Prepare the Way

Sermon 1728 Matthew 3.1-12 January 17, 2021

One of the advantages of a Sunday School curriculum is that you can follow along with the story of God’s people and the story of Jesus in a chronological order. First you have the baby Jesus being born, then he grows up, then you have the ministry of John the Baptist and then Jesus comes to be baptized and then he starts his preaching and teaching ministry until he is arrested, put on trial, crucified, buried and rises again. Children can follow a story line. They can remember from one week to the next where they are.

While the Church Year does pretty much the same thing from December to June when it comes to the story of Jesus, the ministry of John is misplaced. We talk about John the Baptist in Advent, December, as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas.

So, I am going to preach a sermon which is out of place today, since we are following along with the Sunday School stories. Today we have the story of John the Baptist at work. What does he tell us?

Prepare the Way

1. The Lord is coming (1-3, 11-12).

2. Repent (4-6).

3. Bear fruit (7-10).

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ 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 (1-3).”’”

I joked with the area pastors on Monday that everyone knows what season this is. “Epiphany!” one said with conviction. I said, “No, the playoff season!” For the meeting I was responsible for a sermon study for January 31st. The circuit pastor asked, “What Sunday is that?” I said, “The Sunday before the big one, January 31 is Pro Bowl Sunday.” Everyone in America knows the Super Bowl is coming and the next few weeks are the run-up to it.

God wants us to be even more tuned in to a different Big Day—Judgment Day, the day Jesus comes into our world as Judge and Deliverer for his people. He will judge the world with justice and he will take us to the home of righteousness where wicked men and demons can no longer threaten or harm us.

But we are not very good at long range planning. I always get a kick about the radio ads starting February 1. “Guys, Valentine’s Day is Sunday, February 14th this year. Don’t forget her.” It’s not like Valentine’s Day changes. It is always February 14, just like July 4th is always July 4th and, as the Beach Boys remind us, “Christmas comes this time each year.” Yet the jewelers keep paying to remind the young bucks that Valentine’s Day is coming. Get your tail down to our store and buy her a necklace or a ring! We forget. That’s why we seldom (in the old days) had fellowship functions in the first week of the month. People wouldn’t remember until they turned the calendar and, OOOPS! I forgot and now I don’t have time to get ready for it. That’s why I learned with ZOOM you have to send out a reminder the day before the class or meeting, and, I kid you not, fifteen minutes before on the day of for people to remember. We say “thank you” and “how considerate” when we receive such messages. But when God is reminding us, we say, “Nag, nag, nag!” We’ve got better things to do.

We don’t have better things to do. Not filing our taxes, not signing up for the vaccine, not responding to those pesky Car Fax emails to get our car’s oil changed or tires rotated. When Jesus comes he will take his believers to be with him in heaven, like a farmer harvests his wheat field and stores the wheat in the barn. When Jesus comes he will also, like an ancient farmer burned up the chaff and stubble in the fire, Jesus will condemn the unbelievers to hell.

Get ready for it, John tells us. Take it seriously. This cannot turn into the old “Dog ate my homework” excuse. There is no way this will be like those emails at work where, if you just ignore them long enough, someone else will take care of it. Prepare the way. The Lord is coming!

Prepare the way. Repent!

“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. 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 (4-6).”

Repent. The people of John’s day did. They came out to him. He didn’t come to them. They walked the fifteen miles over the mountains around Jerusalem and down into the Jordan River valley. They confessed their sins. They were baptized by John in the river. They received forgiveness.

That’s what repentance is, you know. Contrition, fear striking the heart so that we want to get rid of our sins, get rid of the shame, get rid of the punishment that is due us. Repentance isn’t some game of chicken we play with the Lord, saying we are sorry as we continue to hang on to the forbidden goodies we have broken so many laws and commandments to get, thinking that he will relent and not punish us. Repentance is sincere. The stink of sin is on us and we want to get it off. Repentance is urgent. The knife is in our back and it has to come out. That’s why John wore such simple clothes. He had better things to do than to catch up on the fashions at Macy’s. And that’s why he had such a simple diet. He ate what was at hand and that was that. No time for luxurious evenings spent on fourteen course meals with wine pairings

But repentance is more. It is faith in the forgiveness of sins. That’s why these people were confessing their sins. They believed God would forgive them. That was the whole point of John the Baptist’s work. For the sake of the Savior who was coming—“the kingdom of heaven is near”—God would forgive them their sins. There was faith that God was on our side, that God was with us, not against us. God was our friend, not our enemy. John’s message instilled that confidence in them that they could turn themselves in to God (confess their sins) and be forgiven, rather than be stomped out like a bug discovered in a midnight run on the refrigerator. If you want an example, look no farther than the contrast between Judas, who betrayed Jesus, and Peter, who denied Jesus. Judas did not believe God would forgive him, so he killed himself. Peter believed Jesus would forgive him and he wept tears of bitter repentance. Peter was right. “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22.32),” Jesus told Peter, as he predicted both Peter’s sin and Peter’s repentance.

