that One God remains in control (Psalm 46:10).
God spells it out quite clearly so that you (and I) have no reason to fear. The Lord Does Not Change. God’s grace remains the same.
What good news for a new year! All I know is that January brings change. A (1) change to routine, a (2) year of firsts, a (3) new life-changes, and, if anything, (4) another birthday. This year will undoubtedly require adjustments, but you need not worry. The Lord Does Not Change-- even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same. Because of that, you can be sure God’s every promise to bless you, carry you, and strengthen you will follow you always.
Enter this new year with confidence. You do not need to know the future because you already know the present. Your Lord Does Not Change— even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same.
Did you know your hairdryer can help break in new leather shoes? Your microwave has the capability of fusing glass, measuring the speed of light, and squeezing the remaining juice from fruits. Your smartphone can read things out loud to you, like how many people are in your picture or the number of emails you receive. It can also take your words, put them into print, and send a message. …And if you don’t have a smartphone, any cellphone can unlock a car that uses a key-fob. Those are only a few additional things hairdryers, microwaves, and cell phones can do.
When we get new toys, excitement pounds the body. We use that toy right away—sometimes without reading the instructions or studying all of its capabilities. And it works great! You dry your hair. You cook food. You make calls and fire off text messages. Then, when the initial excitement wears off and you spend more time with that gadget, you discover additional features and more functions. It delights you even more.
So, let’s take a few minutes to revisit Bethlehem. Approach the manger with a curiosity that discovers all this child comes to do. Grasp those priceless joys God pours out on this most holy day. God Sent His Son! A Son to live with us under law and to live with us through his redemption.
Yes! Of course! We know that already! While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son (Luke 2:6-7). Stop and ponder that for a moment. Those well-known words are not a simple retelling of the first Christmas. God puts those words down in writing so that you can see a promise kept. A promise thousands of years in the making. A promise first made to trembling Adam and Eve. A promise repeated to childless Abraham. A promise proclaimed by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Zechariah, Malachi. A promise repeated to millions, many of whom shrugged it off. [W]hen the time had fully come, God sent his Son…
God did what he said he would do. He did not turn his back and forsake a world of rebels. He did something the world did not deserve, something the world did not request. God Sent His Son. Not an angel. Not another prophet. Certainly not fiery destruction. He sends the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last, the One present before the world began and the One who stands long after time ends. God sends the only One who can change our lives. God Sent His Son.
So look again at the manger. The One lying there is God. When you see this baby, you see the face of God. When you touch this baby, you touch the perfect God. When you hold this baby, you hold Almighty God. When you listen to this child, you listen to God. When this Teacher comforts you, God comforts you. When this Teacher forgives you, God whispers forgiveness directly to you. God sent his Son, born of a woman…
True God—and at the same time, true man. Jesus is a human being— just like you and me. There’s a reason for this: Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity (Hebrews 2:14). Humanity— like skin and bones and blood. A brain and eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. Jesus gets hungry. He grows sleepy. He cries and mourns. He has our human needs and our human emotions.
Yet, this goes deeper still. Because Jesus has flesh and blood, he, too, is born under law. God’s law, meaning, God expects Jesus to obey every single command. Consider that. God creates his commandments, his worship laws, and a law to govern life (Exodus 20-31). Then, he chooses to live under that law. He holds himself accountable to the same demands he created.
What king does that? Kings who create laws tend to live outside of those laws. Yet, your Jesus is born in order to live with you under law. That means, Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted. He knows how difficult it is to trust God to provide food and income, and to protect health. Jesus also was tempted to make his own bread out of stones (Matthew 4:1-4). He knows the feeling to challenge God’s promises. To act in half-unbelief. The devil tells him to jump off a building because God would [supposedly] keep him safe (4:5-7). He confronts that green envy to guard wealth, to love pleasures so much you would rather give up heaven than give up your life (4:8-10). Jesus also read the Word, heard the Word, and let the Word sink into the heart, and still faced the pull to run away from it. [Jesus] been tempted in every way, just as we are— yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
God Sent His Son for this reason: to live with us under the law and to obey every single article, sub-article, point, and detail. In Jesus you see perfection.
