Be Prepared! Matthew June 24, 2012

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1 Be Prepared! Matthew June 24, 2012 Introduction: Way back in the day I was a Boy Scout. I can remember donning my dapper brown Scout uniform and working very hard at earning merit badges. To do so, I had to learn various and sundry things such as how to tie a fisherman s knot, how to use Morse code, and how to properly build a fire. And why did the Boy Scouts have me learn all of these wonderful things? Well, my handy-dandy Boy Scout Handbook summed it up for me in the words of the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. As a Boy Scout, I was to be prepared for anything that came up. If I might quote from the latest edition of the Handbook, it says, The training you ll receive in your troop will help you live up to the Scout motto. When someone has an accident, you are prepared because of your first aid instruction. Because of lifesaving practice, you ll [be prepared] to save a nonswimmer who has fallen into deep water and so on The Boy Scouts were to prepare me for all of life, whatever the situation might be. Our passage today focuses on John the Baptist and in a way you could view him as sort of a first century Scout Master but without the khaki shorts. John s motto for his ministry was the same as the Boy Scout motto: be prepared! But John s goal was not to prepare people to become good citizens or better campers; John the Baptist was calling people to prepare their hearts for the coming Messiah. Jesus was just about to begin his ministry and it was John s calling to prepare people for it. So as we look as this section of Scripture this morning, I think we can sum up what this passage is all about simply like this: Main Idea: John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus. As we consider how John does this, we ve going to look at three aspects of John the Baptist that come out of our passage: first we ll consider, John s manner, second John s message, and third, John s Messiah. But to begin, let s open up our Bibles to Matthew 3 and read through the whole passage together. Again, we re in Matthew 3 and I ll be reading v from the ESV. In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when 1

2 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. 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. 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. 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 with fire. 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. So let s begin now by first considering 1. John s manner (v. 1-6) The impression you get of John the Baptist from these verses is that he s probably not the kind of guy you re going to invite over for a polite cup of tea. He s more of a rugged, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is sort of fellow. If I might utilize some of my favorite TV shows from the 80s, I imagine John the Baptist as a cross between Grizzly Adams and Mr. T: I pity the fool who messes with John the Baptist. You get the idea that s he s a rough and tumble wilderness guy by what he wears and eats. Matthew tells us in v. 4 that he, wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Now besides making him the most likely candidate to win on the television show Survivor, these details show how John was following in the footsteps of Elijah. In 2 Kings Elijah is described like this, He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist" (1:8). Sound familiar? Later on Jesus will identify John as the Elijah who was to come, but Matthew is beating him to the punch right now with this description. As readers we re supposed to recognize that John is following in the footsteps of the prophets; after 400 years of prophetic silence, a prophet has come on the scene. As has been Matthew s custom, he points out how the people and events of his gospel are in fulfillment of prophecy. He mentioned the prophet Isaiah in v. 3 saying that John is, The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. The arrival of John the Baptist as predecessor and herald of the coming Messiah is also part of God s plan, predicted hundreds of years earlier. John is a prophet who was prophesied about and who is now having an active ministry down by the Jordan River. This in turn draws a huge crowd. Matthew tells us in v. 5 that people from all over Jerusalem and Judea were making the hike out into the wilderness to see what this was all about. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that John was drawing so many people out to see him that Antipas, one of Herod s sons who ruled after his death, had some concerns about the crowds turning into an uprising (France 107). So John is crazy popular: his Facebook page has well over 10,000 likes and everyone in Judea is following him on Twitter. He s a really big deal. 2

