A sermon on Matthew 3:1-12
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 8, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Four hundred years….Four hundred years is a long time, isn’t it? That is about 13 generations passing by. Think with me for a moment about how long four hundred years is…and about the changes that occur over the course of 13 generations…
It was four hundred years ago that a small group of people established the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World at Jamestown, Virginia. You all know the story. During those first few years, the people of the colony overcame many different kinds of obstacles as they worked to carve out a place for themselves in the wilderness. A lot has changed since those first years at Jamestown. Nations that did not even exist back then are now among the most powerful nations on earth. The area around that first settlement has changed so much that those initial inhabitants surely would not recognize a thing…
It was four hundred years ago that a rather obscure actor, poet and playwright named William Shakespeare plied his trade in London’s theater district. In the ensuing generations, Shakespeare has become widely regarded as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—writers in the English language. His elegant way with words and his ability to tell a story with keen psychological insights has been a benchmark for writers ever since. A lot has changed in the world of the arts and theater since Shakespeare’s day. As all languages do, English has evolved over time. One has to wonder how much of our normal conversation Shakespeare would be able to understand today. And poetry and the dramatic arts have radically changed with the introduction of blank verse, method acting, improvised theater, and the invention of television and motion pictures to name just a few. One wonders what he would think about that. Lots of changes in the way we experience the dramatic arts since the days of Shakespeare at the Globe Theater…
It was four hundred years ago that the Authorized King James Version of the Bible was first published. Although it was not the first English translation of the scriptures, it soon became the most popular and the most influential translation in the history of the church. But since the introduction of the King James Bible, a lot has changed in biblical scholarship. New modern English translations have regularly appeared by the dozens. Older source materials than those which were available to the King James translators have since been discovered and incorporated into the work of translators. It is believed that these newly available resources bring us closer to what the original texts actually said. New ways of looking at the Bible and new frameworks for interpreting it have been developed. There
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have been lots of changes in the way we read, understand and experience the Bible in the four hundred years since the days that the King James Version was first published…1
After four hundred years, God spoke through a new prophet who called people to repentance. It had been that long since there had been a prophet with a word from God directed to the nation of Israel. That last prophet had been Malachi, who had delivered his message around 425 BC. And since then, there had not been a single word from the Lord—no word at all. As far as the people of Israel could tell, God had been quiet…and the silence had been deafening…
A lot had happened in those intervening four hundred years between Malachi and the beginning of the New Testament. Malachi delivered the message that the Lord had given him during the waning days of the Persian Empire. At that time, Persia controlled the land of Palestine and most of the ancient Near East. When the Persian Empire collapsed, the Macedonians under Alexander the Great swept through the land and occupied it. And when the Macedonian Empire fell into decline a few decades later, Israel was conquered by the Egyptians and then later the Syrians. There had been a civil war that briefly lifted foreign domination in the land. But afterward, the mighty Roman Empire conquered Israel and subjected the Jewish people to their rule. Each successive group of invaders brought with them different cultures, different customs, different laws, different religious ideas and different gods to be worshiped…2
Into this setting, God sent the man known as John the Baptist. Later on in Luke 7:28, Jesus would say of John the Baptist, “No one born of woman is greater than John.” Jesus obviously considered John to be the greatest of all the prophets. In Matthew 11:4, our Lord called John, “A prophet and more than a prophet.” Whereas God had sent prophets regularly to Israel to call the people back during Old Testament times, John was different than them. That he was the first prophet that God had sent to Israel in over four hundred years was remarkable enough. But his method and his message were even more startling…
I find it interesting to note that, as far as I can tell, most all of the Old Testament prophets proclaimed the message that God had given them in urban areas. I mean, that just makes sense, doesn’t it? If God has given you a message to proclaim, you would want to deliver it in places where the most folks can hear it, right? So that’s what they did, for the most part. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nathan, Elisha, Zechariah and most all of the other Old Testament prophets proclaimed their message primarily in the capital city of Jerusalem in the south or in Bethel in the north. Also, you may recall that God sent the prophet Jonah to go to preach in the city of Nineveh. The city of Nineveh is thought to have been the largest city in the ancient Near East at the time.
But John the Baptist did not do that. In this way, he broke the mold of the other prophets. He did not proclaim God’s message in a population center like Jerusalem or Nineveh. Instead he proclaimed
1 Jamestown was settled in 1607, Shakespeare died in 1616, and the King James Bible was published in 1611.
2 (Accessed December 5, 2019)
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it way out in the wilderness, in the desert wasteland to the southwest of Jerusalem. Nobody lived out there—nobody except perhaps a few hermits and some bandits who were hiding out from the authorities. That was all. You would think that preaching out in the wilderness would not be very effective. There would be no one to hear and no one to respond out there in the desert. But you would be wrong. The scriptures tell us that John’s message was so compelling that word spread like wildfire. Consequently we are told that people came from all over to hear him.
And what a message he gave. John the Baptist was not one to fool around with pleasantries. He did not beat around the bush. His message was all fire and brimstone all of the time. He said that if you didn’t shape up, then God would give you the ax just like a farmer would to a tree with the blight. Or if you continued to defy God’s laws, then you would wind up in the incinerator like the chaff of the wheat after harvest. He also said that you could not depend on your religious pedigree either. He declared that being a descendant of Abraham was worth nothing if you didn’t live right. So he told everyone that they better get busy turning their lives around and start doing what they knew was right…or else.
It is obvious that John did not have much patience with people who considered themselves to be religious either. We are told in this passage that a number of Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by him.
