Why are you here this morning? Why have you come? Is it because you recognize your sin, and you know the death and damnation that you deserve under the wrath of God, and yet you hunger for the forgiveness of your sin, which is found only in Christ and His Word?
Or have you come because you presume to belong by right to the Church and Kingdom of God? And you figure that, whatever He may have to offer, you want to get what’s coming to you? And you’d like to be made to feel good in time for the holidays?
The reality is that you are a poor, miserable sinner, and you deserve nothing but punishment. By sinful nature, from your conception and birth to the present day, you are subject to the temptation and influence of that old serpent, the devil, to whom your fallen flesh readily gives in.
Therefore, if you are a member of the holy Christian Church, it is not by any right, nor by any choice or decision of your own, but only by the grace and mercy of God, who has loved you — and He loves you still — even though you have been His sworn and mortal enemy. He has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and kept you in the true faith.
Your entire life and salvation hinge and depend upon that grace of God. That is all that stands between you and the axe that is poised at the root of your unfaithful and unfruitful tree, which would otherwise chop you down, and you be thrown into the fire. It is the Lord’s gracious Gospel, and only that, which gathers you into His barn and keeps you from being swept out with the chaff.
The thing of it is, you have no “right” to be here, no claim upon the Lord, and no merit or worthiness whatsoever before Him. In stark contrast to your pride and self-confidence, you are utterly empty and hollow, destitute and desolate (inside and out) like a desert wasteland.
And yet, it is precisely for those reasons that you are here — by God’s grace, by His Word and Spirit in Christ — not to receive what you deserve, which is nothing but punishment, but to be raised up through His forgiveness and filled up with Christ Jesus Himself and His Salvation.
If you are here for any other reason than that — with any presumption, or with any pretense — then you may as well go home. Because you’re not going to be patted on the back and made to feel good about yourself and your life. The Lord has not called you and brought you here to stroke your pride or feed your ego. On the contrary, He calls you to die, and to receive a new life altogether, one that is no longer defined by the devil, the world, or your sinful flesh, but a new life that is from the Holy Triune God and lived according to His Word. It is a life that is shaped by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, which you also share by your Holy Baptism into Him.
If you are concerned by all of this, as well you should be, then there must necessarily be some change and indication in your attitude and behavior to confess that your life is in Christ.
So, what is your life in Christ going to look like? It’s going to vary in its specifics from one person to the next, according to vocation and circumstances. But, in general, it means that you serve your neighbor as Christ Jesus serves you — not selfishly, but sacrificially; not for any personal gain, but simply and solely for Jesus’ sake. And the particulars of all that are spelled out for you by God, and according to His Word, in the specific demands and responsibilities of your stations in life. You do what your calling and your job require of you, in faith toward God and in love toward your neighbor, neither neglecting your duties, nor abusing your position and authority.
As a husband and father, or as a wife and mother, you serve your spouse and family. And as a son or daughter, you honor your father and mother, serve and obey them, love and cherish them. As a worker, you serve your employer, your clients and customers, by faithfully doing your job. As a citizen, you serve your community and your country. And as a member of the church on earth, you serve your congregation and your brothers and sisters in Christ with your time and energy, with your talents and skills, and with your financial means and resources, according to the needs of the church and in keeping with the gifts and abilities the Lord has entrusted to your care.
In each and all of these ways, you bear fruits worthy of repentance and confess that your faith and life are in Christ Jesus, by serving your neighbors in love. That is true in several different ways:
On the one hand, you serve your neighbor in the way that Christ serves you. And on the other hand, you serve Christ Jesus in your neighbor, since your Savior and Lord has identified Himself with those in need, with the poor and lowly and despised. In both respects, you demonstrate and express that your life is no longer defined and dominated by the devil, all his works and all his ways, but by the Holy Triune God, as He has revealed Himself and given Himself to you in Christ. So have you promised and confessed in the rites of Holy Baptism.
It is simply not possible to be called by God to such repentance and faith — that is, to be turned away from your sins back toward God in Christ — and yet not to bear the fruits of repentance.
The fact that such fruits are frequently missing in our lives, even as Christians, simply and soberly demonstrates that we still remain such poor, miserable sinners, that we yet deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment: to be chopped down and burned in the fires of God’s wrath.
Nevertheless, the genuine fruits of repentance and faith are nothing more nor less than that. They are the fruits or produce of faith and life, not the means or the source of your life and salvation.