3 We ll get to the details of his message in a moment, but for now unique thing about John is not so much what he s saying as what he s doing. He s known as John the Baptizer because he yep, you guessed it baptized people. Now baptizing people wasn t in itself anything terribly unusual. At this time baptism was frequently used as an initiation rite into certain religious groups. In fact, Jews would baptize Gentile proselytes for admittance in Judaism. This in turn makes John s baptism all the more startling: John was baptizing Jews. You know, Jews, the chosen people of God. What this insinuated then was that simply being Jewish was not enough to be part of God s people. John was calling the Jews to undergo an inner moral transformation. They were to cleanse themselves of their sin through repentance and demonstrate that through the visual sign of baptism. So with that, we need to get into what John s message was. As a voice crying out in the wilderness, what was he proclaiming? To answer that, let s consider our second point this morning, 2. John s message (v. 7-10) In short, Matthew sums up John s message in v. 2, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. John is calling people to turn from sin because God s rule through the Son of David, the promised Messiah, has arrived. This gets fleshed out for us in Matthew s report of John s response to the religious leaders starting in v. 7. We re told the Pharisees and Sadducees also had come out to see John and to be baptized by him, although judging by John s response, they weren t being sincere. Either they were coming out to check on him and challenge him, because as we know from Jesus experience they were less than thrilled when someone starting gathering a following (since that would be taking away from their popularity with the people), or they may have been going out to be baptized in order to demonstrate how spiritual they were; it was an act of public piety done so their righteous deeds could be seen by men (something Jesus chastises them for later on). Either way, John recognizes their motivations aren t genuine, so he blasts them, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. This is not how to win friends and influence people, at least not in a popular self-help sort of way. Needless to say John is not going to be starting a seeker-sensitive church anytime soon. So why does John insult them by calling them a brood of vipers? Why be so harsh? It s because of what he says in v. 8. They need to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. If they were genuinely repentant, they d demonstrate it by their actions. Instead, they mistakenly thought they were secure in God s good graces by virtue of their relationship to Abraham. They thought by being Jewish by birth, they were sitting pretty in the eyes of God. Of course, John knows on what they are resting their assurance on and he calls them out on it in v. 9. Look there with me. 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. 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. 3

4 John s not out there playing games. He s not interested in telling people how they can have their best life now or how they can become a better you or any other such nonsense. He s got a serious job to do: he needs to call people who are self-secure, self-righteous, self-serving, who vainly believe that God accepts them on the basis of who their father was he is calling them to repentance so that they can be prepared for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus said that it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. What John the Baptist is doing in helping people recognize that they re sick: sick from sin. Sin is like a cancer and it is killing us from within. The cancer of self-righteousness, of self-sufficiency, of self-love, of the selfish pursuit of good things that become ultimate things and therefore idols of our heart John is calling people s attention to that in as stern and direct words as possible. He s not going to pull any punches in his message because unless people can recognize their sickness, they ll never seek out the cure. John s the doctor saying, Your cancer of sin will kill you, so that when Jesus comes as the cure, people will be ready to receive him. So let s make some applications to us. To begin with, let s discuss the issue of faith as a birthright. The Jews thought because they had Abraham as their father they we re in; we sometimes do the same thing. Maybe you think because you re the son or daughter of a pastor or of a missionary, you ve covered. Since dad s serving in the ministry, God must really like me because I m his kid. Or more commonly, maybe you think that because you ve attended a church when you were a kid that automatically makes you whatever it was that the church was; you grew up going to a Lutheran church, so you re Lutheran. You grew up in a Baptist church and attended their VBS every summer so you re a Baptist. So instead of guilt by association we have innocence by association. Since I have an association with a church or with a godly parent, I m therefore in the club. Just as being born in the United States automatically makes you a citizen, being born into a Christian family or raised in a church must automatically make me a Christian, right? Wrong! Genuine faith demands genuine repentance and genuine repentance shows itself by a genuinely changed life. John uses a tree as an analogy. How do we know a tree is alive? It bears fruit. How do we know it s not alive? No fruit. Come spring, when other trees are budding, nothing happens. Middle of summer, it looks as barren as it did in December. In fall, when apples and pears are ripe for the pickin elsewhere, the tree is the same as it ever was. No fruit, no leaves, no nothing. It s a dead tree and eventually the ax will come and chop it down to be used for firewood. That s what we re like: trees. You know someone is spiritually alive by the fruit of repentance you see. Genuine Christians feel remorse for their sin. They re willing to confess when they re wrong. They struggle against temptation and strive to live in obedience to God. They recognize they re sinners and have earned nothing from God other than punishment for their wickedness and rebellion. Conversely, pretenders don t struggle with sin because they aren t particularly bothered by it. They won t admit to wrong-doing. They ll blame everyone else for their problems. They re full of pride and a sense of superiority over others. 4

