This is a copy of my talk given at the 8.30 am service on the second Sunday of Advent 2022 (4 December) at Emmanuel Church, Billericay. The Bible Reading was Matthew 3:1-12.
This season of Advent reminds us that Jesus is coming again. And his next visit will be the end of history as we know it. John the Baptist is on a mission to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the promised messiah. And his message is if you are not ready then you will be in terrible dire straits if your heart is not right when he comes.
And although we live some 2000 years after John preached in the desert of Judea, his message is still relevant for today. Here John pleads with us to do some serious soul searching. Because, as we’ll see, it’s possible to think you are ready for His coming and yet to be totally unprepared for his arrival. So, let’s turn to John’s message to see what he tells us about the coming Messiah.
1) God’s Promise Is Kept (vs 1-5)
The first part of John’s message is that God’s promise is kept. Let’s have a look at verse 1: “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.’
The last prophet to come to the people of Israel with a message from God had been Malachi. And that was about 400 years before. And his message had been very hard hitting to the lax and lethargic people of his day. And part of his message had been looking forward to a future time when God would send a messenger who would prepare the way for God himself to come.
Malachi 3:1: “See I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his Temple.” And who would be that messenger? Well Malachi made it clear in chapter 4 in his final words: “See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” Those were Malachi’s last words. Those were God’s last words. And then? Silence. God had not spoken to his people for 400 years.
But throughout those centuries there had been no shortage of expectation, and especially in the decades before John turned up because more recently the Romans had come and taken over Israel. And the people of Israel longed for the promised liberator to come. They longed for God to keep his promise of 400 years and come to rescue them And so the prayer continued: Lord when are you coming? Lord why don’t you say something?
So, you can imagine the excitement when a prophet appeared in the desert, the place where prophets normally were. And this man even looked like Elijah! That’s why Matthew mentions his clothes and his food. Verse 4: “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.” He wants us to see that John the Baptist is in Elijah’s mould. He’s a prophet come to speak God’s words to a people who had not heard anything for 400 years. And what does he say? “Repent for the kingdom of God is near!”
And if we are in any doubt as to what Matthew means, he quotes from the OT prophet Isaiah which confirms our suspicions: “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.'”
Now this is a different prophecy to Malachi’s, but God is making the same point. A messenger will come who will prepare the way for the Lord. He will straighten out the paths. In ancient times, the roads would be straightened so that the coming of a King would not be delayed or hindered. And even in cities today you can see traces of past glories where kings or emperors have made long straight roads for them to parade into the city in all their pomp and glory. Cities such as Paris and Rome are good examples. John is the messenger who will straighten the road. He will prepare God’s people for Jesus’ coming.
And this prophecy in Isaiah 40 has an added thrill. Because it was originally written to the people in exile in Babylon. God had brought them back from exile, had comforted his people and ended their labour. But that was not the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy. Because now Matthew says that the messenger has come and is announcing the coming of the Lord. And it means that the people’s spiritual exile is over. It means the coming of Jesus, God with us, Emmanuel.
Verse 5: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.” They came from miles around to hear this prophet. Why? Because after all this time, God’s promise of freedom and forgiveness and liberation is being fulfilled. The ancient prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi are being fulfilled. After 400 years, God is speaking again.
2) God’s Challenge Is Issued (vs 6-9)
The second part of John’s message is that God has issued a challenge. In the light of Jesus coming, the people of God need to act and get ready. And that is always the case when Royalty turns up. You need to be ready. If you were to have a Royal visitor for tea, you’d probably have a good clean – you might even redecorate, you’d dust down the best China and make sure everyone was on their best behaviour. You get ready for the visit of Royalty. So, it is with the coming of King Jesus.
What is the heart of John’s message? Verse 2: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The king is coming. He is bringing in his new kingdom! So, repent! That’s how the people of God get ready for the coming King. They repent. And it was true for the God’s people then, and it’s true for God’s people now. But what does ‘repent’ mean?
If you look up “repent” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find this definition: “Repent: To feel deep sorrow about one’s actions, to wish one had not done something, to regret.” But actually, that is not the Bible’s way of understanding repentance. Repentance is not just saying sorry or feeling sorry for yourself. That’s only half the story.
Imagine that Paula and I are planning go shopping in Lakeside. It’s very hard for to imagine that, but let’s try and imagine it anyway. I drive down to the A127 and instead of going left on the M25 I go right towards the M11. And Paula says to me: “You’re going the wrong way. You’re driving away from Lakeside not towards it!” Now I could say at that point, “Oh I’m so sorry. I deeply regret my actions. I am weighed down with sorrow and woe by the fact that we’re driving the wrong way!”
