Matthew 3:1-12 (New International Version, ©2010)
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
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. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 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? 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.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and 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.”
Our scripture for this morning tells of the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. John was by all accounts a strange man. He dressed funny, he had a funny diet, and he spoke with boldness and confidence. However, all of these things that we might see today as being strange or weird were really the continuation of a ministry began hundreds of years earlier with the great prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. And like the great prophets, John was getting a lot of attention from the people. Some good attention and some bad attention.
So here is John, continuing the tradition of the great prophets. Matthew writes in his Gospel that John is the one that Isaiah spoke of who would prepare the way for the Lord. And John, like the prophets, comes in with a word from the Lord to call the people back into a right relationship with God.
John’s message is simple. In verse two he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Yes, it is a short message, but it is packed full of meaning. Let’s work our way from the back forward quickly.
He says that the kingdom of heaven has come near. He didn’t say you need to wait until after you die to reap any kind of benefit from being true to God. And he doesn’t say that Jesus will come back in the year 2012 to establish his kingdom. There is something right here, right now, right beside you that is available for the taking! We may have to wait until some date in the future to fully dwell in God’s kingdom, but the kingdom is near! Elsewhere Jesus will say that the kingdom is at hand, or even within you.
Now when we read Matthew’s Gospel we often hear Jesus, John, and others referring to the kingdom of heaven while Mark, Luke, and John’s Gospels will refer to the kingdom of God. It is commonly understood that these two phrases are referring to the exact same thing. The reason that Matthew uses the phrase kingdom of heaven rather than kingdom of God is because Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience and Jews were very careful to not say “God” or God’s name more often than necessary. A practicing Jew today may still not say God or even write out the word God. So that is why Matthew calls the kingdom the kingdom of heaven and the other Gospels, which were written to Gentile audiences, use the phrase kingdom of God.
So John’s message is to repent because the kingdom of heaven (or God) is near. He is calling the Jewish people to repentance because they have the opportunity to join in now on this kingdom. They have the opportunity to sign up today for a new life that will extend throughout eternity. All they need to do is repent.
But what does it mean to repent? I think it would be easiest to begin by looking at what repentance isn’t. We often think of repentance as saying that you are sorry, or an admission of guilt. But that really isn’t repentance. I can say that I am sorry, but not really mean it.
I think of two little kids playing with blocks. We will call them Bobby and Billy. Bobby and Billy are building their own towers as high as they can. But Bobby gets upset that Billy has built a bigger tower than he has. So what does he do? Bobby goes and knocks down Billy’s tower and takes a few of his blocks away so that he can build his tower even bigger.
Well mom sees this and she isn’t going to let this go. So she goes and takes Bobby by the arm and guides him to the corner, or time out, or the naughty stool, or whatever form of punishment seems to be in vogue at the time. And she says, “You must sit here until you tell Billy that you are sorry.”
Bobby sits there a few minutes and he starts wishing that he could be back there playing with the blocks. So he goes up to Billy, and says as loud as he can so his mom can hear him, “Sorry!!” and goes back to playing with the blocks.
Repentance isn’t just saying that you are sorry so that you can get something in return. Even in a religious setting. We have probably all prayed something like, “God, I’m sorry that I cheated on my taxes. Now can you help me get this pay raise?” Repentance isn’t a bargaining tool.
Repentance means truly being sorry and making an effort to change. Verse 8 says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Produce fruit. Your repentance should produce fruit. Fruit is visible. Fruit is touchable. Fruit is healthy. Fruit is a good thing. When you repent, there should be some sign of a difference. There should be something visible, touchable, healthy, and good that results from repentance. It isn’t just recognizing that you have done something wrong. That is confession. Repentance isn’t just acknowledging that you have made a mistake. It is doing something to make it right, to change, or to prevent from doing it again. Repentance without a change isn’t repentance at all. It is confession.
Sonya and I went to the supermarket the other day and we found ourselves wandering down the aisle that contains the powdered drink mixes. Now I am not a real impulse buy kind of guy. I make a list before I go to the grocery store and I usually stick pretty close to that list. But when I found myself in the powdered drink aisle I was confronted face-to-face with temptation. I found Swiss Miss Marshmallow Lover’s Hot Chocolate. And if you know me, you know that I don’t have a sweet tooth. No, I have sweet teeth. I like hot chocolate (and cold chocolate), but I really like hot chocolate with marshmallows. So I bought a box of the Swiss Miss Marshmallow Lover’s Hot Chocolate.
