Gospel versus the Gospel Genre, Second Advent Dec. 8, 2013 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Vallejo, CA
Second Advent Dec. 8, 2013 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Vallejo, CA
Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Romans 15:4-13 Mat 3:1-12
Gospel versus the Gospel Genre
For the children I wrote a John the Baptist song, which was also intended for a stewardship Sunday. A supply pastor, I’m quite limited in what I do here, so we have not scheduled a Stewardship Sunday. But perhaps you can think of giving in terms of repentance as well, because the way we make our offerings and our particular relationship with money indicates a great deal about our repentance. This is a children’s song:
A John the Baptist Song
Of John the Baptist let us sing
He changed our hearts by baptism
Son of Zechariah and Elizabeth
He prepared the way for Jesus
He wore a shirt of camel’s hair
It was scratchy everywhere
Ate grasshoppers and wild honey
(And said), be sure to share your money.
(John said), “Jesus is the great I am,
He is God’s own little lamb.
I’m not good enough to tie his shoes,
To tell about Jesus is good news.
Into the water we all go
And this is what we get to know
We go down and Jesus comes up
and finds a way to save us.
peter krey 06/27/2007
John was an Old Testament prophet preparing the way for Jesus, who proclaimed the Gospel. In Matthew, John does not say, “I am not unworthy to untie Jesus’ shoes, but to carry his shoes. That is explained by a pun there in the text. The word “carry” and “baptism” in the Aramaic are very close (bastazo and baptize), just like the words “son” and “stone” in Hebrew. “Ben” is “son” and “eben” is stone. John says, “Don’t say you are Abraham’s children. God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
Now metanoia or “repent” or “change of mind” has a verb tense in the Greek that means doing it continually: as Luther says about “what baptism means for daily living”:
It means that our sinful-self with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drown through daily repentance and that day after day a new self should arise in to live with God in righteousness forever.
Now let me explain a very important distinction to you and that is how we think about law and Gospel, and that is the difference between John’s approach and that of Jesus. And we have to know how to tell both approaches apart.
John is very much law oriented and using the fire and brimstone approach. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees who came down to observe and criticize his baptism for repentance, “You brood of vipers.” Now even though we don’t know their insults in those days, it is easy to see that John is insulting them. Like Shakespeare in the play Julius Caesar says, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” John really calls them, “you offspring of vipers!” In those days they thought that a baby viper ate its way out of the belly of its mother, killing her to revenge the father viper, whom the mother had killed. Now this is not to mention that vipers were poisonous and you died if they bit you. So these snakes were not considered nice and it seems that John was calling the Pharisees and Sadducees the worst name he could think of.
We have to make a distinction that is very necessary. We read John’s words in the Gospel lesson, but it is not Gospel but law. There is the Gospel genre and there is the wonderful perspective that the genre, the Gospel lesson, is named after. In God’s Word, everything can be viewed in the light of the Gospel and everything can be viewed in the light of the law. The law judges us, finds us wanting, names our sin, and then really sentences us to death. Now this is a spiritual death I am talking about. We die to ourselves. Then the grace of the Gospel comes and raises us back to live, the new life in Christ, the life we live for others.
So John’s making a way for Christ is very important, but the law without the Gospel remains negative. With the Gospel it can become positive. We all receive grace and forgiveness from the gospel. The law can prepare us for the Gospel’s work. But it is Jesus Christ and the Gospel not John the Baptist, who brings new life in the positive, loving, healing, life-giving, comforting and saving way that lays the basis for our faith and our way of life. In seminary they taught us to preach the law and gospel thinking about an old fashioned bicycle with a small wheel in back and a big wheel in front with the handlebars on top for steering the bicycler’s course. Well in preaching, we were taught that the law was the little wheel in back and the gospel was the big wheel that we had to keep way out front.
So we stood up today for the Gospel lesson, but really it was very much pure law inside the Gospel lesson. This distinction between seeing everything in the light of the law or the light of the gospel, should help you discern when the Gospel lesson is filled with the law as it is today, and filled with the Gospel, as it is at other times. The Old Testament lesson has law and Gospel in it and sometimes the Old Testament lesson or the epistle can be filled with some Gospel, while the Gospel lesson is not.
As an exercise, I wonder if you could talk to the person next to you and figure out what is law and what is Gospel in the Isaiah text today.
