The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist was actually June 24 (exactly half-a-year from Christmas.) But this was preached on the Sunday following, June 28, 2020. And what with one thing and another, it was finally posted today. So here it is, six days after the feast itself:
The tender mercy of our God. We could use some of that right about now.
But we need to be careful what we wish for. Tender mercy, the compassion of our God, looks like John the Baptist. Camel hair. Locust breath. And his way of saying hello was to call you a “Brood of Vipers.” Not exactly a charm school graduate.
His message is a hard one. The words his Father speaks about him don’t really line up with the image we have. We think of tender compassion, and we think of a gentle bedside manner, a sort of quiet inner strength. John the Baptist is the sort to shoot first and then shoot again. Asking questions, optional. He’s rough and tumble, not tea and crumpets. In our delicate age, we would have trouble handling that much honesty all at once.
But then, God tends to surprise. When you think he is about to break rocks apart, he comes in a still small voice. When you think it’s time for some quiet reassurance, he comes loud and brash, leveling mountains, filling in valleys with reckless disregard, John the Baptist style.
Today is the first glimpse of Christmas. We just had the longest day of the year – we’re as far as you can get from Christmas. But now, it begins to get closer. And we have John, a baby to be sure. But John the Bulldozer, John the straight-way-maker. John the tender compassion, the one who points the way to Jesus, who gets everything ready. We just finished the last festival year, we can already see in the distance the next one. Because even when we talk about how we grow in the faith, we are talking about our life in Christ, the important part of that is Christ, who is our life.
That’s where we stand today. On the riverbank, the sun shining, the weather beautiful and warm, the Baptizer bringing the tender compassion of God to us.
Except we aren’t quite even there yet – that’s an Advent theme. Today we have the promise, just the baby John. Preacher John is still to come. And when he comes to the riverbank in Advent, it means the angels singing their songs of glory are close behind for Christmas. And then we go through it all again. The birth, Baptism, temptation, agony and bloody sweat, precious death and burial, Glorious resurrection and ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the comforter. We will hear it all again, because we so easily forget and we need to hear it again. Oh, we don’t forget about the innkeeper and the angels and shepherds and all of that. But the promise of forgiveness for Jesus sake. That’s easily lost to us. That’s where we need the tender compassion of our God. Because our sins are like a deep cancer. A compassionate doctor, no matter how good his bedside manner, must eventually speak the dreaded word of diagnosis. And then, we must be treated – the poison, the radiation, the surgery to cut it out. It is not enough to say “You poor dear. How much this must cause you pain. Let me wipe your sweat-filled brow and send you home.” The doctor must treat. And the treatment may be severe. But that treatment is tender compassion, because that treatment gives life.
So John comes with his gruff demeanor onto the riverbank, and we call it the tender compassion of our God. Because our sins are destroying us. Like leprosy or cancer or an infection run out of control. You need only look at the news to see the sad results of sin. We must operate. We must get to the dead part. Scripture actually uses the image of a heart of stone being taken out and replaced with a heart of flesh. Modern medicine is nearly miraculous. We can replace hearts today. But it is not easy. It is not pain free. It is not without its own brutalities. Cut one out, put another in its place. And yet it is the only way to keep alive. The heart of one who died being placed into the heart of one who lives but faces death.
So we have been given a new heart – the heart of our Savior, who has died for our sins. You are forgiven your sins for his sake. That is the tender compassion of our God – Jesus giving his life on the cross for you. And then removing your dead heart, and giving you his.
That is why the Baptist cries out “brood of vipers” from the riverbank. Because our old sinful nature followed the path of the serpent, and so became like a serpent himself. There is no reforming that old sinful flesh, that Old Adam. He must be put to death. Put to death in the waters of Holy Baptism. And then raised to a new life in Christ, given a new heart and a right Spirit by the Holy Spirit who works faith in your heart, who gives you a heart of flesh instead of your heart of stone.
The tender compassion of our God forgives all your sins. But, like the doctor who must ruthlessly diagnose the problem and tell you the dangers so you will accept the treatment, our loving heavenly Father brings us to repent of our sins through the Law. The Law is where we know our sin.
Our Lord has given the Ten Commandments. He wrote that Law on the heart of man from the first day – when he formed Adam and Eve from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. We call that the conscience. But because of our sin, our conscience can be led astray, dulled, burned and scarred by sin until your conscience is senseless and without feeling – it can not longer even tell what is sin and what is not. And so the Father, in his mercy and love also wrote his law on tablets of stone. The Ten Commandments show the great mercy of God – for in our sin we were no longer even able to know what sin was. Now the finger of God shows us clearly what is demanded of us. We are to worship the Lord God and serve him only. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And it is important to learn and to know the commandments, because it is important to know what sin is and what sin is not. That is why God, in his tender mercy, in his compassion, sends prophets to speak and teach that word over and over again. Each year reviewing the wonders of salvation. Each year, continuing to teach the commands and the promises of God. So that you would be able to see what you have done clearly – whether it keeps or breaks the perfect law of God. And so that you would be able to see the forgiveness of God applied to your sin.
The world tries, in its sinful condition, to do without God’s Word, while still offering a way to salvation. There is made up law – created out of our own sin, but it is only a dim reflection of what God has said. Especially the secular religions of today, that invent fake sins, but can offer only eternal repentance with no absolution.
God says that we are to be stewards of this world, to rule over it, and subdue it, and to use the resources he has given. The world twists that, tells us that we are the infection, the problem. And that without all the human pollution, the world would be better off. Scripture says we are to love each and every one of our neighbors, that we are to treat each person – from the unborn to the aged, with the dignity due someone created in the image of God – however fallen that image might now be because of sin. The world invents systemic crimes – you are guilty even if you have done nothing wrong, and you must atone for the sins of others. Only our Lord Jesus could ever do that, and he has done that. He has atoned for your sins. They are taken away, and now you are free to show love to others, and to forgive others when they sin against you, instead of giving in to the grievance mongering and the hate and anger and rage of the world. The world thinks it can destroy the church by burning buildings and throwing down statues.
The Word of God is not torn down, it is not overthrown, and it can not be overcome. The Word of God remains. It continues to teach wherever it is spoken, wherever it is taught to little children, or young adults, or even the very aged. We evaluate our conduct based only on the Commands of God given in those two tablets of stone. And that is enough for us. We don’t need to invent pretend sins against society or against mother earth, or against whatever the latest trend is. There are enough real sins. And those sins need real repentance, which means we need to hear the real law. Listen to it again: No other gods, Do not misuse the Name of God, Keep the Sabbath Day holy by prayer and attendance to the Word, Honor your father and mother, Do not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet. To break that law is real sin. And the only sin. And that law is enough to convict you of sin, and to condemn you.
But the blessed promise – the tender compassion of God is this – that there is forgiveness – real forgiveness for sin. Earned with the life blood of Jesus that he shed for you. And you have the pledge, the promise in the water, in the body and blood. So when the accuser – that old serpent – Satan comes calling with his fake sins you can send him packing. Unless it’s in the ten commandments, it isn’t a sin, and Satan can not make it one. When he tries again by bring up your sins from long ago, you can point to the water, to the body and blood and tell him Begone! The word and promise of God are good. The forgiveness is valid. There is no more condemnation.
And those who would twist this to try and place you back under the law, even if they do it with smooth and kind words, they are teaching falsely, they do not bring the tender mercy of God, they bring lies.
John brings the Law to be sure. It isn’t pleasant for us. But it is the tender mercy and compassion of God, so that we would repent, turn away from our sin, turn to our savior, and be saved.