Fast-forward to a chilly Wednesday evening and my sweet teeth are kicking it into high gear. So I go to the cupboard and pull out my box of Swiss Miss Marshmallow Lover’s Hot Chocolate and start the teakettle. I tear open the packet and dump all of the contents into a mug. Then when that kettle starts to sing, I pour that hot water into my mug and mix that liquid brown gold around and around.
But that is when I notice that something is missing. There isn’t a single marshmallow in my Swiss Miss Marshmallow Lover’s Hot Chocolate. None. I go back over to the cupboard to make sure that I had the right stuff, and sure enough, I had. I went back to my mug to make sure that the marshmallows weren’t just settled to the bottom or stuck to the sides, but there were none in my mug. Then I went to the trash can and withdrew the empty packet and looked at the writing. And it said on the packet, “This packet contains hot chocolate.” That was not helpful to me…at first.
Then I got to thinking. Hadn’t I separated two packets from each other? Didn’t I pull them apart, assuming that they were simply both packets of hot chocolate? I went back to the cupboard, pulled out the only single packet in the box, and guess what I found? An entire packet of marshmallows! That’s right, the Swiss Miss Marshmallow Lover’s Hot Chocolate mix has equal parts hot chocolate and marshmallows.
I think that it is pretty sweet to God when we confess that we have done wrong. But yet it is missing something. Confession alone is good, but it isn’t really what God wants. We need to open both packets. We need to confess and we need to make the effort to change. That is repentance. Repentance isn’t just something that you do with your head. Repentance is something that you do with your entire being. It will affect your life. If it doesn’t affect your life, then it isn’t repentance.
Every year around this time I start to get a little uneasy. And this year is no exception. I get a little uneasy because of what we have made Christmas into. How many of you have a calendar that is just packed full of “stuff” this December? Office Christmas parties, shopping, travels, shopping, programs, shopping, and the second job that you took on so that you can afford to do all of your shopping. We get so bogged down that we neglect the most important part of this season: Remembering the birth of our Lord and Savior.
Today I want to confess that I have at times been a part of the problem. And I do plan to do a fair amount of traveling and go to a fair amount of programs this year as well. Most people, I believe, would admit that they are a part of this problem of hyper-scheduling to the point that Jesus is put on the back burner. But I want to move past confessing and into repentance this year. How can we change, what can we change, to make things more worshipful this year? How can we make more time for family, for worship, and spend less time in line at the mall?
A youtube video recently went viral, which is the term that people use for when it spreads across the internet like a virus, of what at first seemed like any other day. The video shows a bunch of people shopping at a Macy’s department store in Philadelphia on a Saturday. This particular Macy’s has the world’s largest pipe organ inside of it and they have organ recitals every Saturday for the customers to listen to while they shop.
As the people go about their business, the organist begins playing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Then, without notice, people being singing along. Then more and more people join in, singing King of kings, Lord of lords. Hallelujah, hallelujah. It turns out that the Opera Company of Philadelphia had arranged for over 600 people from various local choirs to be there at that specific time for what they call a “Random Act of Culture.” As you watch the video, you see the choir members singing as they are dispersed throughout the crowd. Many of the choir members are wearing buttons on their shirts.
Then, as they continue through the song, you notice something. The people who moments ago were busy buying, browsing, and trying things on, stop everything that they are doing and they begin to watch the choir members. At one point you see a father holding up his little girl as she dances to the music. As the camera pans through the crowd you see the mouths of many people, shoppers and choir members alike, singing praises of hallelujah to the King of kings. If only for five minutes we see all of the commerce, all of the business, all of everything stops as the crowd joins in and sings, “And he shall reign forever and ever.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wp_RHnQ-jgU
My friends, I know that those people went back to shopping after the song was over, but for those five minutes, we see what repentance is. Repentance isn’t just confession. It is aligning your heart, your head, your soul, your desires, all of your being with the will of God. Repentance means a change has taken place. Repentance is when we lay aside the things that compete with God and sing out Hallelujah, hallelujah, forever, and ever.