TURNING AROUND

by Sean Foster on December 8, 2013

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
A-men.

They were cousins. Born just six months apart. But they lived very different lives.

One grew up the son of a priest. The other was raised the son of a carpenter.

One was born to parents who never thought they would have the blessing of a child in their lives. The other was totally unexpected.

One was born a prophet in the old tradition; in the old mold of Elijah an early prophet of the Old Testament. The other had a new vision, and new ways and would live a life confounding and frustrating the established religious order of His day.

One would die at the whim of a drunken hedonistic old man and the wish of a silly girl. The other would be put through a kangaroo court, punished brutally at the command of a weak governor and then finally killed for no sin of his own.

One was a wild man through whom thousands would respond to his message of repentance and baptism, out in the wilderness. The other would become known as a teacher, and forgiver of sin. One who would eat with tax collectors and sinners.

One was recognized as a man who had come from God. The other, God’s own Son, was rarely recognized as such.

One, his name means: God is Gracious. The other, His name means: The Lord is Salvation.

These two cousins, born six months apart – had a great deal in common as well though.
• Their mothers were first cousins.
• Both mother’s had been touched by God in amazing ways.
• Their conceptions were heralded with messages from God
• God would select the names of these two boys.
• Their lives would be marked with extraordinary gifts, and the power of God would be evident in their lives.
• Both would declare and usher in the kingdom of heaven.
• And both would die, doing just what God commanded.

Cousins. If you haven’t guessed already, one was John the Baptist, the other was Jesus the Christ.

The background to John’s story is found in Luke’s Gospel. Luke teaches us that John was born to a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. John is born late in their lives. Long ago, after many years of trying, they had given up on the idea of having children.

Late in his life, Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel who announces that his wife would give birth to a son. Against the tradition, Zechariah would not be able to name his son Zechariah. His son would be named John, just as God decided. And because Zechariah had difficulty with these words of the angel, he is struck mute.

Our lesson from Matthew’s Gospel takes us to a time several years later. John is now grown up. He knows God’s calling in his life. And here in our lesson, Matthew shares the very heart of John’s ministry.

John is a strange man by all accounts. Even his own peers would affirm that John is no ordinary guy. From the way that he dresses, his diet and of course, his message to repent and get baptized – all of it goes against the grain of society.

It is John’s purpose to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. Years and years before, God had spoke through his prophet Isaiah and Jeremiah with the promise of a Messiah.

• A son would be born
• From the stump of Jesse.
• From the royal line of David the king.
• A shoot.
• A branch that would bear much fruit.
• A child would be given.
• God’s Messiah would redeem.

John even quotes the words of the prophet Isaiah.
The voice of the one calling in the wilderness. Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. (Matthew 3:3/ Isaiah 40:3)
John is telling the people, I am preparing the way for the arrival of the One we have been waiting for. Prepare the way for the coming of Christ, the Messiah.

John’s message is straight, firm and clear. Repent and get ready, the kingdom of heaven has come near. God’s Messiah is coming. Be ready!

As we get ready for Christmas, there are all kinds of things that we do to prepare. The weeks leading up to Christmas are busy with preparations. If you have children, there are certain things that cannot be avoided. Decorating the house, both inside and out are essential. There are of course various parties, events and gatherings that are particular to the season.

Then there is the dreaded gift buying. [Dreaded is my commentary] Making a list, checking it twice; not so much looking for those who are naughty and nice, but rather to ensure that no one is missed. I don’t know about you, but I find that the list of people that we buy for actually grows as we get closer to Christmas day.

And of course, there is the planning for the actual day. The Christmas meal, where people will sleep. The groceries, the extra drinks, and minding the little details to ensure that we are being extra hospitable to our loved ones.

Planning. …
Preparing. …
It is essential as we approach Christmas. But Christmas, as my children well know; who are only the ages of 4 and 7 – they know that Christmas is about Jesus being born for us. And as much as they love Santa. As much as they look forward to the gifts they will find under the Christmas tree Christmas morning. As much as they love the decorations and the lights at night; the excitement and buzz in the air at this time of year – they know first and foremost that Christmas is about Jesus being born for us. Christmas is about God giving His Son to redeem us.

And we know that too! We know that Jesus is the reason for the season. And yet we also know that … in the busyness of the season, we can sometimes forget too.

John comes reminding us. As we journey together to Bethlehem, we encounter a strange man in the wilderness. He’s hard to avoid, and hard to miss. With his strange clothing made of camel hair, and strange diet of locusts and wild honey, John calls us to repent and be baptized.

Now, we, most of us, have already been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit. And as far as repentance, we changed directions when we heard the call to follow Christ and were given the faith to receive him as Lord. And yet, John’s words serve as an important reminder in this season of chaos.

Advent is the season to prepare for Christ. Not only as we prepare to celebrate his birth, but also to prepare for his coming again.

Advent is a season of Hope. It is a season of Peace. It is a season of Joy and a season of Love. And all of these are joyful reminders to help us prepare.

This Sunday we focus on Peace. Peace is more than a feeling. As we celebrate Peace in this season of Advent, it is celebrating the Peace that we have with God. Of being reconciled. Being made right with God. Peace. In right relationship. Knowing that our sin is forgiven. It is being at peace with God.

It is perhaps in light of the peace that we have with God through His Son Jesus that we better understand John’s words in the wilderness. Repent – and get right with God.

In our lesson we find an interesting interaction between John and the religious leaders of his day.

Verse 7: John sees many Pharisees and Saducees coming out to be baptized.

I mean, they were the church of their day. They were seen as the most religious, the most devout, and the closest to God.

But listen to John address them. You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? I mean, allow me to paraphrase and flesh out the text a bit. Do not assume that because you are Pharisees and Saducees that you are close to God. Do not assume that because you are the church, you are close to God. You follow rules, you look righteous in the eyes of society but in truth, you have no relationship with God at all.

But here’s the real rub. As I read those words, and understand the meaning behind the accusations that John makes, that in reality, there is no desire for these Pharisees and Saducees to repent. No desire to prepare for the coming of God’s Messiah. I mean, the Pharisees and Saducees, they were the leaders of the church. There was no need for them to repent. They felt very righteous.

But as I read and listen to John, I wonder; and I don’t even want to go there, but the text draws me there. If John were here today, what would he say to us the church? Would he discern that we are sincere in following Christ? Or, would he judge that the church today assumes they have a good relationship with God, but in reality the church is very distracted.

You see, at the heart of repentance, there is a God who desires, more than anything else, to be in relationship with us. More than us looking right and righteous in the eyes of society and other members of the church. But to be in relationship with God through Christ.

And so, as we go through this season of Advent. As we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, we need to be honest and ask ourselves: are there things that distract me and take me away from Christ Jesus? What does it mean to be in a real relationship with God’s Son?

Even a four year old can figure out the reason for the season. But is Christ first?

Peace. The reason he first came. The reason he will come again.

A-men.

Let us pray.

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