That perfect life marches to the cross. He takes your place (and mine) under God’s punishment. No, not that Jesus just no longer lives. Rather, God’s punishment is separation. Jesus is separated from the Father. God the Father turns his back on his Son and does not listen to Jesus’ cries for help. Yes, God is still present, but does not love. It would be like a prisoner locked behind bars. You throw the key down the hall and walk away. You hear the screams, but do not turn back. You ignore the tears, the sobbing, the crying. You walk away, leaving that criminal to fend for his own life. This is hell. To live forever without God’s love. This is what you and I deserve; to live forever without God’s love— and Jesus suffers so that you (and I) never will.
God Sent His Son to live with us under the law so that he may live with us through his redemption. Redemption. To ‘redeem’ means to ‘buy back.’ That’s what grocery stores do. A grocery store sends a coupon for $.50 off some groceries. Bring it to the store, hand it to the clerk, and she will give you $.50 to get the coupon back. We are conceived in sin, and born dead in sin (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:1). Sin binds us to hell. The only way out of hell is perfection; the only offer God accepts is holiness. We have nothing to offer that God wants, but Jesus does. He walks into heaven, stands before the throne of his Father, and hands him his perfect life. The Father takes that perfect life and he releases us from hell. You (and I) are free. You (and I) are redeemed, ‘bought back’ to Jesus.
God Sent His Son to redeem those under law. That is your status now: free! Yes, guilt flares up. Shame might plague you. Frustration swells over poor choices. Yet, nothing will bind you to eternal misery. When Jesus died, his blood unlocked our chains. When Jesus rose, hell’s gates were thrown open and we ran out and up!
This is the reality!— and this is what makes Christmas so grand! God Sent His Son to live with us through his redemption. Jesus does not free us so that we can simply live for no reason, no purpose. You are not set free like animals released into the wild, aimlessly searching for family or home, for purpose. Rather, the shackles of slavery are removed so we can live under God’s care.
God sent his Son… that we might receive the full rights of sons. That is what you have, the “full rights of sons.” That includes you, ladies; God hands you what the firstborn son received. In the past, the son inherited the father’s wealth when the father died. All of it. He became the boss of the family business. He cared for the household. He managed the wealth. He receives the full rights to do and manage as he pleases. Nothing was divided. Nothing was split. Nothing was limited. He owns everything. When God says, we might receive the full rights of sons, he makes clear that nothing of his is off limits.
That means, you are God’s son now. You have changed from ‘sinner’ to ‘saint!’ You can approach God for any need, with any concern, for any reason at any time just like you approach your earthly father. God listens because he sees you as belonging to him.
He gives you heaven—and nothing is off-limits there. You can enter his throne room. You will not have to make reservations to see God. You will not need to pull a number and stand in line. You will not have ranks in heaven— where the rich live by the golden sea or the strong-in-faith live in luxury mansions and you live in the barracks. You are all sons of God. Regardless of your past, regardless of your time as a Christian, regardless of how much Bible you remember, you all have full access to God’s heaven— live in the same place, see the same God, and will enjoy all things.
If you are sons, then it means the father has graciously lavished this gift on you. You do not need to fabricate reasons all is well between you and God. Rather, the you can point to the manger and live confident. God Sent His Son to live with us through redemption.
When we get new toys, excitement pounds the body. We use that toy right away—sometimes without reading the instructions or studying all of its capabilities. And it works great—but so much joy is overlooked without studying that object more. Hairdryers, microwaves, and phones have so much potential when you take the time to study their uses a little closer.
Christmas becomes dull and repetitive when we rush over the Christ in the manger. Approach the manger with curiosity and discover a child who lives with us under law. Any pressure to undo the past, any despair flies away when you grasp how Jesus lived in your place. Then, he brought us to himself—without our actions or asking! Look to the manger and grasp those priceless joys God pours out on this most holy day. God Sent His Son! A Son to live with us under law and to live with us through his redemption.
