If you got a phone call right now from the United States Secret Service announcing the President was arriving at your house later today, what is the first thing you would do? The answer for most of us is the same. We’d make sure the house was clean and everything put in its place.
This is the type of announcement John the Baptist was making in Israel before Jesus began his ministry as the Messiah. The king is coming and we’d better get our house in order before he arrives.
Matthew 3:1-12 says In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
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. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
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? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 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. 10 The ax 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.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 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.”
At this point in history, Israel was looking for the king, or Messiah, to arrive and deliver them. They had suffered under centuries of domination and oppression by foreign empires. Currently the Romans were levying unreasonable taxes on them and ruling with a brutal iron fist.
But before Jesus began his ministry, John came preaching a message that the people needed to get ready for his arrival. The first thing they needed to do was repent of their sins. This importance of this wasn’t lost on the Jews. According to modern scholar N.T. Wright, “(John’s) message had echoed through the life of the Jewish people for hundreds of years by the time of John the Baptist, ever since it was first uttered in Isaiah 40. It was part of the great message of hope, of forgiveness, of healing for the nation after the horror of exile…. The prophets had said that God would come back when the people repented, turning to him with all their hearts.”
The Jewish people understood the arrival of the Messiah was tied to their repentance. This brings us to another question. What exactly is repentance? According to The New International Dictionary of the Bible, Repentance is “a profound change of mind involving the changing of the direction of life from that of self-centeredness or sin-centeredness to God or Christ-centeredness. God’s forgiveness is available only to those who are repentant, for only they can receive it.”
Repentance isn’t simply saying I’m sorry for the sins I’ve committed. It involves actually turning away from them because they are so offensive to God. There are no substitutions we can make in the place of actually repenting. Being religious or serving God our entire lives doesn’t get us into heaven.
Look at how John the Baptist talked to the Pharisees and Sadducees when they came to the site where he was baptizing people. They were the prominent religious leaders of the day who knew the Old Testament and prided themselves on their devotion to God. John didn’t care about any of this. He gave them a good tongue-lashing when he saw them. He recognized that although they were spiritual, in some ways they were only going through the motions. They were busy but they weren’t producing fruit in the kingdom of God.
One of the first things I did when I joined our family logging operation right out of high school was become a log truck driver. I quickly learned if you have the right kind of truck, you can put it in places where most long-haul truckers wouldn’t dare to go.
Trees don’t grow in paved parking lots. They grow in forests where the ground can be steep, rocky and dangerous. Truck roads have to be built into these areas if the timber is going to be harvested. Depending on the weather conditions, these roads can be covered in mud, snow, or ice.
As most of you know, driving on ice is the worst. We carried wheel chains with us so we could put them on the tires to help with traction. Once time I put chains on all of the drive tires before I started up an ice-covered road. Even with chains on, I began to spin. I mashed on the fuel pedal to try and spin my way to the top of the hill. The speedometer said I was going about 25 miles an hour. In reality I was going about 2 miles an hour. Even though I was trying everything I needed to do to go 25 miles an hour, I couldn’t get enough traction to do it.
This is what John was trying to tell the Pharisees and the Sadducees. You’re working hard and putting forth enough energy but you’re only spinning your wheels. It’s because you haven’t repented of your sins. Going through the motions isn’t enough. True repentance is needed if you really want to produce good fruit.
Oh, and by the way, if you don’t repent, when the Messiah does get here, he’s going to judge you harshly.
When the Messiah did arrive, he wasn’t what they expected. Instead of giving them relief from the cruelty they were enduring, he offered them a spiritual cleansing and rebirth. He also demanded obedience.
We too are celebrating the arrival of the Messiah as part of our Christmas Around the World theme. This week we’re going to take a brief visit to Germany since we have a German Advent wreath as the centerpiece for our worship display.
Although there is debate as to when the first Advent wreath came into existence, there is general agreement that the modern Advent wreath was created in 1839 by a German Protestant pastor named Johann Wichern. He helped the poor children in Hamburg by converting an old farm house into an orphanage. Because the children were always asking “When is Christmas?”, he built a wreath by using an old wheel where 20 white and 4 red candles were placed. Every day one of candles was lit so the children could count down the days. This concept eventually developed into a wreath with 4 candles. Beginning somewhere around 1860, the wreath was made out of pine branches, which represents the hope of eternal life we have in Jesus. The three purple candles represent hope, love and peace. The rose-colored candle represents joy. They remind us that Jesus came to save us and give us new life.
During the season of Advent, we’re celebrating the first arrival of Jesus and looking forward to his second coming. Since 1 John 3:23-24 tells us that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit lives in us if we’re Christians, is our spiritual house fit for the king? Is it clean and in order? It’s actually very easy to answer this. All we have to do is ask one more question. If I could see Jesus walking along side me every moment of every day, which of my actions and attitudes would I change?
If the answer is “none,” then your spiritual house is ready for Jesus. The problem is that all of us, if we’re honest, can’t say “none”. We all struggle with sin. This presents a problem for us. We know from last week’s message that God loves us as we are. However, God still wants us to repent of our sins. We live in this tension of being both forgiven and sinful.
The good (and sad) news is this is a normal part of our human condition. The Apostle Paul struggled with the same thing. In Romans 7, he’s making the point that following the Old Testament law won’t save anyone. He says in Romans 7:14-25 – 14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (From a human standpoint, his house isn’t ready to receive the king either.)
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The answer to our problem is very simple. It’s Jesus. He fulfilled the requirements of the Old Testament law for us. He died on the cross to give us salvation. When we try to overcome our sinful nature by being religious, obeying a few rules or trying to work our way into heaven, we’re only spinning our wheels. We use up a lot of fuel but we don’t get very far because we don’t have any spiritual traction. We don’t produce much spiritual fruit either.
The only way we can truly repent and turn from our sins is through the power of Jesus that lives in us.
So, how do we get our spiritual house ready for the King? We let Jesus love us as we are but allow him to change us into the people he wants us to be! When we do this, God convicts us of our sin and gives us the strength we need to turn away from it. This gives us salvation instead of judgment.