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The Prophet – Matthew 3:1-12

The Prophet

Here’s another older sermon about John the Baptizer – based on Matthew 3:1-12!

A seasoned member of the clergy spoke about the difficulties associated with serving the church.  “In the typical ministerial setting you will be expected to serve several different functions.  At times you will be called to be a priest.   There will be times when you will stand at the bedside of a person facing death and that person will see you as a representative of God.  As a priest your job will be to let that person know about God’s grace, love, and acceptance.  On other occasions you will be called a pastor.  You will counsel those facing crisis, guide those facing difficulty, and instruct those wanting to become disciples.  On still other occasions you will be called a prophet.  As a prophet your job will be to stand before your parishioners bringing attention to their sin and calling them to repent and reorder their lives according to the values of God’s kingdom.”

After a moment of silence he continued, “The real difficulty in the ministry comes when you try to maintain the proper balance between these differing responsibilities.”

My experience confirms his comments. The most difficult aspect of my ministry if to keep in balance differing responsibilities.  It is not always easy to know when to be a priest, a pastor, or a prophet.

St John the BaptistThat’s why I like John the Baptizer.

John was also not much of a pastor.   Pastors are look upon as shepherds, guides, and mentors.  Few people I know would be willing to receive their shepherding from a man who lives in the desert and eats insects dipped in honey.  John was also never called to be a priest.  Nobody who is sick and facing death wants to look upon a smelly, longhaired, camel-skin wearing preacher as the embodiment of God’s presence.

John was not a pastor.  John was not a priest.  John was a prophet.  He was an in your face, no holds barred, let the chips fall where they may, tell it like it is, hell-fire and damnation preacher.  His words were tough.  His patience was short.  His perceptions of God’s righteousness and judgment were fearsome and unsettling.  We’ve all known people like John—and, to put it politely, we haven’t liked them very much!

Knowing all this about John, I am amazed at the response he received.  The Gospel lesson says that people came to John from Jerusalem, Judea, and the entire region of Jordan.  When I read that I want to know why.  I want to know what inspired so many people to leave their homes and travel to the wilderness to hear hell-fire and damnation prophet preach about God’s righteousness and judgment.  I want to know what it was that motivated soldiers to leave their posts, entrepreneurs to leave their businesses, clergy to leave their pulpits, watermen to leave their nets, and the farmers to leave their crops.   What was it about John’s preaching that was so appealing to the crowd?

I think I know what it was.  I believe that people came from the hustle and bustle of their lives, from the dog-eat-dog world in which they lived, from the confusion and brokeness of their being, because they heard from John a genuine word from God.  Know this, the real power in John’s ministry did not reside in the type of person that he was, but in the message that he had been called to preach.   It did not come from John’s character, personality, gifts, or charisma—but from God.  Let’s look at the qualities of the message that John proclaimed.

The first thing to notice is that John’s message brought comfort to the hurting.

Times were pretty tough for the people of Palestine.  Their freedoms had been limited.  Their political and religious leaders were corrupt.  Poverty and hunger were everywhere.  Injustice was rampant.  Their land was occupied by the overwhelming military might of the Roman Empire.   At every turn their lives seemed to be filled with a feeling of darkness, dread, and despair.

A feeling of futility clouded the perceptions of the people of Israel.   They knew that God had promised to take care of them. They knew that God had promised to redeem them—but that had been a very long time ago. The people believed that they had been forgotten and forsaken by God.

It is within the midst of this spiritual despondency that God commanded John to begin his preaching ministry to the Jordanian wilderness.   The response was overwhelming.  People traveled on foot, over a barren wilderness, through the desert heat, to hear John preach.  For those whose lives were marred by dejection, desperation, and discouragement, John’s message brought hope and comfort. “The kingdom of God is near!” he said.  “God is about to break into the futility and fragmentation of our world with the blessings of His salvation and redemption.” “Get ready!” he says.  “Be prepared!”  “The kingdom of God is near!”

Let me ask you a question: do you think there is a need for such a message of comfort and hope like this in our world today?

Somewhere is a hospital waiting room today there is a family in tears that has just been told their family member will not survive the day.

Somewhere in our community today their is a family, laid off from work, that wonders where they will get the funds to pay next months house payment.

Somewhere today a woman sits staring into her cup of coffee.  She is too tired to speak and too weary to weep.  Last week her husband came home from work.  He packed his bags and left, saying, “I just don’t love you anymore.”

