John Came to Prepare!
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Second Sunday in Advent
Last week we said that the First Sunday in Advent is a time to reflect on the End Times and Christ’s Second Coming. The Fourth, or Last Sunday in Advent will be the time to celebrate the Savior’s birth. So today and next week, we are going to listen to John the Baptizer as he prepares the people of his day for the One to come who is Mightier than he. Our Gospel Reading for today begins: "In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 'Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand'" (Mt. 3:1-2).
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we have John. Who is he? Why is he out in the desert? And what's the meaning of "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"?
John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, was born in 7 B.C. to Zechariah, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In fact, you may remember that Mary came for a visit when Elizabeth was pregnant with John, and the baby leaped in her womb. We know nothing about the early years of John, but at the proper time, the Lord sent John out into the desert. Does it seem a bit strange that John did not begin his ministry in the synagogue
or in the temple where the other religious teachers were at? This was part of God's plan--John was to carry out his ministry in an isolated place--he was to be away from the corruption going on within most of the religious institutions. God wanted the people to take a fresh look at themselves and at their relationship with God. The desert wilderness was such a place.
The heart of John's message was repentance. To repent means to perceive or see differently--to make a radical change in one's life. It involves a change of heart and mind--a complete change of direction. Seldom does anyone make any kind of abrupt change unless there is a reason to do so. But there was reason to repent--because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. God is the founder of this kingdom and is its almighty ruler, and going to Heaven should be the goal of everyone. Matthew uses the expression "the kingdom of heaven" 33 times. The kingdom of heaven was near because the Lord of the heavens and earth was soon to be revealed among His people.
In order to show how the Old Testament prophecies would be fulfilled in Jesus, John quoted Isaiah, and he quotes a prophecy about himself as the one being sent to prepare the way for Christ's coming: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'" (3:3). The prophet Malachi says, "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. . .(3:1).
John viewed himself as the fulfillment of this prophecy, and Jesus declared that this was so. When the people found John out in the wilderness preaching, they were to know that he was sent to prepare the way for the coming of the Savior. Isaiah's words contained a promise that God was to become a man. John was to prepare the way for the coming of One greater than he. Just as the roadway or paths in the desert were to be cleared of debris before the king traveled it, the hearts of the people were to be clear--clearly prepared. The Holy Spirit would work through the message that John spoke to accomplish God's gracious purpose in the hearts of his people.
And as for John, he "wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey" (v. 4). John's clothing was very plain--the normal dress of a prophet. Elijah had dressed this same way, and he had made his last appearance in this same desert.
John's lifestyle was also very plain, including his diet. Locusts were permitted as food, and wild honey was commonly eaten. John lived like a hermit, spending his entire life living in solitude in the desert until he appeared publicly at this time.
Matthew continues: "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" (v. 5-6). No doubt the crowds were small at first, but they kept growing. People came from Jerusalem, as well as the smaller towns and villages. What would draw them way out into the wild, desolate desert area? If it wasn't John himself, it must have been the powerful message he was delivering--a message of law and gospel. John was calling the people to repent, and he invited them to be baptized, so their sin and guilt would be washed away. Many confessed that they were sinners and received the washing of the Holy Spirit. Many could have been critical of this stranger and of the authority he was exercising, and of this new act called Baptism. But the Spirit of the Lord worked mightily in the hearts of these believers. However, not everyone believed!
Our text says, "But when he saw many of the 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 in keeping with repentance" (v. 7-8). Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were strict teachers of the law. Too strict, we might say, for the Pharisees were hypocritical; they over-emphasized an outward observance of the law. The Sadducees accepted only the books of Moses, that is the first five books of the Bible as being canonical--inspired by God. They rejected a belief in angels, demons, and the idea that God was Spirit. Both groups felt they were "right with God" because of who they were and what they did. It never occurred to them that their teachings might be in error, and that their confidence in themselves was leaving them with insufficient dependence upon God.
As these men approached John, I'm sure the weather wasn't their topic of conversation. We can assume that through a revelation by the Holy Spirit that John knew what was within the hearts of these men. They were not sincere in their desire for baptism. Why? Because they were not seeking forgiveness--their hearts contained no repentance. Thus John harshly calls them a brood of vipers.
The snake has been a symbol of deception ever since the garden of Eden. To be a descendant of the serpent is to be a deceiver. It means to be an unbeliever who disguises himself and parades around as a believer. When John asked them, "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come", this serious question was to remind them that the wrath of God was upon them because of their unbelief. The wrath of God is real--it is mentioned more than 300 times in the Scriptures. And thus we have the call to repentance. An honest, sincere confession of sin allows us to depend on the grace of God. We put our faith, hope, and trust in the Lord--in times of plenty--and in times of trial and tribulation–all throughout life. And we remember that repentance always bears fruit. God forgives and restores us!
Unfortunately, this wasn't the attitude of the Pharisees and Sadducees. There was no confession of sin and no confession of faith. They took an open stand against the Lord and His plan of salvation. They sought to earn heaven by their own efforts. And thus John replied: "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (v. 9).
These men were not even to begin thinking that they could rely on their ancestry to justify themselves. They were fond of doing this, for they claimed to have a special place in God's eyes since they were descendants of Abraham. However, they needed to share the faith of Abraham before they were his true children. God credited Abram with righteousness because of his true faith.
The next verses is a severe warning to these Pharisees and Sadducees that their self-centeredness—their ego—would only lead them to destruction, just as a dead tree is cut down which bears no fruit.
In the final verse of our text, John is given a complete vision of the Savior's work: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (v. 12).
When Christ comes again, He will separate the believers from the unbelievers, just as the farmer separates the grain from the chaff. The believers are the grain that is gathered and treasured. The unbelievers will be burned like the chaff. We are reminded that life is not a game. It is serious business. He who seeks to kindle the fire of faith in our hearts will also control the fire of judgment in the end. Either we will be gathered to Jesus forever--or we will face the unquenchable fire! / / /
Now, if John were here today, would his message be any different? In a society infested with adultery, drugs, theft, and murder--where cheating and dishonesty are common traits, where a blatant denial of Jesus Christ as our Savior runs rampant, wouldn’t John still be preaching the Word of God, including the need to repent and warning us of the fiery consequences for the lack of faith? But thanks be to God, our Savior has shed His blood for us on the Cross. He has saved us from the eternal fire of hell. He has saved us for the eternal joys of heaven. He has given each of us our own precious, distinct set of gifts and talents. He blesses us mightily! / / /
This is the time of year when many of us eat pecan pie. We enjoy the rich, delicious fruit of the pecan, but we don't eat the shells--they're thrown away. The shells are like the chaff of wheat--they have no use, except for the burn pile. So I ask you to take this thought home with you today: God wants no one to be burned up like chaff; especially in a fire that never goes out! God wants each person to be gathered like grain into His eternal warehouse. God has prepared a place for you. May you enjoy this Season of Advent--a time of preparation for the Lord's Coming. May you examine yourself and repent of your sins. And then, may you enjoy the fruits of your Holy Baptism, sharing and rejoicing in the love of God--thanking Him daily for His promise of everlasting life, and may each of you wait in joy for the eternal bliss of heaven above. AMEN.