Well, that’s all well and good and but it doesn’t make one jot of difference to the way we are going. No, I need to turn around and start going the other way. I need to take action. I don’t just need to think about it and feel sorry. Repentance is both a change of mind and a change of action.
It involves the mind and the actions. It’s not just saying sorry or feeling remorseful. And if you’re just feeling sorry for yourself and never do anything different, then you have not repented. That is what our passage teaches us.
a) Repentance: a change of mind. Firstly, repentance is a change of mind. Verse 5: “People went out to John from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” In the light of the coming King, the people confessed their sin. They had to have a change in their thinking. They had to acknowledge they were not in a fit state spiritually to welcome the coming Messiah.
They had to turn from self-sufficiency and saying they were essentially good people, to realise that they were not good enough for God. And the sign of that change of mind was to undergo baptism. Now this ritual in those days was reserved for non-Jews when they wanted to become Jews. It was for the pagans to have to go through. And it was a humiliating thing because you publicly acknowledged that you were a sinner and needed God’s forgiveness. And baptism symbolised the washing away of sin. So, it was this humbling public confession and watery sign that the people submitted to. And it’s the same for you and me today. If we want to start following this Saviour King Jesus, the first thing we must do is admit our sin. We need a change of mind. And that is a very painful thing to admit.
It’s admitting you cannot save yourself. It’s admitting you are helpless. It’s swallowing your pride and saying to God – I desperately need you to save me and forgive me. It involves first a change of mind. But if repentance were just that, then it would be as useless as me saying to Paula “I’m sorry we’re driving to Potters Bar instead of Lakeside” and doing nothing about it.
b) Repentance: a change of action. Secondly, repentance means a change of action. Have a look at verse 7: “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?” Now a changed life was precisely not what those men had. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious rulers of Israel. They were the ones who are supposed to lead by example and put their own sermons into practice. But did they? Well John calls them a “brood of vipers!” It’s hardly a complement, is it?
For John to call them out in such a way would have been quite a showstopper. He branded them a bunch of hypocrites. And what was their problem? Well, they talked a great game. They were brilliant at doing religion. They wore the fancy clothes, had that pious look and performed all the right rituals and said all the right things. They probably even confessed their sins. But was it genuine repentance? No. Because there was no change in their life.
Then we hear John’s challenge in verse 8? “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, repenting is not just about words, it’s about actions as well. You have not genuinely repented unless your changed mind leads to a changed life. And these men failed totally. And to cap it all, they trusted not in the grace and mercy of God but in their own religious heritage. They thought they were fine because they were Jews! But no, verse 9: “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.”. Your bloodline doesn’t help one jot. It’s about repentance in mind and actions.
3) God’s Warning Is Given (vs 10-12)
And that brings us to our final lesson from John and that is that God’s warning is given. Because John warns us that unless action is taken, unless repentance is genuine, then we will face very serious consequences.
Because King Jesus is not a king to be trifled with. He is not someone we can hoodwink. And he will expose all sham religion and hypocrisy. And John makes it clear in these final verses that Jesus is returning to carry out the judgement that he promised to bring. So, listen to the warning of 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.”
This King will throw out any tree that does not bear fruit. It’s like a farmer walking through an orchard and marking all the trees that haven’t borne fruit that year with a spray can. He marks them with an X. They are fit only for the fire because they are dead. And that is the dire warning that we need to listen to.
See how John goes on in verse 11: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit 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, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John’s point is that the coming Messiah is supremely more powerful than John himself. Jesus has the power to change the heart. He can give us his Spirit to change us and purify us. We can either bow the knee to him willingly today and allow him to do his refining work in our hearts. Or we can bow before him unwillingly on the day when we he comes again and face the fire of judgment.
But one thing is sure. We will meet king Jesus when he returns, and we need to be ready. And if you are not ready to meet King Jesus, if you have not yet repented, then can I urge you to think very seriously about what we have looked at this morning. And if we have repented, if we do love Jesus as our King, then you can be certain of his promises. He is faithful. And surely his coming will be a spur to us to continue to live a life of repentance, because when the King of kings comes to visit, everyone us must make sure we’re ready to meet him.
Just as Israel was ready for John’s news, I think the world has been ready for some good news for some time and like John, we should share it with others and not be afraid of doing so – especially over these next few weeks.