5 The question for each one of us is: what does the fruit of your life look like? Are you baring fruit in keeping with repentance in the here and now or are you trying to cost based on who your parents are or where you went to church 25 years ago? You can t repent vicariously through others you need to do it, on a regular basis, bearing fruits in the here and now keeping with repentance. As a pastor, I m not all that interested in what you did when you were six or how your parents took you to church every Sunday as a child: that s all fine and well, but the real question is, What are you doing right now? What evidence can be shown over the past weeks or months that you re truly repentant of sin and striving to live in obedient faith in Christ? True repentance manifests itself not just in words but in deeds in the here and now it actually tries to stop sinning rather than continuing to run head-long into it. Furthermore, one need also ask, why are you repenting? The Pharisees were coming out to see John and perhaps even to be baptized, but their motivation was likely in part to be seen by others as holy people. Anything that made them appear more pious in the sight of the masses was worth doing, so if they could attach themselves to a rising star like John and be baptized by him, well then, all the better for their reputation. That might look like repentance from the outside, but it s not because it s entirely self-serving. For them, repentance was a means to an end to please people and not an end to itself, which is to have genuine contrition for sin before God. The reality is some people come to Christ for all the wrong reasons. Children say the prayer because they want to please their parents. People walk down the aisle at a Billy Graham crusade because they feel social pressure to do so because they don t want to be the only one left sitting in their row. Other people make deals with God out of fear: they promise to live better if only God would save them from some physical danger or illness that s threatening them. That s not repentance from sin: it s peoplepleasing and plea-bargaining. I m not saying that happens with every child or at every evangelistic revival meeting, but it does happen. Genuine repentance isn t concerned with how one appears to others or whether God will keep his end of your bargain; it s about realizing that you have offended a holy God with your sin and being willing to acknowledge your sin for what it is, feel remorse over it, and desire to put that sin to death and live righteously, no matter what people think of you or whether God gives you the health and wealth you think is coming to you. John was calling people to real repentance, repentance that bore the fruit of a life lived differently as a result. For without any recognition of one s sin first, there could be no subsequent recognition of the Savior who was soon to come. And speaking of the Savior that John was preparing the way for, let s turn our attention now to the last point of this morning s message, which concerns 3. John s Messiah (v ) After calling people to repent and be baptized, John comments about the one whom is to come. Look back at v with me. 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 with fire. His winnowing 5

6 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. John identifies three things about Jesus in these verses. First, he compares himself with him. He says that the one who will follow him is mightier than he, so much so that he is not worthy to even carry his sandals. To take off the sandals of a person was considered one of the lowest responsibilities a person could perform in the ancient world: as a result, it was only done by slaves. So for John to say that he isn t worthy to even carry Christ s sandals is to say that compared to the coming Messiah, he was less worthy than even a slave. John knows that even though he has scores of people coming out to see him and that right now he s a really big deal, he s nothing compared to the one whom he s preparing the way for. Maybe there s something to be learned here in regards to respect towards Jesus. We can get a little too comfortable with Jesus and forget who were dealing with. On the one hand we can rightly sing, What a friend we have in Jesus, but we dare not forget our friend is also the Lord of heaven and earth, for whom and by whom all things were created. Jesus is not our buddy, our homeboy, or anything else that might give the impression that we are peers with him on equal footing. Expressions of intimacy must be balance with serious reverence; if John the Baptist can recognize the might of Jesus and his humble position before him, we would be wise to do the same. The reason why Jesus is so mighty such that John is unworthy to carry his sandals is demonstrated by the next two things John says about him. At the end of v. 11 he says, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John s baptism with water for repentance is fine and well, but it doesn t have the power to change hearts. But when Jesus comes, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire which is referring to the regenerating work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers. This of course was visually demonstrated at Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out on believers and was evidenced by tongues of flame resting on the heads of those who were present. Jesus was sending the Holy Spirit to transform hearts so that repentance would come from those who had been made spiritually alive. Thus while John s baptism in water was good in terms of preparing people for Christ, it didn t have the power to actually transform someone s heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh. The baptism Jesus provides does what John s baptism never could: it brings about the new birth through spiritual regeneration. But there is one more thing John the Baptist says about the coming Messiah that makes it clear that Christ is mightier than John or any other prophet before him. Look back at v. 12 with me. 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. John can call people to repentance and warn them of the wrath to come, but the one thing he cannot do is execute that wrath. That prerogative belongs to God alone and here John says that the Messiah will be the one who will carry out that judgment on the unrepentant. 6

