If you were to make a list of all the Biblical people of faith you wouldn’t want to invite over to the house for an evening of holiday revelry, John the Baptist might be at the top. On the face of it, John seems like such a downer!
But I think, we need to revise our estimation of John the Baptist a bit.
Like you and me, John was a believer in Jesus. Even in his mother’s womb, Luke’s Gospel tells us, the Holy Spirit prompted John to recognize Mary, who had come to visit John’s parents in the Judean hill country, as the mother of the Lord Jesus. And when, after Jesus had spent many years in Nazareth then presented Himself for John’s baptism, John demurred. “I need to be baptized by You, and do you come to me?” In the fourth gospel, we're told that John the Baptist, pointed Jesus out and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world."
But sometimes, John's faith vied with his doubts. As we’ll be reminded in next Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John was far from perfect. There, we'll be reminded that though he believed in Jesus, Jesus didn't seem to be quite the King that John had expected. He would send people to ask Jesus, "Are You the One. Or is there going to be someone else?" Like you and me sometimes maybe, he doubted the Savior in Whom he believed.
But John kept believing in Jesus, however imperfectly.
There's a comfort to be derived in that. God only uses imperfect people to be His hands and feet in the world.
Despite his imperfections though, John was God’s choice for a ministry that had two basic elements:
- to call people to repentance;
- to announce the coming of the kingdom of heaven through the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed King.
Please turn to the Gospel lesson for today, Matthew 3:1-12 (page 676 in the pew Bibles). Matthew begins our lesson with words like those often used by Old Testament prophets to describe moments of decisive action by God: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea...”
The prophets often used phrases like "in those days." They signaled a moment when God had or, the prophets said, He would act.
The New Testament has two main words it uses for time. There's chronos, chronological time. Then there's kairos, God's time.
God acts on His own timetable. It's because we want God to bow to our chronological timetables that we're inclined to cry to heaven, "How long, Lord? How long do I have to wait?"
God acts at precisely the right moments for His purposes and for our good. At the kairos moment, God prompted John, "Now John. Now is the time for you to start preaching the message I give to you."
And God tells John to do this important ministry in the strangest of venues. In the wilderness by the banks of the Lower Jordan River. If John had gone to a business or church growth consultant, the wilderness is not the place they would have told him to set up shop. That wilderness area is composed partly of desert, but mostly of rocky terrain that contains sparse pastureland that can't stand much grazing. It's a good for nothing place where nobody lives unless they have to. Few would have lived there. Few would have gone there.
Yet, as we'll see, many flocked to hear John preach. The takeaway is simple: If God's hand is in a ministry, God will connect people to it. If God's hand isn't in a ministry, a crowd might be attracted, but it's doubtful that anyone will get connected to God.
Verse two: [John said:] “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." John is bleak, isn’t he? Or is he?
Turn, please to Matthew 4:17 (page 677). “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’"
John the Baptist was the last of the prophets who pointed, as a future event, to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus died and rose to bring to those who follow Him. We have a stereotype of prophets and of the Old Testament as being surly, demanding, vindictive, while we see Jesus and the New Testament as jolly, passive pushovers.
Yet, here we see that John preached the precise message as Jesus.
That message has two parts. It’s really the message of Advent, the message of Christian faith.
First, repent. We mentioned last Sunday that the word usually translated as repent in our English translations is metanoia, literally meaning I change my mind.
But to repent means a lot more than changing one’s mind. It's not like saying, "Blue used to be my favorite color. Now it's red."
In fact, in repentance, we own the fact that we are incapable of changing our own minds.
We may want to see things God’s way, but we can’t.
We may want to stop sinning, but we’re too into it to conquer it in our own power.
In repentance, we ask God to give us a new mind, new eyes, and a new way of living.
We ask that God will impose a new direction on our lives, His direction.
To shift us from following what our sinful impulses tell us to do--to do what I want to do whoever might get hurt; to follow my thoughts, emotions, or wills irrespective of what God says a “still more excellent way.” And, instead, we ask God to help us follow where He leads.
The Bible teaches us that it isn’t even we who author our desire to be in sync with God. That too, is a gift, tendered to us through the Holy Spirit.
In repentance, we yield to the desire for forgiveness and to the One Who gave that desire to us!
But what’s clear from John’s words--and from Jesus’ words--is that repentance is not a one-time proposition. The word for repent here is uttered in the present tense: Metanoieite. And in Greek that means John was saying: “Keep repenting!” “Keep turning back to God!”
You see, God understands us. He really does, better than we understand ourselves!
Repentance is more than sorrow for sin.
It’s also the willingness to keep coming back to God for guidance and forgiveness and grace.
