Nothing Has Changed
In the Name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’”
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
“What have you done for me lately?” If something succeeds, we use it. If something fails, it’s done. Advertisers copy successful selling methods. Athletic teams mimic what brings championships. Books fill best-seller lists detailing sure-fire methods to lose weight, make millions, raise a family, fall in love. And before you can say “sequel” those methods are discredited by new bestsellers. “New” often equals better.
Some apply this to the Church and her work. We have to look-out, they say, for the best ways to get people into church, to attract them to your church, to assimilate them into your church, to keep them in your church, to keep them giving. Flier after flier crosses my desk advertising can’t-miss fundraising ideas. Book after book promotes the latest sociological studies identifying how to get the unchurched churched. Often this includes “Change!” Do things no one else does so that you can accomplish things no one else accomplishes.
Now, to be fair, some of these ideas are simple common sense. It makes sense that we would want to keep our grounds well-maintained. It makes sense that we want to exude joy and friendliness, not just to each other, but to everyone who enters this house of God. Some pieces of advice are nothing except specific ways in which we glorify God and love our neighbor as we seek to preach Jesus to them. And when these ideas help us glorify God, love our neighbor, and preach Christ crucified, so much the better.
But many idea-men, while trying to look out for the Kingdom, have forgotten something. They’ve left behind the Holy Spirit. Nicely kept grounds, snazzy promotional materials, a laid-back coffee shop type atmosphere, or any atmosphere at all, brings nobody into the Church. They might attract people to enter a building, but they won’t make Christians. Only the Spirit does that. And He uses the Word to do it – the Word preached, the Word applied in Baptism, the Word distributed in Holy Communion. And because this is so, we can say that since the time of John, since sin entered the world, NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
[John] went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John’s message was identical to the message that the LORD proclaimed to Adam and Eve, identical to the message of Jesus’ first sermon, Repent and believe the good news! John preached nothing but the law and gospel of God, just as the LORD did when He asked Adam, Where are you? and then promised the Seed of the Woman who would crush the devil’s head. He preached the hard law of repentance – “Turn from your evil ways! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!” And he preached the gospel of Jesus, Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. That, and only that, made John a successful prophet. That, and only that, brought sinners to faith in their Savior.
And though the results don’t appear incredible, we preach the same message. We preach the same law and gospel, because the situation remains the same. We’re surrounded by and confess ourselves to be the same sinners Adam and Eve were, those crowds who came to John were, and the many to whom Jesus preached were. We need a Savior. We remain sinners, even though through faith in Christ we’re declared sin-free saints! Nothing changes. We preach repentance and forgiveness because we need it, as Luther said: Let none think that they will ever in this life reach the point where they do not need this forgiveness. In short, unless God constantly forgives, we are lost.
And because we constantly need forgiveness, we constantly go where Christ offers the cross-won forgiveness. The message we preach doesn’t change, neither do the means we use. John preached and baptized. He foreshadowed Jesus’ great command: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing…and teaching. John baptized and taught. Jesus’ disciples baptized and taught. We baptize and teach. Why do we continue to do this when the statistical results are pretty poor? Two-thirds of the world rejects Jesus. We do it because of the promise: baptize and teach and disciples are made. These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in His name. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t lie. That Word came to John. That Word has come to us. And, as if that weren’t enough, our Savior, seeing our great need gave us one more gift. He gave us His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. A new means offering the same forgiveness. A new comfort giving us the same gifts won at the cross. And what’s been good enough for 6,000 years continues to be good enough for us. Nothing has changed. Not the message we preach. Not the means we use. Because the power of the message hasn’t changed.
John’s message was simple: Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation. John’s message demanded a lot. Repentance is radical change. It’s turning away from everything that your sinful nature desires to everything God desires. It’s a change that I cannot effect on my own. I’m blinded by sin. I can’t comprehend and understand the Spirit’s message. I can’t say “Jesus is Lord” except the Holy Spirit makes me, which makes John’s message seem mocking. “Why are you asking me to do things I can’t accomplish?” It seems like a snippet from Bill Cosby’s “Noah” sketch. When asked by neighbors why He’s building a boat, Noah responds, “I can’t tell you, ha ha ha!” Some see God’s preaching of repentance in the same light. “If it’s impossible to please God without faith, if I can’t bring myself to faith, why are you telling me these things and demanding this of me? Why are you condemning me to hell?” It’s as if God is saying, “You can’t do it, ha ha ha!”
But He’s not, because God’s Word, that powerful Word, is the Word written so that you believe. It’s the Word that makes you wise. It’s the Word more powerful than any weapon, the word that penetrates to your very soul. It’s the message that brings with it the faith you need. The ways prepared, the paths straightened, the valleys filled in, the mountains made low, the rough spots made smooth, are prepared, straightened, filled in, made low, and smoothed by the Holy Spirit as He enters your hearts and lives through His instruments – Word, Baptism, Communion. There He turns you around 180 degrees. There He leads you to ask with those soldiers and tax collectors, “What can I do?” There He produces fruit in your lives before you know it. Because when the Holy Spirit shows you Jesus, you see God’s salvation. And there’s the power. Paul wrote about this, The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. Christ is a life-changer. Christ changed everything. He offered the sacrifice of atonement. He reconciled the world to God. And now He offers that to you as a gift – the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting. Nothing has changed. Not the message we preach. Not the means we use. Not the power of the message. Because Jesus Christ hasn’t changed. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is still the atoning sacrifice for your sins, and for the sins of the whole world. And through the Holy Spirit you have the faith that prepares you. Here’s the change. You were blind, but now you see. What has God done for you lately? He made the change you can believe. Amen.