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Our Need, Articulated by the Last Old Testament Prophet

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Good morning! We’re walking through Advent together, beginning the new Christian year last week. And we’ve been looking at hope and its relationship to our need. Our hopes reveal can reveal our needs. The humble beginning of the Christian year points us again to see our need.
And in Advent we are grafted into the story and themes of the Old Testament. We walk in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear. We enter into the need and the waiting that we see undertaken by the Old Testament people of God. Our imaginations rightly see what the Old Testament people of God saw as they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. The Old Testament permeates the New Testament as well, with quotes, allusions, and themes, and here in Matthew’s Gospel, we see an Old Testament prophet, the last of the Old Testament prophets make an appearance. John the Baptizer. He’s a picture straight out of Israel’s history, in the flesh. And overwhelmingly, he’s bringing the bad news that makes the good news, good. While biblical hope can reveal our need, John is revealing a need, one that can only be truly met through Jesus Christ: the need to get right with God. To turn, repent, and live a changed life.
Even the setting of John’s preaching makes us think of judgment, and lostness. He’s in the wilderness. For Matthew’s primarily Jewish audience, the wilderness would fire off hopeless pictures of homeless wandering, the judgment for their sin. And on the verge of the Messiah’s appearance, the setting of the wilderness is apt. John’s message is not, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” however true that might be. His message was “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For those of us who have walked in the church long enough, these words, at times, have probably turned into Christianese or code. Repentance might just feel life the prayer of confession we say here every week, and at home every day. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” might be reduced to “God is near.” But there’s more here than Christian shorthand. Imagine Bellingham being invaded by the spiritual kingdom of heaven. John’s hearers share something in common with us. They were not worthy to be in the presence of the kingdom of heaven, not by themselves, not with their own state of things. The prospect that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, might seem like the rewards, the streets of gold, all striving ending are almost here. But to John’s hearers, what is likely more in mind is that something holy is coming and we are not holy. And when that holy thing, that holy one arrives, it burns up, it devours what is unholy. If it were the other way around, John would say “Rejoice, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But that first word is important, and John is proclaiming repentance. Holiness is coming. You are unholy. You need to prepare yourself.
Just like a time traveler, one of the Old Testament prophets is plucked out of the past and dropped into the first century. It would be like an Elizabethan-era Anglican priest wearing robes and vestments giving a sermon here this morning. OK, bad analogy, but you get the idea. John looked the part of the Old Testament prophet. He dressed like one, he spoke like one, he ate like one. John was an anomaly. An appearance of a species thought to be extinct, a Jurassic park dinosaur showing up in a new era, doing what Old Testament prophets do best. Matthew wants his hearers to know that John was special, that the prophets had returned to prepare the way for the Lord, and he was doing so with a call to repentance. Holiness is coming. You are unholy. You need to prepare yourself. Matthew returns to the setting. He points out that while it’s the wilderness, the place of wandering, it’s also at the Jordan river. The place of the point of decision. Is it time to leave the wilderness and pass through to a new life, or not? Is it time to take steps into the Jordan, as the Israelites did to end their desert wandering, and start living in the promises of God, or not? And there at the Jordan, people were confessing their sins and being baptized. They were symbolically being cleansed. They were there to repent, to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. These were special moments of spiritual importance. People were doing what they could to be changed, to move past their sins, and greet the kingdom of heaven at its impending arrival. There’s an innocence here, a purity. And while this holy moment is taking place for many different people, the religious leaders show up. And John was not relieved. He didn’t greet them as friends, his fellow workers in the mission of God on earth. No, he says the following:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Wrath was coming. The kingdom of heaven was coming. And John was offering a way to prepare. And he did not trust the Pharisees and Sadducees. The religious elite had gotten it wrong. They were leading people astray. They had people focusing on minutiae instead of on what really mattered. For one of them to see clearly enough to repent, to recalibrate their hearts to the true things of God seemed impossible to John. But he uses their appearance to speak more of his message to everyone there, and to us:
Mat 3:8 “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