This is a winnowing fork. Several sharp prongs stick out at one end, and at the other end those prongs wrap together into the base of the handle. Today, we typically use these forks for pitching hay, but the winnowing fork has another purpose: it separates. So, you harvest your wheat and heap it outside on a flat, packed-down floor. You plunge this winnowing fork into the pile and toss a bunch into the air. Of course, that bunch thins out and the wind can blow through it. The stalks, the tough, chewy husks— the unwanted stuff— blows away. The heavier kernel— the good food—drops right down to your feet.
This winnowing meant business. See it and you know it was time to separate the good from the bad. That’s the picture John the Baptist paints for us today. Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand. That means business; Jesus comes to separate. He clears away hypocrisy and He gathers in the repentant.
That is the heart of John’s message. He stands in this barren landscape of a desert, preaching to equally dry, barren hearts: “Prepare for the Lord!” (Luke 3:4-6). ‘Get ready!’ for Jesus coming! ‘Get ready!’— because you will meet him. ‘Get ready!’— because he is perfect. ‘Get ready!’— because you are not perfect, and that leaves you unable to stand beside him. Remember, the Bible contains two major teachings. (1) God’s Law shows our sin. His every ‘You shall’ and ‘You shall not’ just cuts us to shreds; it exposes disobedience— and there’s no hiding that. God’s Law reveals a deadly sick soul, a soul that so desperately needs a Savior. You see, if we do not see how sick we are, then we do not see the healing we need. We reject the Savior God sends to heal. (2) God’s gospel, his ‘good news,’ reveals that Savior. That is why John trumpets: “Repent! Turn from what is wrong. Face what is right!”
That message spreads like wildfire. Crowds come out to him… So many are curious about this man and his ministry.
When John sees them, he says: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? He calls these people ‘snakes!’ More than that, ‘offspring of snakes’— or, ‘the offspring of the Snake,’ that is, the devil (see Revelation 12:9). These are Jews coming out! Descendants of Abraham. God promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 22:17-18); Abraham’s family would (1) include Jesus and (2) believers from every nation would enter heaven.
So, these Jews travel out to John. No, not because they want Jesus. They thought God’s judgment would automatically skip them because of their ethnicity. They trek out just to fulfill another religious act. They are really hypocrites: they claim to be God’s children, but want nothing to do with God.
John warns them of that. [D]o not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The heart of a hypocrite is hard like a stone. It takes nothing in. If they would not listen, then God’s Word would hit other hearts and bring those once-stony hearts to life.
John asks every single person—including you (and me): ‘What is the reason you are here?’ That’s a searching question. It challenges you to consider the object of your trust. Simply keeping your name written in a church membership book will not save you. Parents may have their child baptized and that baptism creates faith (1 Peter 3:21). However, baptism can be treated as a tradition or ritual; you consider it just another check-mark in the box of Christian actions. Faith is a living thing; it must be fed with God’s Word. Baptism is the start of your Christian life, it’s not the end of it. You are not saved because your family built the church. God does not forgive you because mom sat in that pew for so long. Your non-believing spouse does not go to heaven because you are here today. On the outside, you (and I) might look morally upright; you might be a poster-child for Christianity. Yet, you cannot fool God. God knows what is in your heart (read Psalm 139). He sees the object of your trust. God clears away hypocrisy.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! He will clear his threshing floor… and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Yes, even if that means you’ve sat in the pew for years. Yes, even if that means your family built the church. Yes, even if that means you were baptized, but never fed your faith. If God does not find trust in his Son as Savior, then he will cut you down and throw you into hell.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! The sight of that tool means business. Jesus comes to clear away hypocrisy. Yes, even the hypocrisy that can nestle into our hearts. We may treat worship like a ritual or tradition. We may disconnect heart from outward actions. We may even rely on empty-minded habits— like giving an offering or sitting in a pew.