Do you think there is a need for a message of comfort and hope in our world today?  Do YOU ever feel like you need such a message of hope to enter your heart and mind?   Does your life ever seem hopeless? Do you ever pray for God to break into the history of your life in some new and powerful way?   If you do, then listen to John’s message.  “The kingdom of God is near!”

In 1982 I served as a Summer Missionary in Canada.  I aided the youth and children’s ministries of the Faith Baptist Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  While there I lived as a guest in the home of Richard and Susan Cowers. They were wonderful and gracious hosts—making me feel like a part of their family.

A few months after returning to the states I received a note from the pastor at Faith Baptist.  He told me that Carrie, the Cowers beautiful three-year-old daughter, had died.  That evening I called the family to offer my condolences.  We wept bitter tears.  In our conversation, Susan kept repeating, “I don’t know how I am going to go on without my little girl.”  “I don’t know how I am going to go on without my little girl.”

Several months passed.  I didn’t have much contact with the family.  Then one day I pulled letter from my mailbox.  It was from the Cowers.  Their grief was still present.  They said they still cried themselves to sleep almost every night.  But then Susan, who wrote the letter, said something I’ll never forget.  She wrote, “I know now that I am going to make it.  Every time I start to despair, God comes to me and reminds me that He is holding me safe in the palm of His hand.”

“The kingdom of God is near!”  That’s the gospel!  It’s a message of comfort to the hurting.  It’s a message that says God is building a highway in the desert of our despair on which He is traveling to meet us.   Did you get that?  We don’t have to look for God!  We don’t have to go and find God.  We don’t have to earn or acquire his merciful love.  God is preparing a highway on which He will travel to meet you!  That’s good news.  God has not given up on this world and God has not given up on you.

The next time you feel despair, the next time you feel depressed, the next time you feel despondent, the next time you’re not sure whether or not you will make it, be comforted by God’s word.  “The kingdom of God is near!”  “God is holding you safe in the palm of His hand!”

The second thing to notice about John’s message is that it confronted the reality of sin.

Prophetic preaching has a way of bringing comfort to the afflicted and affliction to the comfortable.  Dare I say that this is where many of us may find ourselves today”?  We’ve grown comfortable with our traditions.  We’ve grown comfortable with our religion.  We’ve grown comfortable with our rules, rituals, and regulations.  Our lives have become settle and we think that there is no need for change.

God’s word won’t let us stay that comfortable for but so long.  There are always some areas of our lives where a genuine word from God will call for a correction and hopefully (by the grace of God) the fruit of repentance.

This was certainly true of John’s preaching.  The message that John proclaimed was comforting to some and confrontational to others.  Now I want you to understand something.  I want you to know that there was a good reason for John’s confrontational style.  You see John was convinced that the arrival of the kingdom was imminent.  For those who were prepared, the arrival of the kingdom would be a cause for celebration.  For those unprepared the arrival of the kingdom would mean judgment.  They would be burned up like chaff in what John described as an “unquenchable fire.” John just couldn’t let that happen.  His confrontational style was not an act of anger or hatred.  It was an act of love.  John’s mission was to keep people out of the fire.  His calling was to tell folks to get ready for the arrival of the Messiah.  His job was to call attention to folk’s sin and urge them to repent.  Sometimes this meant confrontation—but John was willing to pay that price to be faithful to God. John refused to waste time with the pleasantries of polite society or the politically correct dogmas of sophisticated culture. Time was short.  The kingdom was near.  As far as John was concerned, there was no time for game playing.

Do you think there is any such need for urgency in our day?  Now I don’t know when Jesus will return.  I also don’t know when my heart will stop beating and my lungs stop breathing.  This one thing I do know: with every passing moment we draw closer to the day when one of those things will happen.  The kingdom of God is near.

The story is told of a famous rabbi who was walking with some of his disciples when one of them asked, “Rabbi, when should a man repent?”  The rabbi calmly replied, “You should be sure you repent on the last day of your life.”  Several of his disciples protested, “But Rabbi we can never be sure which day will be the last day of our life.”  The rabbi smiled and said, “The answer to that problem is very simple.  Repent now.”

