Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 22:05 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“You brood of vipers! You children of serpents! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming?” You have to hand it to John; that’s certainly an attention-grabbing way to start a sermon. You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? We don’t talk much about the wrath of God, or the judgment of God. And I suppose it’s understandable at this time of the year. Wrath and judgment aren’t very Christmassy.
But we can’t really avoid it with this reading from Malachi. We can’t avoid it with this reading from Luke. We can’t avoid it during Advent at all with the Proper Preface about John proclaiming Jesus as the promised Messiah, the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and calling sinners to repentance, that they might escape the wrath to be revealed when He comes in glory. People seem to think that if we don’t talk about the wrath of God, it will go away. But it’s there, everywhere, and Malachi and John both say that it is coming, and coming swiftly and suddenly and soon.
John seems to think that the wrath is imminent. Are you trying to get away from the wrath of God, he asks. Then bear fruits worthy of repentance, and don’t just talk about it in nice, pious words. The axe is, right now, laid at the root of the trees and the tree that does not bear fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. Those are judgment words, wrath words.
Honestly, these words seem appropriate. People don’t seem to change. They certainly don’t change out of fear of the wrath of God, at least not for very long. That kind of change is hard to sustain, especially when we don’t see the wrath, when things seem to pretty much go on as they always did. God doesn’t seem to think Israel will change, even though, by the time of Malachi, they’ve had a few hundred years to do so. He says, “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them.” You don’t change! The world doesn’t change. People just go on doing the sins they always did. There is no new sin. It’s still the same old adultery, sorcery trying to control nature and bend it to our will, the oppression of hired workers, the abuse of orphans and widows and the vulnerable, of the sojourner. So it goes, and so it goes.
And if people do not change, will God change? If people keep sinning, won’t God just keep condemning, keep judging, keep revealing only wrath? It certainly seems appropriate. If God’s action is a response to what people do, then what else would we get except judgment and wrath? We confessed what we deserve: temporal and eternal punishment. Does God’s action depend on how we act?
It does not. Suprisingly, out of all expectation, God says through Malachi: I, Yahweh, do not change. And therefore you, the house of Jacob, are not consumed. God does not change, and therefore you are not destroyed. Because the unchanging nature of God is not about His wrath and judgment. That is exactly what is changeable. It changes all the time. Read the Scriptures. God is always ready to change from His wrath, from His anger. It is not His anger that is eternal; He tells Moses it lasts only a generation or two. His unchangeable nature is that sinners should not be consumed and destroyed.
So when God sends His messenger to prepare His way, and then He appears suddenly in His temple, suddenly among His people, it is not with fire and axe and destruction and wrath. He does not come with angel armies to put an end to sinners. God appears on the earth as a baby. And babies are about as far from wrath as you can get. God appearing to heal and save and get rid of the demons and raise the dead is about as far from wrath as you can get.
But that’s not because there are two different Gods, a God of wrath and a God of mercy. It is because the God whose wrath is going to be revealed is the same God who does not want sinners to be destroyed in that wrath. Here are the lengths to which God’s mercy will go: the eternal Son will take on flesh in order to stand before the wrath in your place. He did not appear to condemn the world. The world was already condemned, and all that was left was for the wrath of God to come upon the condemned. But God appeared in the world in flesh and blood in order that the same condemned world would be saved through Him.
Who warned you to flee from the wrath of God? Every word of the Scriptures. Every prophet. Every priest. Every sacrifice. Every oppressor, and every exile. Make no mistake: the wrath of God is coming on this creation, to destroy all the works of sin and the devil. God is not satisfied with just ok, or mediocre, or doing the best that we can. He wants the holiness of His creation and all His creatures restored.
But Jesus appears so that you will know where to flee from the wrath of God: to the flesh and blood of the crucified and resurrected Son of God. Take refuge in Him, in the baptism by which He hides you in the cleft in His side; in the body and blood He gives you to eat; in the words of absolution which are certain because Jesus gives them to His Church. He not only warns you to flee, He tells you to where you should flee, like the angels telling Lot and his family about the safe town from the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. And the wrath will not fall until Jesus has gathered all His chosen ones to Himself. There is no other safe city, except Jesus Himself. Outside of Him, no one can stand in the judgment. Outside of Him there is only wrath. But He has appeared so that that wrath cannot touch you.
He has appeared to purify you and refine you in the blast furnace of His love. Like getting rid of everything that is not gold or silver, He melts us down until there’s nothing left but the purity of His righteousness. He presses His cross down on us, and we often find ourselves hating the refining and purifying mercy of God. Our sinful flesh does not want to die, does not want to be destroyed, does not want to be burned away. But we learn the truth of the Gospel, the immense power of the forgiveness and life of Jesus only in the midst of sin, and suffering, and death. This is the cross by which we learn the greatness of the promise of God, to trust Him whom we cannot see in the midst of the sufferings and death we do see.
But this is the work of God, the work He began in the dying of baptism until it is completed in the day of Jesus Christ in the resurrection. This is the work of baptism as He cleanses, purifies, refines, and makes us blameless by His completed work of righteousness. This is where and how He produces fruit worthy of repentance, to serve our neighbors as our love begins to abound more and more. This work is begun once at the font and continues ever after, until there is no more sin or death or suffering or wrath. He will finish His purifying work with the fire of wrath, when everything that is not of Him is destroyed. But He has gathered you to Himself to keep you for that day, so that when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead, you will be found in Him. Then you will stand before God, blameless and spotless, cleansed and holy.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/3/21