In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven, is near.” 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.’”
One year I decided to use a practical illustration explaining the importance of being prepared. Here is what happened. When it came time to preach the sermon that Sunday, I got into the pulpit and began to explain what a busy week I had. We had a funeral that week. I had a child who was home sick, and I had to lead chapel and Advent service that week and honestly just did not have time to prepare a sermon. So, I re-read the text and sat down. The organists was stunned and perplexed as to what she should do next. The elders who were not big fans of mine anyway began to gather in the back of the church, and I could read their lips as a heated discussion was taking place. Just as the anxiety level had reached a fever pitch, I got up and said, “I am just joking. But now you see the benefits of always being prepared.” That was one of my more memorable sermons.
Today’s post is based on the Bible reading from Matthew 3:1-12. That section of God’s word features an interesting and at times confrontational character, John the Baptist. He was a man unconcerned about being popular or politically correct. He was not afraid to confront the religious rulers of his day. Tyrants like King Herod and his wife Herodias, whose complicated sinful relationship could be the stuff of movies. For the curious minds: Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus, son of Herod the Great and Mariamne, daughter of Hyrcanus. Her first husband was Philip I, son of Herod the Great and Mariamne, so she married her uncle, by whom she had a daughter, Salome, whom her mother used to destroy John the Baptist.
John the Baptist would confront their sin, and that would cost him life. John was humble, and he understood his role; he was the herald. His mission was to prepare the hearts and minds of the world and announce the coming of the King. When he came face to face with Jesus, the Messiah, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World.” He admitted his unworthiness to stand in his presence when he said, Lord, I am unworthy to stoop down and untie your sandals.
As we look at John’s message, we need to ask a few questions. 1) Why is John on the scene? And 2) what is his purpose?
Why is John on the scene? John was on the scene to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, who wrote,
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.’”
This reading from Isaiah also leads us to the answer to the next question of what was John’s purpose for coming? John’s sole purpose was to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. I love the way the prophet Isaiah describes John’s preparation process because it is something we can relate too. He compares it to road construction. “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”
It was the winter of 2006, and we had just gotten back from vacation. We traveled to my wife’s parent’s house in Michigan. Going to Michigan brings back some good memories for me. It is the site of my vicarage assignment; my first call was to Michigan; I went to my first Promise Keepers event in Michigan. I even learned how to play golf in Michigan. The one thing I hate about going to Michigan is that we had to travel through or around Chicago. If you were lucky and all the stars aligned, you might get through the construction with no problems.
As you travel this great nation, you marvel at our highway system; the roads are so handy but just imagine the effort, time and preparation it took to build all those highways we take for granted. Preparing an area for road construction is no easy task, especially if the area is hilly or mountainous terrain. There is a need to flatten out the rough places and fill in the area where there are valleys. Sometimes you have to cut a hole through mountains. It is not an easy task. The prophet Isaiah describes the work that John the Baptist had to do to prepare God’s people for Jesus to come. John had to level the area and smooth out the rough edges of the people’s sins and expectations about the coming of the king. He had to cut through their stone traditions and human-made laws. He had to fill the valleys where their false ideas fell short about the kingdom of God. John had to do all this to prepare the people of God for the coming of the Son of God. Jesus had to enter the city of Jerusalem without hindrance and accomplish his destiny. And Jesus’ destiny was to go the cross and die for the sins of the world, for your sins and mine. The road made crooked by the brokenness of our sin must be made straight.
The Messiah is coming on his way to the cross. We will soon celebrate his birth in Bethlehem, but already on these first Sundays in Advent, it is clear that our attention is not this beautiful, neat picture of a cute baby lying in a manger. We see a cross in the not too distant future of this child. That means that Jesus’ mission is serious business. It is not something people who are not serious or unprepared can understand. So, you hear the seriousness in the voice of John the Baptist. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven, is near.” He is telling God’s people I want you to understand that the Savior who was promised to Adam and Eve in the garden is coming and he brings salvation in His wings. The time is now. The day of the Lord is near. Be ready, the time is now. The wait is over.
But the Pharisees and Sadducees would hear none of it. They came out to the desert to oppose John, the Baptist. The translation of the text is a bit off because it makes it sound like they were just coming to visit or something. The flavor of the original Greek is much stronger. They began to shut John up. Then you see the confrontational man of God stand up to the religious leaders of his day and challenge them.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 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. 10 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.” John was not going to let anyone get in the way of carrying out his mission and his purpose including the religious leaders of his day.
Everything about John is a wake-up call to prepare. From his attention-getting clothing to his diet. 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. John comes to educate God’s people for the messianic journey ahead to teach that the voyage is one of suffering and denial of Israel’s time in the wilderness. There is all righteousness to be fulfilled, pictured by Isaiah as filling in the valley, leveling the hills, making the Messiah’s path straight. Nothing may stand in his way: not opponent’s resistance, not our sins, not any other ”way.” Anything that stands in the way will be bulldozed by the earthmover coming through.
Confessing our sins (vv. 5-10)
7But 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? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And 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.
Large crowds were going out to John from the entire region. They were confessing that they needed to repent and John’s baptism was washing away their sin, preparing them for the Kingdom’s coming in the person of the Messiah. Others though came as hypocrites.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were already sure of their own righteousness because of their boldness and circumstances (Kinship laws.) They refused baptism because they felt they had no sins to wash away. John cuts through their hypocrisy in the most graphic terms. They are no better before God than stones. This idea of them being no better than stones was an insult to the Jews because they called Gentiles stones. So, what John was saying is that God could create Jews out of Gentiles just by what John was doing with his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He went on to tell them that unless they repent they will be chopped down by God and cast into the fire.
Today is a wake-up call to us Christians as well. Is it about time we wake up and join the faithful in confessing our sins? Confessing our sins of pride in who we are, thinking that we are better than we truly are. It’s about time that we stop looking down our noses at other people and reach out our hands to help them. We like to sit in our lovely churches and forget the pain and suffering that is all around us. It is time we stop our hypocrisy in wanting to look pious and holy and allow our faith to match our actions. It is time we confess that without God’s forgiveness we are lost, and we really will be cast into eternal fire. We confess our sins with hope because we now walk in the way of the Lord. We who are Christians can cling to the promises of God and the hope of the cross. But Jesus, the Messiah, has paved the way for us to heaven by his death and resurrection. So we look ahead. We look forward to the day when our King will come again. We stand ready, and we wait for his return.
Looking for Christ to come again soon (vv.11-12).
11 “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. 12 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.”
John’s appearance is the signal that the Lord himself is at hand. One day soon he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When did Jesus do this? He did this in his own baptism and his crucifixion. Christ’s selfless sacrifice is the way of the God!
We are clothed with God in baptism. Jesus’ baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire continues in the baptizing done by his apostles and those who followed them. The simple water of your baptism by your simple pastor was Jesus baptizing you. When you were baptized into the water baptism, Jesus went through the baptism of the cross. That means our life is now one of walking in the way of the Lord. That trail includes wilderness, denial, and hard lessons along the way. But it also means that you walk the way the Lord walked in his resurrection. It means we will have everlasting joy in his Kingdom.
And so our journey to Jerusalem continues. With the people of Jerusalem who came to John in repentance and faith, we too come to Christ who visits us now at the table of the Lord’s supper he has prepared for us to give us strength on this journey. You who are clothed in Christ; receive him again where he gives himself for you! Already now the gifts of Christmas are given here in this Christ Mass. Come one and all confessing your sins and your faith as we prepare for Christmas by receiving the Christ child here in bread and wine. Come to the table for it is time to walk in the way of the Lord.