Why do we repent? God knows what we have done. He knows everything. But a cold and premeditated “resistance is futile” attitude is not the reason we repent of our sins. We turn ourselves in to God, laying out what we’ve done, making no excuses for it and admitting we deserve hell itself for how horribly we have treated our Lord and the people he has put into our lives, we turn ourselves in to God because we have faith in him. We believe in him. We trust that, when Jesus died on the cross, he died for my sins. He died for your sins. By his blood we are washed clean of our sin. That’s what we want—forgiveness of sins!

Haven’t you ever come home after a hard day at work or after a Saturday tromping around on a hike or bent over that hopeless wreck of a car you bought thinking you could restore it, haven’t you ever entered the house longing for a nice, hot, long shower? Why does that sound so good to us? So we can get rid of the sweat, get rid of the grime. So wave upon wave of hot water relaxes our tense muscles and make our headache go away. If you believed that water coming out of the shower head was poison or was heated to near boiling so you would scald yourself and die if you stepped foot into that shower, you’d wall up the bathroom so no one would ever go in there again. You’d rent one of those porta potties and put it in your backyard. You’d take a bar of soap and go down to Lake Mead once or twice a month!

Faith makes repentance a washing of comfort and joy. Faith makes repentance work, not because faith is such a good work, but because faith simply receives all the good things the Lord wants to give us. Faith is me darting into the grocery store to pick up just two things, but then I remember the wife told me to get this and that and don’t forget those and pretty soon I don’t have enough hands. The smaller vegetables are dropping out of my grasp. A sharp-eyed stocker pushes up a shopping cart and says, “Here, let me help you,” as he takes some of the stuff out of my hand and puts them in the grocery cart. Now I even have room for ice cream and chocolate syrup! Faith receives the good things the Lord gives us. That’s the biggest part of repentance.

Prepare the way. Bear fruit. Repentant believers, however, weren’t the only ones coming out to John the Baptist.

“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? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 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. 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 (7-10).’”

How do you know repentance is real? How do you know faith is sincere? Faith bears fruit. Repentance changes lives.

Look why John rejects the Pharisees and Sadducees. It isn’t that he has a grudge against them. It isn’t a class warfare thing, like poor John in the wilderness envying the fat cat life of those doing well by doing good in Jerusalem. John has not been specially gifted by the Holy Spirit so he could discern what is going on in their hearts, though John is clearly condemning them for what is in their hearts. John is judging them by their fruits, by the works they are producing in their lives. John doesn’t go into it here. Matthew either assumes everybody knows what these guys are like or he’s anticipating Jesus’s last week on earth when he lets the Pharisees and Sadducees have it. And look at some of the charges Jesus will level against them. “You cross the seas to make one convert, and then you make him twice a son of hell.” “Everything they do is for men to see.” “Your vows are only good if you swear by the money in the Temple, rather than on the Temple itself.” “You concern yourself with tithing herbs, but don’t care at all about justice, mercy and faithfulness.” “Greedy.” “As your fathers murdered the prophets, you want to murder me.” I think that’s enough. Calling this gang a brood of vipers may be an understatement. But you don’t have to anticipate Jesus proclaiming seven woes upon the Pharisees and Sadducees to understand John the Baptist’s words. As a landowner wants trees that produce fruit, God wants his people to live godly lives. He wants us to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. A tree that doesn’t produce fruit is cut down for firewood.

Now, just turn that around and you will hear what your fellow believers heard when John spoke those words. By repentant faith, we are true children of Abraham. We believe in the same Savior he believed in. He trusted the Savior would come. We trust the Savior has come. Jesus is his name. By faith we do produce fruit. We live our lives fearing to fall into the devil’s temptations. We are disgusted just driving by some places where all sorts of lusts and vices are catered to for a price. We rejoice in good. We help those in need. We lift up hands in prayer for all people. Some of our grocery stores are pretty awesome with all the fresh fruit and produce they have. I don’t even know the name of some of the stuff. Jack fruit? What in the world is that? But the garden of the Lord, the lives of his believers, shows off more fruit than we can count or name. As new as every day, as timely as every opportunity, the faith God has put in the hearts of his people produces good works.

Prepare the Way

1. The Lord is coming (1-3, 11-12).

2. Repent (4-6).

3. Bear fruit (7-10).

That’s the way to get ready for The Big Day, the day Jesus returns. But it is also a great way to greet 2021, a year spent living in the Lord’s forgiveness, a year of thankfulness and praise, a year of doing so much good, it flows back to you many times over. Maybe this Sunday was a good Sunday to be reminded of the work of John the Baptist after all.

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