God’s Word cracks that tough husk off of our hearts— because that Word highlights the One who intentionally lived his life for you (and me). Jesus is baptized, not out of tradition, but to step into our lives. He worships with a willing heart. He brings an offering to God out of sincere love. He knows obedience is the only way into heaven—and he has it! …and he gives it. To you (and me). Jesus uses the cross to break off our hypocrisy and create in us this living heart of flesh.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! This is a sobering message, but sobering for a reason. Jesus comes to do business, and has done the work of clearing away our hypocrisy so that you now stand before God healthy. You are ready to meet your Lord. Soon Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. Again to do work; he gathers in the repentant.
“Repentant.” Remember what that means? To ‘repent’ means ‘to turn”— like making a U-Turn. God exposes the foolishness of living like a hypocrite. It cuts our hearts; we resent that way of life. If you shudder at that way of living, you naturally ask: “What is the right way to live then?” God tells you, “Live sincere.”
John calls this fruits in keeping with repentance. Turn from what is wrong, you naturally produce a new action. Picture that. Apple trees produce apples. This is natural. No one must flip the switch and ‘power on’ the apple tree. A farmer does not pray the tree produces apples and not oranges. A healthy apple tree produces edible apples. When God’s Word penetrates our hearts, it makes us turn to what is right, what is God-pleasing.
The crowds ask John: “What should we do then?”
John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Those are the fruits of repentance. All sorts of people in different types of work— God exposes their greed, their stealing, their bullying. It grieves them that they grieved God. That grief leaves a void. What fills that void? An action— a Godly one! This crowd shows their love for God by doing what is God-pleasing. You can see good, pleasing fruits of repentance.
Notice, John’s every encouragement takes the light off of ‘me’ and shines it on ‘others.’ Give. Be honest. Work faithfully. This way of selfless living only flourishes when I see Christ focused on “me” instead of “himself.” Jesus is the motivation to producing fruits of repentance.
What is at least one area where you produce fruits? Well, look at verses 15-16. The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The crowds are looking for Jesus and John does what is God-pleasing. He tells them about Jesus. Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. He gathers in the repentant.
These words are stern, but stern for a reason. You need Jesus if you want any hope of heaven! Do the people in your life know that? Or, are they hoping their good actions will win them life? Do they think God just saves everyone (even when this reading makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case)? Everyone has thoughts and opinions, but God has truth and facts. God reveals what will happen, and reveals it so that all are ready for that Great Day.
You (and I) currently have this marvelous opportunity to point others to Jesus— just like John did. Christmas Eve is still seen by many as a ‘religious holiday.’ That means, many still associate Christmas with God. That means, people are more likely to step into a church and hear this news about God.
So, this year we are running an advertisement for Christmas Eve in the Clare County Review and Clare County Cleaver. Thousands will have a chance to see our service times. They will have an opportunity to consider coming and hear this good news of Jesus.
Still, the best way to share Jesus is for you to share him with your words. Yes, that’s you inviting your neighbor. That’s you inviting your dinner-friend. That’s you inviting your daughter and son— just like John the Baptist did long ago. [W]ith many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
You have some very good news. Jesus comes! His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn… That’s the end-goal of life. Jesus gathers believers into heaven. What better news is there than that? Actually, what better news is there to prepare people for eternity? Jesus Is Coming, Winnowing Fork in Hand! He gathers in the repentant.
Maybe you have this in your barn or shed. This tool means business. You’re going to get work done. No wonder John uses that picture for us! Jesus gets work done. He Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand. He comes to separate the good from the bad. He clears out our bad; Jesus clears away hypocrisy. What’s left is good— healthy and living hearts! Soon Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. This time to do a different kind of work. A work you are prepared for. He gathers in the repentant.
What makes a gift ‘perfect’? After all, that’s really what you’re looking for this Christmas season, right? You want to hand that special someone the ‘perfect’ gift. Or, maybe you would like to receive the ‘perfect’ gift. So, what are looking for? What makes a gift ‘perfect’?
