Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019
“I am the king!” New Testament professor Michael Wilkens shouted that proclamation to the surprised students in his classroom. Then he asked them what came to mind as he made that declaration. Think about it. When my first words were, “I am the king,” what, besides no you’re not ran through your mind?
Professors Wilkins writes that one student said, “King Arthur and the round table.” Another recalled that iconic scene from the movie Titanic and channeling his inner Leonardo DiCaprio shouted, “I’m the king of the world.” Maybe you thought of a movie like The King’s Speech, or The Lion King, or the last installment of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King. [i]
Wilkins’ point of course is that we have to think about what it is to serve a king if we are to read Matthew rightly. We Americans, with democracy deeply engrained in us, might find this difficult. John’s message is the kingdom of God has come near because of the arrival of Jesus – King Jesus. Wherever Jesus is the Kingdom is. John the Baptist told the people of the Judean countryside in about 28AD that the Kingdom of Heaven had come.
Matthew says in chapter 3 verse 3 that John is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Isaiah did not predict Jesus so much as Isaiah testified to what he saw God doing. That’s important to remember. Luther Theological Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis reminds us that Old Testament prophets were not forecasters, but truth-tellers. Matthew, writing hundreds of years after Isaiah, believed Jesus was fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision. It was true when Isaiah said it in the 6th century BC but ultimate, final fulfillment would not come until the Messiah came. John’s message was, the Messiah has come.
I thought about titling this message “Change Course and Don’t Look Back.” But that would make the emphasis on the change and why it’s irreversible. The heart of the message is God has acted and is acting. We want to see what God’s doing; we want to be part of it. So, yes, change is part of the good news. That change is irreversible. Once we come to know God in Jesus Christ, we are born again. We become new creations. We cannot go back to who we were before we knew Jesus. Now that we are in Christ our lives don’t make any sense apart from him. “Change Course and Don’t Look Back” is a good title.
But, this morning, it’s not the best title. The best is “Change Course and Eyes Forward.” We have to keep our eyes forward because the entire story is about what God is doing. The only way we see it and experience God and walk with God is to pay attention. Last week, reading Matthew 24, we heard Jesus say, stay awake and be ready. We have the eyes of our hearts open and focused on God. In Jesus God has acted and is acting. We want to see what God’s doing. But why the phrase “Change Course?”
John’s very first word is “Repent.” Simply defined, it means we turn away from our sins and from a life of sin. The charge, though, goes deeper. We’re sorry for rebelling against God. We regret sins we’ve committed that hurt others, those around us, and ourselves, and bring offense to God. Then, having expressed sorrow and brokenness, we completely reverse our life direction. Repentance is change from a life apart from God to a life yearning for God, dependent on God, and moving the direction God indicates along the path God clears.
When I went through army basic training, the goal of the drill sergeants was to fix in our minds a new way of thinking and being in the world. We hated all the push-ups. They yelled “Drop and give me 10,” as a discipline, but it also made us stronger. I’ve never been in the kind of shape I was in at the end of August, 1989. Thirteen weeks of hundreds of push-ups a day will transform your body.
Physical fitness was just the tip of the iceberg. If I came up to you and yelled, “Drop and give me 10,” you would look at me like I was crazy, and you certainly wouldn’t do push-ups because I commanded you to do so. But in the army, you have to know to obey orders. For one thing, it keeps the unit orderly and organized. For another, in combat, with bombs exploding everywhere, you have to obey orders immediately. It’s life or death.
Basic training is intense because they are trying to change who you are and how you see the world. Thirty years later I still have dreams that I am back in the National Guard. It is tattooed on my psyche. John’s call to “Repent!” is even more serious. When we turn away from sin and turn to Jesus, we abandon loyalty to systems, relational ties, and governments of this world.
Every time I say the pledge of allegiance, I have to have a quick conversation in my own mind. “Yes,” I tell myself, “I will serve my nation, the United States, and be a good citizen. But that loyalty is nothing in light of who I am in Christ. I belong to God as God’s property. How I live out my life roles as husband, father, pastor, friend, and American citizen is defined by who I am in Christ and every one of those roles is subservient to the claims God makes on me. When John says, “Repent!” that’s what he means. Change the course of your life so completely that you see everything in your life in light of Jesus and who you are becoming in Him.