(Some time for the discussion of Isaiah 11:1-10)
Note that striking the earth with the rod of his mouth and killing the wicked with the breath of his lips is law and that is just about what John the Baptist is doing. Having to stand in judgment is also law. Everything else in the Isaiah passage is pretty much Gospel. Now in our Gospel text, notice how the axe is lying at the root of the tree. That represents a real threat. If it does not bear fruit, John will chop that tree down. A winnowing fork throws wheat that has been pounded to break its shells, up into the air. The wind blows the useless chaff, meaning, the empty shells away, while the kernels of wheat come down and can be used to make flour to bake bread. So the chaff in our own life has to be discarded, and whatever brings fruit, we have to strengthen in order to bring more fruit.
Pruning trees is similar. Branches that don’t bear fruit, but just take the sunlight away from branches that do, have to be pruned so that the tree can bear fruit. Do you see how this is law and how the law kills, but through the Gospel, it can be a good thing? But without the Gospel, it is very negative.
Look at Nelson Mandela. For 27 years he was imprisoned. He was under a death sentence that was commuted to life imprisonment in the last minute. He was a Gospel personality, because he forgave his torturers and persecutors. “Don’t you hate your persecutors?” reporters asked him. “Hating clouds the mind…A leader can’t afford to hate.” He answered almost dismissively. Like Mark Shields said on the PBS News Hour, “Resentment is a poison we drink hoping it will harm others.” I cannot begin to name all the ways they tried to take away his dignity and humiliate him, but when he was visited by a foreign dignitary in prison he introduced his eight prison guards by name and called them his honor guard! That is grace, because they certainly did not deserve it.
In the Gospel lesson the snake is a viper very much all wrapped up in evil, but in the power of the gospel, notice how the snake has been converted in Isaiah. “The nursing child shall play at the hole of the asp (I have to say that carefully.) and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” These are poisonous snakes just like the viper and so even snakes can be converted by God’s grace, let alone have a leopard change its spots.
Now Winnie Mandela got all involved with violent thugs and she even endorsed their putting those who opposed what they considered their cause into a straightjacket of gas soaked tires, which they called a “necklacing” and setting them on fire. She was all into law and so became discredited and really hurt the movement for the nonracial, democratic South Africa. Nelson Mandela set up the truth commissions for reconciliation with Bishop Desmond Tutu. In this way he prevented a race war with all the victims taking revenge on their White oppressors. Do you see how he was a man of grace, someone who lived the Gospel, remaining very much a royal figure, because his father was the chief of the Thembu people part of the African Xhosa nation. He always knew himself to be royal and never let that be taken away from him, even though he always remained an ordinary man in touch with ordinary concerns in life. A reporter was bolting her food in front of Mandela not to miss his press conference. He leaned down from the lectern and said, “Bon appetite.”
So Mandela was from a royal family. Don’t you know that we are too? When we receive the blood of Jesus Christ, we also receive the nobility of the spirit and what’s more, we become children of God, part of a family that is above all other families, and called to continue the mission of Jesus here on earth. So never let someone push your button and make you lose your self-esteem. Like Jesus, you are a son of the Most High. You are a daughter of the Most High. But that gives you the stature to bend down and help out the least of these, even lowly forgotten people our society tries to forget about in our many nursing homes! What a blessing to go there and spread the Gospel of Jesus’ love.
So here we are in the second Sunday of Advent. We looked at John the Baptist and how he prepared the way for Jesus. We look at ourselves and remember that we have to die to ourselves and become more humble than the dust to do the work of the truth. Last Sunday I was still having to deal with rough feelings about all kinds of things. Then I played my trumpet for the first hymn, “We have come into this house and gathered in his name to worship him.” I love to sing as well as play. That’s why I play every other verse. So I played the first verse and sang the second. God was speaking to me: “So forget about yourself and concentrate on him and worship him!” And of course that is just what I needed to hear.
To prepare for the Advent of Jesus Christ, we have to get ourselves and our own egos out of the way. Then John will also be preparing a way through the wilderness of our times and our hearts for Christ to be really present and for the Kingdom of Heaven to become very near to us. With ourselves out of the way, Christ will be able to work through us performing all the miracles we read about in the Bible. So let’s encourage one another with the Gospel. Let’s be a congregation filled by grace, because we know we are saved by grace. You and I know that we certainly do not deserve to be forgiven and loved, but God does not stop loving us and Jesus does not stop thanking God that we are his and belong to him. Amen.
 Luther’s Small Catechism.
 Luther’s theology is one of making distinctions.
 An article by Bill Keller in the New York Times, 12/6/13 on page A16.
 PBS News Hour 12/06/13.
 This Far by Faith: an African American Resource for Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999), Hymn No. 136.