Perhaps three qualities stand out. (1) It fills some physical, emotional, or mental need. A chore becomes easier. A friend is happier. A child knows he is loved. (2) Whoever receives this ‘perfect’ gift will benefit. Life gets better, not worse. (3) Finally, the receiver understands just how much he will benefit from this gift. Let’s summarize those points like this: What makes a gift ‘perfect’ depends on how prepared a person is to receive it. If you see no need for this gift to fill, then you will not understand why you need it or how it benefits you. That gift is not appreciated. It’s rejected. It’s forgotten. If you identify a need, then you understand how this gift fills a void in your life. You will appreciate it. You will treasure it. You will hold it up for all the world to see it as it really is: the ‘perfect’ gift.
Preparation is key in receiving the ‘perfect’ gift. So, God prepares us for his perfect Gift. He wants you to fully appreciate just what it is Jesus comes to do. So, he sends a special messenger to Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! You get ready for this gift by straightening out the rough places so that you can see the salvation of your God.
When you think about, not many were ready for the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph were really the only ones expecting Jesus to arrive soon. Angels had to broadcast the good news to a handful of shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). The Holy Spirit leads an elderly prophetess (named Anna) and lifelong believer (named Simeon) to Jesus (2:25-27; 36-38). A star guides wise men (Matthew 2:1-12). Really, Jesus’ birth is almost a well-kept secret. In fact, from age 0 to 30, you hear very little about him. He has not started his ministry. He does not have disciples. He has not performed miracles. No one knows the Son of God has come to earth! If no one knows he has come, then no one is looking for him. If no one is looking for him, then no one will pay attention when Jesus preaches. People would consider him as just another great teacher.
Enter John the Baptist. The Prophet Isaiah tells us that John is the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’
Isaiah pictures an old practice. In ancient times, kings sometimes traveled from their country to another country. Yet, you did not cruise down concrete highways or graded dirt roads. You had an almost impassible trip across an untouched desert with boulders, cliffs, and valleys. So, an official went ahead of this kingly procession. He hiked through cities and villages, trumpeting: “Hey! The king is coming! Get ready for his arrival!” Citizens prepared by clearing a path through the desert. They pushed aside boulders. They filled in swampy areas and low-spots. Steep inclines were leveled. They removed obstacles so the king could come to them.
John the Baptist is that forerunner of Jesus; his ministry starts first. Yet, John does not live in the desert to clear away boulders. Instead, he Prepares Hearts for the Lord. He clears out spiritual boulders, fills in despair over sin, and levels off arrogant pride. He straightens out the rough places [of the heart]. He gets us ready to appreciate God’s gift of a Savior.
He does this by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To ‘repent’ means “to turn”— much like making a U-Turn. So, imagine you are driving north on US-127. If you make a U-Turn, then you have completely changed direction; you are now heading south. That’s why John trumpets: “Repent! Look at your life. Turn from what is wrong. Face what is right!” That is the only way you will ever be prepared for Jesus. Because repenting means you must turn. It means you are not as perfect as you might think. It means you need a Savior.
Stand before the mirror of God’s commands. How do you measure up? Have you loved God with all your heart, mind, and soul? (Matthew 22:37-39). That means, you never once worried about your financial picture, about your health, or about the future because you trust you heavenly Father always provides and protects. Have you respected God’s Name? That means, you never cursed out of frustration; you never used the Lord’s Prayer as a good-luck charm for success. That means, you brought every single anxiety to God in prayer because God is capable of handling it. Have you made time with God a daily priority? That means, you made an honest effort to be in worship every opportunity— even if it meant skipping Sunday sports because they interfered, even when it meant waking up and you really wanted to sleep in, even when it meant turning off the television for a 5-minute devotion. Have you shown respect to your government officials— including the ones you did not vote for? Are you treating your body as the temple of God? Do you guard your heart from greed and give generously the work of your congregation? Are you free from jealousy and willing to admit when you are wrong? God demands that you be holy because he is holy (Leviticus 19:2). That does not include a “Yes, but…”
That’s the automatic impulse. We often think we are morally better than we really are. That attitude flourishes when we bend God’s commands. We know we should be in worship, but we make up the excuse: “God knows what’s going on in my life. He understands.” We know God’s blueprint for marriage, but we still say, “Well, God just wants me to be happy.” Maybe you feel you could give more generously, but still comes the thought, “Well, I have that trip and this new gadget. I just have nothing.” The heart constantly pumps out exceptions to God’s commands. It enters God’s courtroom, sits in his judge’s seat, and begins interpreting the commandments God set down. Then it acts as though God must approve our interpretation.