It’s almost like he was giving more of a warning to everyone else there, don’t let your new repentance slide into what the religious elite have become. If you’ve truly repented, it should show up in your life. People should be able to tell. People who have experienced true repentance don’t try to find a worldly angle in order to benefit. Here’s an example of the kind of thing that can happen. Eventually, people started to worship Moses’ bronze serpent. The one where God saved the Israelites who were being attacked by snakes in judgment. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and people would only need to look up at it from their misery to be saved. Well for generations, they kept the serpent and some of them started treating it with too much reverence. They treated it like a god, and gave it a name, and started worshiping it. After a pure moment of repentance. After a moment of gracious deliverance from God, the human heart falls out of calibration and alignment with God. We stop seeing him for who he is. We become religious leaders and we focus on our own pet projects and we raise the level of their importance. Good things become ultimate things (as Tim Keller puts it). And if things get bad enough, we find ourselves worshiping bronze serpents and encouraging others to do the same. So be careful. Repent and then keep your heart and mind aligned by continually looking to God and seeing him as he is, and then after repenting, you’ll be able to continually bear fruit of repentance. Maybe John’s words had an effect on one of the religious elite. God knows. But John goes on. He wants us to know that we aren’t able to rest on anything that we think makes us special. John continues:
Matthew 3:9–10 ESV
9 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. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Our heritage, our ethnicity, our social class, is not important. God made you out of dust and he can make someone else do whatever you’re doing, whatever I’m doing, to justify ourselves in our own minds. If we think that our unique contribution to the good of the order means that God owes us something, it’s just not the case. Our giftedness, our specialness, whatever it is, is not what makes God love us. He can definitely make a better preacher than me, and has. He can make a better singer, leader, sound guy, vestry member, bishop, pilot, astronaut, doctor, whatever it is. God doesn’t owe us for our specialness. He can raise up our specialness from a stone. John is saying that what God values, what he is looking for is evidence of true repentance. Evidence of turning away from our idols and turning toward God. Holiness is coming. We are unholy. We need to prepare. We need to see and treat God as he is and in doing so, see and treat everything else appropriately. When we do that we are bearing good fruit. But, if you’re like me, you’re like John’s hearers, you know your inability to keep it together, to see God clearly, to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. You hear John’s message and you know that it’s right, but you don’t know how you’re going to pull it all off. The answer is coming, but John presses even harder.
Matthew 3:11–12 ESV
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier 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 and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
From our perspective, knowing Jesus, who he is, that he is gracious and cares for us, we might be relieved to see John finally speak about Jesus. But we are probably looking at John’s words with 21st century eyes. John is still talking about judgment.
John doesn’t speak about someone “more loving than I,” but someone “mightier.” The one to come will not baptize merely with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
One who wields the Holy Spirit and can baptize with fire, is definitely more mighty than John. He’s going to clean house. He’s going to look at us and see whether we are wheat or chaff. And with the Holy Spirit and with fire, he’s going to set things right. The chaos is going to end. The half-truths are going to be sifted. We will all be baptized with fire. Those who know God as he is and conform their life accordingly are going to stand firm in judgment and be gathered in, while those who fall away will also be baptized with fire.
And so we see an interesting thing about fire, about the Holy Spirit, about the kingdom of heaven which is at hand, is that they have one effect on some, and the opposite effect on others. When we think about baptism in the Holy Spirit and with fire, we might think of Pentecost. There the Holy Spirit shows up and fire descends on the disciples and rests above their heads. Their heads don’t get burned up. And in the fiery furnace, the friends of Daniel are very literally baptized with fire. They are submerged in fire, but they are not burned up, while the guards standing nearby perish. The burning bush, was on fire, but did not burn up. The Holy Spirit brings comfort to the faithful, but convicts us when we’re on the wrong track. He gives saving faith to those God has chosen, but withholds it from those he has not. And when the kingdom of heaven comes, it will be a comfort to some and a terror to others. John’s challenging words reveal the importance of getting right with God. He gives us a picture of Jesus, one of his many facets, that shows us that when he comes, he is going to accurately judge all of us, the whole world. And so we see a picture of Jesus coming in the moment right before he arrives. And we are humbled, and encouraged to repent.
This moment is not the whole picture of who Jesus is and what he will accomplish. We learn more as we read on about the grace of Jesus, how he heals the broken. Jesus himself reveals his love for us and for the world. But the last Old Testament prophet shows us the need to get right with God. John didn’t yet know how. The narrative hadn’t yet unfolded. We learn that to get right and stay right with God is impossible by ourselves. It’s impossible without the death of Jesus taking our sins onto himself. Here at the Jordan, with John, on the second Sunday of Advent, our need is laid bare. We are in need. But we know from our vantage point that our need will give way to hope. Rescue is coming. If we only look upon Jesus and trust him, we can find ourselves bearing the fruit of repentance, having changed lives, and on the last day making it through the fire we will all pass through.
So in the season of waiting and preparation, we must remember how great our need of a savior really is. There’s a lot at stake with the kingdom of heaven at hand. A big change was about to come to John and his hearers. The needed way through the coming judgment was about to arrive. It does. It will. And it can be ours even today as we prepare. Our need and our hope work in concert, moving our hearts and minds into right worship of God and rightly calibrated lives. So with Isaiah and with John let us prepare the way of the Lord, in our own hearts, through repentance, and let us share this hope, and this need, with the world.
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