These fruits of repentance and faith do not constitute some kind of “self-help” program. In fact, as soon as you attempt to bear such fruits as a means of helping and advancing yourself, it is no fruit worthy of repentance that you bear, but the vain efforts and works of self-righteousness, which only serve to confirm your sin, death, and damnation.
In any event, none of us produce the genuine fruits of repentance as faithfully as we should. Even if you could, and even if you did, those good works would still not save you. They’re not meant to, nor does it work that way. Rather, the fruits worthy of repentance demonstrate and give evidence of just the opposite! Namely, that you do not rely upon yourself, nor upon your own sincerity, efforts, works, or accomplishments, but solely and entirely upon Jesus Christ.
The actual heart of repentance and faith, and your only real hope, is not the fruits that result, but first of all to be turned away from yourself (away from your sin, death, and the devil), and turned toward the Lord Jesus Christ, who is alone your Savior and Redeemer, your Life and Salvation.
Really, that is what all the fruits of repentance are about. They are expressions of faith in Christ, and of the life which is only in Him. Which is to say that real works of love for your neighbor are an outward manifestation of your faith in Christ. Such fruits follow faith — necessarily so — but if there were any “fruits” apart from faith in Christ, they would be sour grapes and rotten apples.
Now, do not misunderstand the point. It’s not as though everything depended on your faith. Rather, your faith and everything else depend upon Christ. Everything that St. John the Baptist proclaims, along with everything I preach to you this morning, depends upon Christ Jesus.
He is the One who suffers the axe and the fire that threaten you. Which is to say that He suffers all the righteous wrath of God and all of the judgments and punishment of the Law. And all of this He bears and suffers in your place, in order to spare you the death and damnation you deserve.
What is more, He bears and suffers all the burden of your sins, as well, in His own body on the Cross. All the hurt and harm that you have done or caused by your sin, and all the wrong that has been done to you, He has taken upon Himself. Not for retribution or revenge, but for mercy and forgiveness, that you and your neighbor might be reconciled to God and to each other in Him.
So it is that He is stripped naked and goes hungry. He is overtaxed, falsely accused, mistreated, and extorted by force. Which is why, for example, you see and serve Christ Jesus in the poor and hungry, the naked and imprisoned, the needy and despised. Yet, He is the One who feeds and clothes you with Himself in Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion; who showers you with all His riches; who heals you, guards and protects you, and gives to you His own divine, eternal life. Indeed, all the love the Law requires for your neighbor, the dear Lord Jesus does for you.
His fulfillment of this royal Law of Love is centered in His Cross and Resurrection, and He continues to love you from the Cross. For by His own death, He has destroyed death, forgiven sin, and conquered the devil. And as such, He has also risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity, opening heaven and obtaining eternal life for you and all sinners. It’s all a done deal in Him. There’s nothing for you to earn or obtain for yourself. He’s already accomplished it for you.
Now He gives it to you all by grace, as He has done beginning with your Holy Baptism. There, by the washing of water with His Word, He shared His Cross & Resurrection with you personally. You died and rose with Him in those waters. That’s repentance! Being crucified and resurrected with Jesus the Christ. Dying to sin, death, and hell, and rising to new life in Him — and He in you — by His forgiveness of your sins. Uniting you with Himself in His Cross & Resurrection, He has granted you His own divine Sonship and anointed you with His Holy Spirit, so that you are no longer the offspring of vipers, but a beloved and well-pleasing child of His own God and Father.
The Lord Jesus continues to serve you with all of these good gifts through His Ministry and preaching of the Gospel, His spoken Word of Holy Absolution, His free and full forgiveness of your sins. By His Law He levels your mountains of pride, but with His Gospel of forgiveness He raises your valleys of humility to share His own glorious exaltation at the right hand of the Father. Bearing His Cross by faith, dying and rising with Him through daily repentance, your life is safely and securely hidden with Christ in God, seated with Him in the heavenly places.
The fact of the matter is that He and His Cross are the genuine Tree of Life, which bears the only worthy fruits there are for the forgiveness of your sins, for life and salvation in Him. Above all, these very fruits of Christ and His Cross are given to you here and now, from this Altar this morning and throughout the year, in His own holy body and precious blood.
Here, then, receive the fruits worthy of your repentance, the fruits of His redemption, given and poured out for you. Open your mouth and be filled with His grace, mercy, and peace. And as you are thus fed, so bear such fruits after their own kind in your own place, that your neighbor may see the Salvation of God in you, His dear child, and glorify your Father in Christ Jesus.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.