The devil has done such a good job of getting us to believe just that. That in the end, God will listen to us. That we have more authority than God.
That kind of attitude really does not want a Savior. It says, “God, there is nothing wrong with me or the way I live.” To live in the wrong piles up boulders of excuses. Pride carves out low-spots and hills so that God cannot live in us.
That is why John preaches: Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! Your God is coming. Yes, he came once as a little baby and conquered sin. Soon, he will come in his final victory march. Prepare Your Heart for the Lord. Straighten out the rough places. How does John straighten out those rough spots? With God’s Word. That is the tool God gives him. [T]he word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. John preaches law and gospel so that all may see the salvation of your God.
God’s law Shows Our Sins. It holds you (and me) up to God’s holy standard and says, “You have fallen short. Close enough is not good enough. Nor am I asking what you think. I am telling you what you must be.” (Roman 3:23) Stare at that law and you reach the conclusion that you can never approach God by yourself. The law Shows Our Sins, but God’s gospel Shows Our Savior.
“Gospel” means “good news.” John tells us good news: “Jesus walks into spiritually devastated hearts.” He lifts us from the valley of despair over sin. He removes the boulders of guilt. He levels towering hills of shame. Jesus, with his life, has made straight our hearts. With his Word, he carries the good news of salvation.“Salvation” simply means “to deliver” or “to rescue.” Jesus has rescued you (and me) from the hell we deserve. Look at Jesus and you see this is the One God has sent for your future. Jesus is God’s salvation.
How does Jesus’ work enter your life? Through baptism. [John] went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So, why does John baptize? For what purpose? For the purpose of forgiveness. John’s baptism washed hearts clean; it flooded life with forgiveness.
You see, baptism is not something you are doing for God. You are not declaring your commitment to be God’s follower. Nor do you have to be re-baptized because you were too young to remember it. Baptism is something God does for you. God comes to you. God enters your heart. God smoothes outs sin and paves a road that welcomes the Word.
Your baptism has marked you as God’s child. If God’s child, then different from those who want nothing to do with him. It means you will stand out. You might be the only one in your family who worships. You might feel a little uneasy when Christmas concerts intentionally omit any mention of Jesus. People might look at you weird because you have a church home. You may feel out of place. You may feel this pull to behave more like the world, than as God’s child.
Martin Luther wrote in his 95-Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Remember, “repent” means “turn.” Each day you compare your words, thoughts, and actions to God’s commands. When you do wrong, you see it. You admit it. You confess it. You hear God’s forgiveness. God’s Word turns you from what is wrong and faces you to what is right. You turn to see the salvation of your God; and you see that God has delivered you from hell and soon will deliver you into heaven.
That makes a ‘perfect’ Gift. Yes, Jesus is ‘perfect’— and remains perfect, regardless of what anyone thinks of him. Yet, he is your perfect gift. God’s law reveals our sin. We see the need for forgiveness. We see the void of life. The good news is that God has straightened out crooked hearts and has smoothed out the rough spots.
Preparation is key in receiving the ‘perfect’ gift. So, God prepares us for his perfect Gift. He wants you to fully appreciate, to grasp just what it is Jesus comes to do. So, he sends a special messenger to Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! Keep clinging to this perfect Gift. Straighten out the rough places so that you can see the salvation of your God.