Some people offer what they call repentance and say, “From here on in, I will be a good person. I will do good deeds. I will avoid sin.”
But true repentance says, “I can’t be a good person or do good deeds or avoid sin on my own, Lord. Kill my sinful self again today and help me to walk with you.”
That is not a downer message from John the Baptist.
It’s a message that urges us to keep following the God we know in Jesus Christ, even when we mess up.
Repent every day, live a life of repentance, of turning back to God, because God wants to live beside us now and in perfection in eternity. That should be an uplifting message!
The second part of John’s message was, “the kingdom of heaven is near.”
However crazy or indecipherable our lives can be, we can be sure that God is never far from from us.
That was true even before God took on human flesh in Jesus Christ and died and rose to set all who believe in Him free from sin and death.
It’s even more true now.
The risen Jesus promises to always be with us!
Verse 3: “This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’"
The words are from Isaiah 40:3. These were originally words to God’s people Israel when they were exiled. A voice would proclaim that the time was near when God would come and lead His people back home.
Matthew sees that John is like Isaiah’s voice. He came to prepare for God Himself--Jesus--to come into this world and lead us from the wilderness of sin and death into the kingdom of heaven.
In his proclamation that people repent and believe that God’s kingdom was close, John was preparing people to meet Jesus.
It’s how we prepare to meet Jesus too.
We turn from sin, asking God’s help to live as He wills, and we trust that in Jesus, God is with us always!
Verse 4: “John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” They wouldn’t like John’s attire on those TV fashion shows.
In Malachi 4, in the Old Testament, God promised that before the day of judgment, He would send the prophet Elijah and he would turn people’s hearts back toward the ways of God. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that, at the least, John the Baptist played that prophetic role because Jesus’ ministry, as we saw last week, is the prerequisite for the judgment and the final fulfillment of His kingdom.
In 2 Kings 1:8, we’re told that Elijah was as much of a fashionista as John: “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”
When John started preaching in his attire, when he only ate food that could be gathered, just as had been true of the ancient Israelites during their wilderness journey before crossing the Jordan into God’s promised land, people gave John their attention.
Verses 5 and 6: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” We prepare the way for Christ to enter our lives with power and grace when we clear away the obstructions. When we clear away our sin by confessing them to God.
Verses 7-10: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father." I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."”
We know the Pharisees and Saducees. Good religious folks. Pillars of the faith community. But also smug. Certain that because they were genetic descendants of Abraham, they were on solid ground. There’s no indication that they came to be baptized. Only to check things out. John calls them for being just good church members.
But God doesn’t want church members; God wants disciples!
God wants disciples who make other disciples.
He wants people who, like John the Baptist, follow the Lord, however imperfectly; not people who think that once they’re in the club, they might volunteer for this or that, but never attempt aligning themselves with Christ’s call to follow Him!
In Verses 11 and 12, John says: “‘I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’"
Before John, there were baptisms in Judea. They were self-administered. New converts to Judaism washed the sin of being Gentiles away before embracing the purity of the Jewish people. Some Jewish sects asked people to baptize themselves as a sign of renewed commitment to God. John was the first person ever to administer a baptism to other people.
But as John makes clear, his baptism was very different from the one that Jesus would administer, the one that Christians undergo at baptismal fonts like ours.
John’s baptism was only symbolic, the washing of water symbolizing the washing that true repentance brings to our lives.
But the Baptism that Jesus commands, the Sacrament, brings life from the Holy Spirit and the fire of God, burning away impurity and lighting our way through this life to eternity. That is good news. “All who believe and are baptized shall be saved,” Jesus says. John points us to eternal salvation in Christ!
Finally, John, talks about Jesus as judge of all humanity.
But in truth, what we learn from John the Baptist is that, in an ultimate sense, Jesus judges no human being. We are the ones who decide the judgment of eternity over our lives.
We pass sentence on ourselves by the choices we make each day.
The choice we are called to make is not to be perfect or good or religious.
The choice we’re called to make is to live each day in repentance, acknowledging our sins and imperfections, our need of daily reconstruction by Christ, our need of the crucified and risen Christ Himself.
When, by faith, we let Christ and His forgiveness into our lives, we’re walking toward God and His promises for time and eternity and we experience the truth that the Kingdom of heaven is truly near!
We might think that John would be an uncomfortable Christmastime guest in our homes.
But for all his rough edges, all of his incomplete knowledge, and the difficulty of his message, if we truly listen to him, we can hear a man who pointed us to trust in Jesus.
We can hear the Gospel about Jesus, which is good news of great joy for all people. I like to think that a guy like John would have a place at my table any time. Amen!