It’s not easy. Roads in Israel in 28 AD were rocky, full of bumps and holes. The only time those roads would get clear was when someone extraordinarily important, royalty, was coming through. John the Baptist, a prophet in the true sense of the word, saw repentance as the clearing the road to our hearts so we’d be ready for the arrival of King Jesus.
Repentant, we quit behaviors that hurt others and offend God. We have to give up activities that tempt us to sin. We have to change the way we feel about people – even people who are evil to us. We have to make faith an active, daily priority in our lives. You know the things in your life that need to be jettisoned and the practices that need to be added so that you are attuned to God and alert to what God is up to. Change is not easy.
John’s baptism helps, but it’s not the baptism that would get us to the point we are completely turned to God. He immersed people in the water to symbolize that they were cleansed of sin. However, John the Baptist knew full well that people come promising they repented, were baptized, and as soon as they came out of the water, returned to behaviors God condemns. He was so aware of our tendency to choose our way instead of God's, he lashed out at religious leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees, who too often did this very thing (v.7). He told them that if their water baptism were to mean anything, they would need to bear fruits worthy of repentance. In other words, their lives would need to change and the change would be seen in how they treated people, especially poor, common peasants.
Among others things, John saw Jesus as a great divider. He referred to the practice of winnowing. The harvested grain would be in great piles and the harvesters would use pitch forks to fling it up into the wind. The useless chaff, the shell-likes husks, would blow away. The weighty grain, the “fruit” fell back to earth to be gathered and stored in the barn.
Jesus, says John, is holding his pitch fork. He tosses our promises of repentance in the air. He looks at our lives. Any empty faith words we speak float off and are ultimately burned as kindling. Our words that are anchored to a life of prayer, to acts of forgiveness, to service to our fellow humans, especially the poor and downcast – our anchored faith is gathered. This is the fruit that signifies our repentance has taken hold in our lives.
Can we, by the power of our wills, commit to such weighty, life change? No, and John knew it. That’s why his baptism was just the start. “I baptize you with water,” he said, “but the one coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (v.11). Just as we are immersed in water by John, we are immersed in the Spirit of God.
Have you ever sat at a campfire and watched the logs burn down? The wood changes, is consumed, and can never again be a log. Precious metals are refined by fire. It hurts, but also produces warmth and in refinement greater strength and beauty. Baptized in the Holy Spirit, we become something totally new and cannot go back to what we were. The reason John the Baptist flashes into the gospels unexpectedly and then is gone from it even more quickly is he’s not the story and didn’t want to be.
John drew everyone out of the cities to the wilderness, grabbed their attention, and then directed it to Jesus. Matthew, writing this story about 40-50 years after these events happened included John’s part but only to get us to Jesus. I have often wanted to do an extended study on John the Baptist, but each time I try, I realize he doesn’t want that. The gospel writers who present him won’t give that. This luminous time is John’s time and he uses his time to shine the spotlight on the arrival of the Savior, Jesus. That’s where John wants us to look.
I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but as we sing Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus, I invite you to turn from whatever you think, say, and do that hurts others and disregards God. Turn away from that and turn to Jesus. John the prophet, Matthew the storyteller, and I, a preacher descended from these giants, I, a miserable sinner who’s been saved by grace – we all shine the spotlight on Jesus so you’ll look there. In him, God is saving the world. You want to be part of that.
Next week, we start life as Hillside Church. A group of pastors I pray with met at our building this past Thursday and one of them said, as we prayed, that he sensed something. He sensed that God is acting, doing a new thing, and our launch of a new name is just the start! This is the beginning of us seeing what God is doing and joining where God is at work.
I don’t know your life’s direction. This is your time to change course and fix your eyes on God. Jesus’ arrival is a statement of God’s love for you. Give your life to Him.
[i] Wilkins, Michael (2004), Matthew: The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan (Grand Rapids), p.148.