Sunday, December 09, 2007

Repent! A sermon preached in Ballyward and Rathfriland on 9th December 2007. Matthew 3:1-12

A few weeks ago, we were coming out of a lecture in Trinity, when we noticed a lot of security around the campus. Being kind of nosy, we asked what was happening, and we were told that the King and Queen of Belgium were due to arrive soon. So we decided to wait around to see them. There were TV crews, a group of students dressed in the colours of the Belgian flag, security guards, police, the whole works. There was even a man with a hoover, sucking up the leaves from the courtyard!

Eventually, the police outriders on their motorbikes came through the front gate, with lots of cars in the convoy, and finally, the car carrying the king and queen themselves. How did we know to get ready to see them? The outriders were coming in front, preparing the way, making it was clear.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we encounter the ‘outrider’ in front of Jesus, preparing us for the coming of Jesus. That outrider was, of course, John the Baptist. He is even introduced to us in that way by Matthew. Look at verse 3: ‘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.’”’ (Matt 3:3).

Long ago, God had spoken through the prophet Isaiah, and had promised that before Jesus arrived, there would be a messenger, an outrider to prepare the way for him. We’re going to think about that voice in the desert, to see what his message was, the effects of his message, and what it means for us today.

So what was the message? What was the voice crying out? We see the summary in verse 2. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ Within the message, John tells us some news, and what to do about it. Notice that he says the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is near. The kingdom of heaven speaks of the kingship of God. God’s rule on earth is coming near.

The Old Testament prophets had spoken of how God’s king would come and reign. But from the time of Malachi, there had been four hundred years of silence from heaven. No king had come. Then suddenly, John appears on the scene and declares that God’s king is coming. What the people had to do was ‘repent.’

But what does that mean? Sometimes we use words in church that we think everyone understands, but because they’re used so often, we forget what it is all about. So I ask again, what was the message?

When John called out to the people to repent, he was calling them to turn around. It wasn’t in a Simon says kind of way, not a physical turning, but a turning of their ways. You see, they, like us, had been going in their own ways, doing whatever they wanted, running away from God.

John calls them, and us, to repent, to turn around; to stop going our own way and to turn and go God’s way. Imagine that I was heading to Dublin after church and set off in the car. But rather than heading for Banbridge, Newry and onto the new M1, I was going towards Belfast and on up towards Coleraine. Whenever I realised my mistake, I could either keep going the wrong way, or I could turn around, repent, and go the right way.

This is what John was telling the people to do. For so long they had been running away from God. Now he calls them to repent, to turn around, and go towards God.

So what were the effects of John’s message? If you remember that John was preaching in the desert of Judea (verse 1), out in the wilderness, then it may surprise you to read that ‘people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan’ (3:5). Despite the distance and inconvenience, people went to hear what he had to say.

More than that, they took on board what he was saying and obeyed him. As we read verse 6 today, we may not grasp the scandal of what’s going on there. It says this: ‘Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River.’

If a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, they would undergo a ceremonial washing, to purify them. This was their baptism. For a Jew, therefore, to be baptised was a scandalous thing. They were admitting their need of God, rather than dependence on themselves, or on their heritage.

The people confessed their sins, acknowledging how they had failed in the past, how they had gone their own way. Then they were baptised for repentance, a sign of washing, and a symbol of turning to God.

But notice that it isn’t enough just to be baptised; it isn’t enough to just repent. More than that, he urges them to ‘produce fruit in keeping with repentance’ (Matt 3:8). It’s not enough to just talk the talk, you also have to walk the walk.

This is what John is saying to the crowds, and to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to hear him. They thought that they were ok with God, because they were part of Abraham’s family. But John quite clearly says that what we do is as important as who we are. Look at verse 10. ‘The axe 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.’

Are you producing good fruit in your life? It’s easy to say that you’re following God, that Jesus is the Lord of your life. You might even think that because you have been baptised, that that is enough. Yet John says that God is looking for the fruit of repentance, for evidence of the changed life. Is it obvious to those around you that you have repented, that you have turned around? Can people who have known you for a long time, or even a short time, see that there is something different about you?

As we think of John’s words today, do you see the urgency of them? John was the messenger, the outrider, preparing the way for Jesus. He was calling people to be ready for Jesus. This is also what our season of Advent is all about. We’re preparing for Jesus’ coming – while we remember his first coming, we look to his second coming, as king and judge.

Look at verse 12. The image is of Jesus as a farmer, threshing the wheat. Just as David reminded us last week of the two destinations, heaven and hell, so John speaks of them here. ‘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.’

On that day of judgement it will be too late to change your mind, or to turn around and repent. Where we finish is determined by our course. Will you continue to set your own course, going your own way, running from God? Or will you hear and heed the words of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus – ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’

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