That was the approach taken by the prophet John—and it should be our approach as well.  Don’t wait to get right with God.  Don’t postpone or put off a response to His saving grace.  Hear the word of the Lord: “The kingdom of God is near!”  It’s not just around the corner or down the road.  It is in immediate proximity to us at this very moment.  Repent now!  Respond now!

As we read the text, we see that there were two responses to the message of John. First there was the response of the crowds.  As they listened to John their imaginations were stirred with excitement. They thought that the day of their salvation was near.  In joy they responded to the prophet’s message by confessing their sins and being baptized in the Jordan River.

Of course not everyone responded in such a positive fashion. You remember the Pharisees and the Sadducees, don’t you?  They didn’t like John.  They didn’t like John’s preaching.  They didn’t like the fact that John brought their sins out into the light.  They thought themselves to be too good to be confronted by such an uncouth, uncivil, and unsophisticated country evangelist.

That brings us to the third thing to notice about John’s preaching.  It brings a challenge to the church.  The church of John’s day was the synagogue.  Its  leaders were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. One day while preaching John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees standing in the crowd.  They had come out of curiosity.  They had come, perhaps, thinking that John was simply leading another worship service—and that’s all they wanted.  They wanted was another religious experience.  They viewed John’s baptism as another ritual to be practice, another sacrament to be experienced, another indulgence to be paid.   They believed—like many in our day—that salvation is the result of the accumulation of enough religious experiences.  They wanted to make certain they had all that was necessary to escape the impending judgment.

When John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees preparing to be baptized he stopped them dead in their tracks.  “What gave you the idea that you could escape the coming judgment?”  Whoa!  That couldn’t have gone over well!  Listen to what he says next!  “This baptism is not for you!  This baptism is not for you until you start producing fruit that is in keeping with your claim that you have repented!”

Imagine that!  He insulted and turned away the religious leaders of the Synagogue. He said that there was no evidence of the power, presence, and grace of God in their lives.  He turned away their preachers.  He turned away their Sunday school teachers.  He turned away their deacons.  He turned away their seminary professors and denominational officials. Why?  No fruit!  No evidence to indicate that any real change had taken place in their lives.  John refused play a part of their self-delusion.  He refused to baptize them.

No obviously the Pharisees and Sadducees found John’s attitude extremely frustrating.  Here’s what they did!  They played their trump card.   They pulled out their pedigree.  “Who do you think you are to talk to us like that.  Look here:  we are card carrying members of the Hebrew race!”

Listen to John!  “So what!  God is not interested in your pedigree.  Your bloodlines won’t save you.  Your history down at ‘First Church’ won’t save you!  Your religious heritage won’t save you!  Look here, if God wanted to he could make Hebrew children out of those rocks over there.”  Then John becomes even more direct.  “You folks had better be careful. The ax is already at the root of the tree.  If it doesn’t produce fruit it will be chopped down and thrown in the fire.”

What was the challenge John’s brought to the synagogue?  What is the challenge that John’s brings to the church today?  Quite simply he says, “Produce fruit!”  “Your titles, your bloodlines, your power, your money, your prestige, and all your ‘church-work’ is simply not impressive to God.”

They thought that the only thing more they needed to do to be prepared to meet the Messiah was to go to church, read the Torah, and practices a few rituals.  No!  One does not prepare oneself for the arrival of the kingdom by pointing to one’s pedigree or engaging in religious rituals.  John tells us that one prepares for the arrival of the kingdom through repentance and by the production of fruit that is in keeping with repentance.  The only way that one can be prepared to see God is to ‘rest’ in God’s grace.  The only way that one can be prepared to see God is to trust his mercy.

What does the Bible mean when it speaks of the fruit of repentance?  It is speaking about the attitudes that should be present in the life of a person who has surrendered himself or herself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  In the book of Galatians, Paul says:

The Spirit produces the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law that says these things are wrong. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their own sinful selves. They have given up their old selfish feelings and the evil things they wanted to do.  We get our new life from the Spirit, so we should follow the Spirit.

As we prepare for our celebration of Messiah’s birth, we should be willing to submit ourselves to that NEW LIFE AND SPIRIT that God placed within us on the day of our salvation.

Until you have done these things…you will not be READY FOR CHRISTMAS.  You will not be prepared to celebrate Messiah’s birth.

A voice of one calling in the wilderness:  “Prepare a way for the Lord!”

This message has come your way so that you might have a chance to be prepared for the Lord’s arrival.  Will you respond to God’s call?

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