7 What this means to begin with is John is rather explicitly attributing to Jesus the role of eschatological judge, a role reserved for God. Thus, John is communicating that Jesus is much more than a mere man: he is God, for only God has the right to judge mankind. So by including this account in his gospel Matthew is once again pointing us his readers to the divinity of Christ: Jesus is a man, flesh and blood like us, conceived in Mary s womb, but he is far more than that. He s also God incarnate who will judge the earth. Now the imagery used here is one that was very common to the people of Matthew s day but less common to us in our post-industrial society, so let me briefly explain. For a farmer to separate the useful wheat from the worthless chaff, he would take his harvest and dump it out on what was called a threshing floor. Then he would take the wheat and toss it up into the air, where the wind would blow the much lighter chaff away while the wheat would fall back down to the ground. Eventually the wheat grain and the chaff would be separated by this process with the chaff then burned up. The point then is this is what Jesus will do. Those who repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance are like the wheat: they will be gathered together and kept by the Lord. Those who do not repent are like the chaff: they are worthless and will be burned in what John describes as unquenchable fire which is referring to the fires of hell. And let s be clear here: Jesus does this. John states clearly here that he [Jesus] will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. So a couple of points of application for us: first, be careful not to over-emphasize one aspect of Jesus to the neglect of the other. What I mean by this is it s easy to focus on the parts of Jesus we like: Jesus as a little baby in the manger, Jesus who heals the sick and raises the dead, Jesus who takes on the religious establishment and stands up for the outcast, Jesus who willingly sacrifices himself on the cross. We like that Jesus. But there is more to Jesus than that: he is also the righteous judge whom we will all stand before and face his judgment: for those who in repentance turned from sin and trusted in him, persevering to the end, Jesus will count them faithful and invite them to enter into their rest; for those who rejected him, who loved their sin more than him, he will cast into the Lake of Fire for all eternity. Jesus is both Savior and Judge and we must be careful to recognize both and not just focus on the aspects of Jesus which appeal to us and avoid those which we find distasteful. Second, this passage is talking about you. When John says in v. 11 that, he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire he s referring to the two options that Jesus has for you. You are either wheat or chaff. You will either be gathered into the barn or you ll be burned with unquenchable fire. The difference between the two has to do with John s message of repentance: either repent of sin and trust in Christ or stay in your sin, reject Christ, and in turn Christ will reject you. There isn t any middle ground. John the Baptist s words are just as important for us today as they were for the Jews in the first century: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. 7

8 Conclusion So then I think it s rather appropriate to close this message by calling you to do the same thing John called people to do: repent and bear fruit keeping with repentance. I know many of you here have done this: you ve turned from sin and in faith trusted the gospel that says that Jesus died for your sin on the cross, and as he was raised from the dead so also shall you be raised to new life. And you ve demonstrated the genuineness of your faith by bearing good fruit: you ve turned away from the deeds of darkness and have daily surrendered your life to Christ, living in ever-increasing righteousness by bearing forth the spiritual fruits of peace, joy, love, patience, kindness, and more. But some of you haven t born fruit. Perhaps it s because you simply have never trusted in Christ as your Lord and Savior. You ve been living a life of sinful rebellion and haven t given God much of a second thought. But even more dangerous are those of you who are like the Pharisees: you go to church and you come from a religious background and even prayed the prayer years ago, but you re like a dead tree. You have no fruit. You look and act and speak just like the world. You may have been baptized in water at some point in your past, but you don t give a shred of evidence of having been baptized by the Spirit because there s no fruit: no sense of struggling with sin, no sense of sorrow or remorse for your actions, just an on-going, unrepentant, pride-fueled, self-centered pursuit of sin and wickedness without love for God or for others. Listen! The ax is at the root of your tree. You will be chopped down and throw into the fire, a fire that never ends, along with the devil and all his angels. God will not be mocked; you reap what you sow. So repent. Turn from sin and turn to Christ. Jesus suffered and died on the cross for your sins. The Bible says, For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus took the punishment you deserved: he became chaff so you might become wheat. Whoever would turn from sin and believe in him, following him as their Lord and Savior, God promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But you need to turn from the sinful life you have been living and follow Jesus in faith. If God is speaking to you right now through this message and you recognize your need to stop playing games and living life on your own terms, then would you join me in prayer? Let s bow our heads together and come before Jesus, the righteous Judge who is also our merciful Savior. Let s pray. This sermon was addressed originally to the people at Grace Brethren Church of Waterloo, IA by Pastor Rob Borkowitz. Copyright

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