Do you think Christmas is coming this year? Yes? How do you know? After all, today is not Christmas. So, how can you be sure that Christmas is really coming? Ah, the snow on the ground announces the arrival of the winter season, and Christmas falls in the winter season. The wall calendar hangs open to December, and you can now see the number ‘25’ approaching. Stores roll out Christmas trees and wreaths, ornaments and lights, candy and cards. Shoppers scour stores and websites for presents. Snowflakes and wreaths twinkle on light poles down Main Street. You might have a Christmas tree at home— maybe with presents already tucked under it. So, can you be sure Christmas is coming? Yes! Because various signs signal its arrival.
Signs reveal a promise reaching completion. The signs of Christmas lead to Christmas Day. God plants signs in the sky, on earth, and in life to signal an very important arrival: Christ is coming! Each sign invites you to Patiently Ponder God’s Promise. That promise of Jesus’ arrival has been unfolding for centuries. You now stand closer to the completion of that promise.
The Righteous Branch has come. Soon, The Righteous Branch brings justice.
When God makes a promise, he keeps it. God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. [H]e speaks and then act[s]. [H]e promises and [then] fulfills (Numbers 23:19).
God had made a promise to Abraham. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:3). That ‘blessing’ promised is Jesus. People will benefit from Jesus. Yet, Abraham’s son is not the Savior. Instead, the promise passes from generation to generation. From Abraham to his son, Isaac. From Isaac, to his son, Jacob. From Jacob, to his son, Judah— and so on.
Soon, Abraham’s descendants blossom into a nation and God repeats his promise: If you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways [then] the Lord will establish you as his holy people (Deuteronomy 28:9). That is the purpose for God’s Old Testament worship laws, diet regulations, and Ten Commandments. These commands keep the nation close to him; they prevent the people from wandering into unbelief. Quite simply, God sets apart Israel as different from every other nation on earth. No, not because Israel possesses some superior trait. Rather, God sets them apart because they carry the line of Jesus. All the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you (28:10).
God’s promise continues. If you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees […then] the Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth… (28:15, 49, 52).
Fast forward 600 years. Far-away-nation-Babylon camps outside the city walls. Siege towers choke off food, supplies, and water. Leaders scramble for alliances. Judah is dismantling the royal palace to refortify the walls (33:4). The nation’s on the brink of total collapse. Wouldn’t you think someone could just connect the signs? Obey God and he remains with you. Disobey and he withdraws. Signs of destruction trumpet to Israel: “You have broken God’s commands. Your God is coming against you in judgment!” And no one cares.
Do you know why? Because they have heard this all before. God had sent streams of prophets who trumpeted “Destruction!” and “Captivity!”— but it never came. After a while, they went “promise-blind” — kind of like “nose-blind.” You know, like when your nose gets used to the smells of your house that you no longer notice them? You light a new candle and it smells great, but after a while you no longer notice it. You’re used to the smell. You have gone “nose-blind.” Judah mistook God’s patience for complacency.
Is it any different for us? You know the signs that signal Jesus’ return. Wars and rumors of war, famines and earthquakes, false teachers, increase of wickedness, love growing cold (Matthew 24:4-14). You heard them repeated last week. They were read a year ago and the year before that. For some of you, you have heard these signs for decades, maybe your entire life! You turn on the news and watch these events unfold, but Jesus is not here. You begin wondering: “Is he really going to return?”
Little-by-little, the heart can go ‘promise-blind.’ Hear these words enough and soon you no longer think God is serious about his judgment. That is seen in our thoughts— thinking we will always have another day to finally make God a priority in life. That is seen in our behavior— that we can live without marriage, that an addiction never harms us, that we can thump our proud chests. That there will always be another day, a better opportunity, a greater convenience to confront sin. Thinking (and acting) as though God is not serious about his promise to return really calls God a liar. It does not believe today will be the day Jesus returns. It considers God’s patience as complacency.
God keeps his promise. Look at Judah. Destruction sweeps over them. Their walls crumble. Their buildings burn. Some die. Some are captured. Others live in the ruins. A nation promised Jesus appears to have lost everything. Abraham’s once-thriving family tree is cut down to nothing more that stump. Dead. Done. Without any chance to return.
