The story of John the Baptist figures very heavily in the story of Jesus’ birth. It is impossible to get through the Christmas story without mentioning this fiery country preacher. In the four short weeks of Advent (the season in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus) two Sundays are given over to John. This week we hear a short section of his preaching; next week we will learn of his attempts to determine whether or not Jesus is truly the Messiah.
John is very important in the story of Jesus’ birth. He is the messenger who comes before Jesus in order to prepare his way. He is the herald who announces that the Son of Man is coming. He is the first act of the one-two punch which stirs the Judean countryside and causes alarm among the civil authorities.
And yet, there is something very different about the message of John and the message of Jesus. They are interrelated, but they are not the same. Jesus came to remove our sins. John’s role was to make us aware of just how sinful we can be.
I want to be very careful, from the outset, to point out the reason for discussing this difference between John and Jesus. It is important to note the difference so that we can dispel the false notions which would have us believe that confessing our sin is all that is necessary. Too often, in our good southern churches, we have heard a continuation of the preaching of John the Baptist. What we Christians ought to be hearing is the message of Jesus.
John convicts us of our sin; Jesus – by his death and resurrection - proclaims our forgiveness.
When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, the message he proclaimed was a call to repentance.
The scriptures contain very little of his actual sermons, what we get are a smattering of phrases and comments. But these are enough for us to realize that John's message was not a pleasant one. He came with a word of warning, a word of judgment, a call to accountability. John, through his preaching, delivered a message, a notice, that Jerusalem and all of Judea must acknowledge their sin and returned to God.
The word that is used by John is "repent." The baptism he offers is a “baptism of repentance”. To repent is to turn around. It is to go in the opposite direction from the direction our current course would take us. To repent is to identify where were are doing wrong and from this point forward to do the right thing. To repent is to make the changes in our lives which align us with God’s hope for our lives and the world. To repent is to turn around and prepare ourselves for the in-breaking of Messiah.
I want to be careful, not to repeat what I referred to earlier as the theme most often preached in our good southern churches. Repenting does not make us right with God and thus assure where we will spend eternity. Repenting does not complete our quest for salvation. But we also need to be careful, not to so forcefully separate the messages of John and Jesus that we ignore John’s call to prepare.
John figures heavily into our Advent readings and our Advent preparations. John is not Messiah. The Messiah will come after John is finished. The work of John is to prepare the way.
So, let’s return to this concept of repentance; of turning our lives around. For John, this is a confession. But it is also a change in behavior which produces visible changes. Twice in today’s passage Matthew quotes John saying that we ought to “bear good fruits.” Once they are called “fruits worthy of repentance.”
What are these fruits worthy of repentance and are they evident in our lives?
I do not want to make you squirm in your seats – well, not squirm too much. But it would be a disservice to the appointed Gospel lesson to fail to ask whether we have fully embraced the scripture’s message. Have you heeded the call to repentance? Martin Luther’s insistence that we remember our baptism each morning as we wash our face is surely a call to also look each morning at the invitation to repentance.
Let’s approach it from a more tangible side – where is there an absence of good fruits in your life? Maybe a complete and total turning around is too much to ask or hope for. But what one thing might you change which would make your life one in which fruits were found.
Maybe you need to stop saying bad things about Clemson football fans.
Perhaps you need to repent of the way you have found to cheat (just a little bit) on your income taxes.
Is there opportunity and reason to repent of the way you speak of the stranger and sojourner?
Maybe repentance is needed in the way you use the resources at your disposal? (Yes, I am talking about whether you live up to the biblical standard of giving a tenth of your income.)
In my own return to repentance, I find myself greatly challenged when it comes to “interpreting my neighbor’s action in the kindest of ways.” I am so quick to find fault and to blame and to speak ill of them and never even attempt to talk to them so as to understand their perspective.
Where is repentance needed in your life? How might you live a life in which there is a greater abundance of good fruits. REMEMBER: this is not the whole of the story; John’s call to repentance is a preparation for the arrival of Jesus. But as preparations go, it pretty darn good.
In the first draft of this sermon, I actually had you turn to someone next to you and identify the one thing of which you need to repent. There is a part of me that would still like to do that. But I won’t. Here is what I would challenge you to do – make a covenant with someone to spend ten minutes (just ten minutes) talking about the call of John and how it speaks to your life. Discover with them where repentance is needed and what you can do to bear fruits worthy of repentance.
I know that this will be extremely difficult. But I also know such self-reflection will lead to the ability to give your family, your friends, and your neighbors a Christmas gift beyond comparison.
The kingdom of heaven has come near. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.