Are you comfortable right now? We are willing to go a long way to feel comfortable. We like to wear “comfy” clothes and sit in comfortable chairs. For car owners living in colder climates this time of year, we like to press a button to start our car so that the heater, the seat, and even the steering wheel are all warmed up for us.
We even like to feel comfortable at church. We like to sit in our usual pews and sing familiar hymns.
But imagine for a moment arriving at church this Sunday to find a guest speaker who looks like he has never had a haircut and wears rough-looking clothes. If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, his sermon certainly will! He begins his sermon by saying to you, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9) (Though, perhaps in place of “Abraham” he would substitute “Martin Luther” or “the CLC” as he preached to us.) How comfortable would you feel hearing that sermon?
This was the message of John the Baptist, a Nazarite with uncut hair, who lived in the wilderness and wore clothes made of camel hide. Isaiah calls John, “the Voice.” (Isaiah 40:3-8, Matthew 3:3, John 1:23) Unlike the singing competition on television of the same name (The Voice), which searches for a soothing singing voice that is pleasant to listen to, the voice of John the Baptist made people uncomfortable. We do not naturally like to hear messages of wrath and the need to repent of the evils we have done.
The man in uncomfortable clothes preaching an uncomfortable message doesn’t just tell us to say “I’m sorry” for our sins; he calls for “fruits of repentance,” that is, to show our sorrow over sin with changes in our lives. For the tax collector, this meant collecting no more than what was required. For the soldier, it meant not intimidating anyone or falsely accusing people, and to be content with their pay. What does it mean for you?
These are uncomfortable things to talk about—sin, wrath, and repentance. But by openly exposing the reality of sin, John was preparing their hearts for the ultimate comfort—the comfort that the Savior was bringing. This too, Isaiah writes about: “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ Says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.'” (Isaiah 40:1-2)
There is the comfort we long for. It is the comfort that John was preparing the people to hear and rejoice over after his “uncomfortable” message of repentance. This comfort is not found in a soft chair or climate-controlled settings. It is found in the Babe of Bethlehem that has been born “unto you.” It is found in the One Who would have to endure the soul-wrenching dis-comfort of the cross in order to forgive all our sins and win the eternal comforts of heaven for us. Therefore, dear repentant sinner, be comforted in Christ, for He is, as John said, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Hallelujah! Amen.
is pastor of Berea Lutheran Church in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.