Then God points us back to his unbreakable Word: ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah… Understand, ‘the days’ God mentions are ‘the days’ that come in the future. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.’
On the right day and at the right time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under God’s law, so that he might redeem, that is, ‘buy us back,’ from the consequences of God’s law (Galatians 4:4). The seemingly dead, dry, lifeless stump of Judah re-sprouts. Abraham’s family tree stretches all the way to King David. King David has a son. His son has a son, and his son a son, and his son a son— all the way to Joseph standing over the manger of Jesus.
Patiently Ponder God’s Promise. The Righteous Branch has come— just as God promised. A fulfillment like that demonstrates God is serious about all of his Word. If God kept that promise, then will he not also keep his final promise? The Righteous Branch comes to bring justice.
Jesus does what is just and right in the land. He dies. That does not seem right, does it? Do you know what would be just? What would be right? It would be ‘just’ for Jesus to abandon his followers who do fail to keep God as the priority of their trust. It would be ‘right’ for Jesus to stop spending so much time with sinners who struggle with unfaithfulness, with drunkenness, with pride, with greed. It would be ‘just’ and ‘right’ to sweep all humanity away under God’s judgment. Instead, Jesus allows judgment to sweep over him.
Jesus, the Righteous Branch, lives ‘just.’ He obeys God’s worship laws, diet regulations, and Ten Commandments. His entire life is ‘right.’ The Father even holds Jesus up and says, “This is my Son! I am well-pleased with him!” (Matthew 17:5). And this Righteous Branch is cut down and dies. That is what rebellion against God deserves. Judgment. Punishment. Death— and Jesus, the Righteous Branch, endures all of it in your place.
The Righteous Branch brings justice— just as God promised. Look at the tomb. This place holds death, but on Easter, re-sprouts to life!
Then, God keeps another neat promise. In those days… Again, remember the timing here. Verse 15 says: “In those days I will send Jesus.” After “those days” of Jesus, come “days” after him. In those days [during the time of and after Jesus] Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which she will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.
God tells you that in the days after Jesus, you have a new name: The Lord Our Righteousness. Think about that for a moment. I think we understand God forgives us. [A]s far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). But God does not stop there! You do not stand before God merely faultless, without crime— naked, so to say. God puts righteousness on you. He looks at you and sees Jesus. And he is pleased.
“Righteous” is not the only name you have. The Bible often uses special names to describe the closeness you have with God (see Romans 9-11). God uses two special names here. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. Just like God saved Old Testament Judah from their enemies, God saves you. (1) First, you are saved through faith in Jesus as Savior. Faith trusts Jesus lifted off sin. God will not bring up your teenage regrets. He will not pull out his list of your failures as a parent. He does not demand change before you can enter heaven. Because of Jesus, you are saved— meaning, you can look forward to meeting Jesus without fear. (2) Second, this “saving” refers to Jesus’ final promise. Jesus will “save” (or, “deliver”) you from this world and into heaven.
Until that great Day, you live in safety. Jesus has already freed us from our sins with his blood (Revelation 1:5). So, the devil cannot say you are not good enough for God. Sin cannot shame you. The world cannot point out your flaws Jesus has broken any accusation, every shortcoming; he has covered your life with his! You are safe! When Christ returns, this safety will be seen with real eyes. Never again will the devil tempt or trouble us. “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).
Patiently Ponder God’s Promise. The Righteous Branch has brought justice and removed sin. If he did that, he will return and do what is just: bring you home to heaven.
Signs reveal a promise reaching completion. The signs of Christmas lead to Christmas Day. It would be quite foolish to see these Christmas-signs, and reject their announcement. You would be unprepared for Christmas Day! See the signs and prepare.
God plants signs in the sky, on earth, and in life to signal an very important arrival: Jesus is coming— just as God promised. Patiently Ponder God’s Promise. Look back and see that God kept his promise. The Righteous Branch has come. What’s left? For the Righteous Branch to come again. This time not as a little baby. Rather, as the King who brings justice. You will hear what is just: “Come” (Matthew 25:34).