In Jesus’ day, it would have been difficult to find two groups of religious people who were more different than these. They despised each other. (They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Sometimes that is just as true for religious people as it is for politicians—that religion sometimes makes for strange bedfellows. Or at least it seems that way.) It’s kind of like the clash between religious liberals and conservatives in our day. That members of both groups apparently came to John together at the same time was a remarkable event in itself. It speaks to the universality of the truth of his message. It was a message that spoke to the hearts of both liberals and conservatives…
But John was unimpressed with these religious guys. Instead of being welcoming them, John did just the opposite. He called them all—both liberals and conservatives—a bunch of snakes. He added that God’s wrath was kindled against both groups. That was certainly not very gracious or politically correct of him…We are not told how many of them responded…
In addition to his message of repentance, John knew that his message had something of an expiration date. That’s because he knew that he was to prepare the people for the arrival of God’s Son and the coming of God’s kingdom. He was well aware of this part of his mission. He told the people that he was not even worthy enough to unite the shoelaces of the one who would come after him. And he let the people know that the Messiah was on his way…
We can better understand the lasting impact of John the Baptist’s ministry if we consider another story that occurred years after John had been executed by Herod. In Matthew 21, Jesus had entered the city of Jerusalem for the last time. He immediately went into the Temple and ran out the
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moneychangers and the merchants, overturning tables and chasing them with a whip. And then he taught the people and healed those who are sick and infirm.
The chief priests were understandably unhappy with these actions and teachings of our Lord. So they confronted Jesus and asked him in front of the crowd, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Sensing a trap, Jesus responds to their question with a question of his own. He replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, then I will tell you by what authority that I do these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?”
We are told that the chief priests discussed it among themselves saying, “If we say from heaven, then he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ And so they gave Jesus this answer, “We do not know….” This demonstrates that John the Baptist was still very much in the hearts and minds of the people, even years after his death…
The essence of John the Baptist’s message, as portrayed in all four of the gospels, can be summed up in verse 8. Verse 8 says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” That was his message in a nutshell…
Repentance is a good church word that we do not hear very much anymore. At least not as much as we used to. But repentance is an essential ingredient of the gospel message. The Greek word translated in Matthew 3 as “repentance” is the word metanoia. We often think of repentance as saying that we’re sorry about how we’ve acted or what we have done. And that is true. That is certainly a part of what it means. It is an important part. But it is only a part. It is only half of the picture of what repentance really is…
At its core, metanoia means to do an about face…to change one’s direction…to do a 180° turn with one’s life…Repentance is more than just saying that one is really and truly sorry about having done something wrong. That is the starting place for repentance, but it goes much further than that. Repentance is really about starting over…taking another direction…charting a different course. In repentance, we call into question our current behavior and attitudes. The emphasis of repentance is not so much that are we doing wrong right now. Certainly we want to stop doing those things which damage our relationship to God and to others. Instead, repentance is more about doing what is right…doing what is important…and doing what is necessary in the future. Repentance without a change of attitude and outlook is not really repentance. That is just making an apology for doing something wrong. And just an apology without a commitment to change is insufficient to make us right with God and with one another.
Here’s the thing about repentance…and this is really the main point that I hope you will take away from this morning’s sermon: Repentance is hard work. Effecting true change in one’s life is
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almost impossible to do without help. And for the follower of Jesus, that help is to be found in the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit in our lives.
The beginning of the New Year is approaching. It is less than a month away. Every year lots of people make “New Year’s Resolutions”—things that they wish to change about themselves…things that they wish to do differently in the coming year. From time to time, I have made New Year’s Resolutions about all kinds of things and I bet that you have too. In those years when I have decided that I am going to get back to the gym, lost some of this extra weight that I carry around and get more fit, I notice that there are a lot of people who have that same desire. In the first few weeks of January, the gym is crowded. The weight room is packed. The walking and running track is filled with people with the same goals that I have. Even at 6 am in the morning.
But you all know what happens next. By the end of January, I discover that the gym is no longer as busy as it once was. Fewer people show up early in the morning. For whatever reason, they lose their motivation and they come less frequently. Soon they stop going altogether and they find themselves back in the same place that they were before they made their resolutions. It happens every year without fail…
Something like that also happens in the life of the Spirit. We make our resolutions that we are going to live a more Godly life. That’s a great thing to do! That is something that we should do. We decide that we are going to be more kind to others. We decide that we are going to reach out to others with the message of Christ. We decide that we are going to be more faithful in our church attendance and in our giving. We decide that we are going to make more of a difference for the Kingdom of God in our interactions with others on a daily basis. And sometimes we do for a short time…or sometimes for even a longer time. But when we try to do these things in our own strength and power, more often than not, we soon grow weary of those things. They become tiresome to us, and we find it easier to ease up a bit…and then ease up a little bit more…and then ease up a little bit more until we discover that we are back in the same place as before we made our resolution.
The human heart must be changed in order to make some real changes in our lives…and consequently in the lives of others. This is what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote in Romans 12:1-2, “In view of God’s mercies, offer yourselves as living sacrifices that are holy and pleasing to God…Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
That’s what the job of the Holy Spirit is in your life—to renew—to create anew—your mind. The Spirit does this in order that you may do what God wants you to do…that your life might be pleasing to him. In fact, Paul says in this passage that our entire lives then become an act of worship before God—worship that is pleasing to him. Such a life is the fruit of true repentance before God. It does not make any sense to expect that things will change without a transformed heart. That is true of whether we are talking about long, ingrained habits that we have adopted…or larger issues such as racism, sexism,
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addictions, or anything else that makes us less than what God intends for us to be. The heart must be changed before we can make a real difference.
Hear again the words of John the Baptist from this morning’s gospel reading, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” As we continue our Advent Journey together and as we move toward celebrating the birth of the Christ Child, this is my prayer for you…and my prayer for me as well…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.