Advent always brings us John the Baptist. He is one of the premier examples of what a minister of God should be, with his fearless preaching of the law, his comforting and winsome preaching of the gospel, and his willingness to submit to the holy cross and suffer for his Lord. We need more preachers like John the Baptist in these gray and latter days.
Preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ is the heartbeat of Biblical preaching. Those two things are the core of the Christian life. Someone once said, “The important things are always simple, and the simple things are always hard.” That goes for preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins. It’s easy to flay people with the law, but to apply God’s law in such a way that it brings the sinner to cry out to Jesus for forgiveness — and then to preach that forgiveness in a way that binds up the wounds caused by the law and heals the soul — that’s not so easy. This is an art that only the Holy Spirit teaches in the school of experience.
This is one attempt at such preaching. May Jesus grant that it be beneficial to you this Adventide.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3 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.’”
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 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. 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.” (matt 3.1-12 niv)
People generally have some expectations out of preachers. They want them to be well-versed in the Bible, naturally. They want them to tell them something they don’t know. They want them to be interesting and have good things to say. It doesn’t hurt if they’re funny every once in a while and if they don’t preach too long, either. But who’s ever seen a preacher like this? He doesn’t have a big fancy church. He doesn’t have a church at all. He’s out in the wilderness. He doesn’t wear a polo shirt or a three piece suit; he wears clothes made out of camel’s hair. He eats grasshoppers. What kind of a preacher is this?
Actually there’s a very good reason John dressed that way. That was the way that prophets like Elijah dressed in the Old Testament. John was identifying himself as a prophet of the Lord when he dressed that way. It’s almost like the Old Testament equivalent of a clerical collar. He was announcing that he had a call from God to proclaim the message God gave him. John knew he was the fulfillment of the prophecy given by Isaiah of a voice calling in the wilderness, so that’s where he lived. John had reasons for dressing and living where he did.
Speaking of his message, what kind of a message is this? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near! You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” John almost goes out of his way to insult his audience. He doesn’t pull any punches. He denounces them to their faces. He looks them square in the eye and calls them out, and forget what anybody thinks about it. What preacher talks that way today? Today people want preachers who talk about love and acceptance. They don’t want to hear about judgment and damnation. They want preachers who promise them God’s love without their having to repent. They want preachers who tell them that God loves them just the way they are, so there’s no need to change your behavior or your life. Don’t bother feeling guilty or worrying over your sins – God doesn’t look at that anyway. That was not John’s message, and that’s not our message today either.
Maybe you’ve noticed something I’ve seen before. It’s kind of funny, in a frustrating way. We’re all sitting in church, listening to a sermon, and the preacher starts in on specific sins –complaining, pride, gossiping, backbiting, whatever it is. People start glancing around to see if their neighbor is listening. Where’s so-and-so? They really need to hear this. The preacher’s talking about this person or that person – I hope they’re listening. Everybody looks around at everybody else because he can’t possibly be talking to me, that’s somebody else – some other sinner. It’s funny and it’s frustrating for the same reason: the preacher is talking about you. If he’s talking about sin, he’s talking about you. You have sins that need repentance. Even if your specific sins aren’t mentioned by name that week, you still need to repent because you are a sinner whose very thoughts and desires are no good. Nothing good lives in your flesh. You need to repent, you and not the other guy – so repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near!
When we hear that kind of preaching directed at us, we usually have one of two reactions. We think, “But I already did repent!” Or we think, “I don’t need to repent – repent of what? I’ve got no sins to repent of.” If you think, “I already did repent!”, today John the Baptist tells you to go back and do it again, and do it right. True repentance can’t be just words that you mouth or actions that you go through. True repentance has to be in your heart. You have to hate your sin, even the sins you’ve done that you don’t know about, and despair of everything except Christ. If you’re not at that point, then you haven’t repented yet.
If you think, “I don’t need to repent – I’ve got no sins to repent of”, then John the Baptist tells you to go back and look again. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Denying your sin is dangerous, because God knows what it is regardless of what you think. If you deny your sin, you’re planning on having some other way to be holy before God on the Last Day, and I’m here to tell you today that that will not work. Anything you look to besides Christ will fail you in that day. No matter what you look to to insulate you from God’s wrath, it will fail if it’s anything other than Jesus. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. God’s going to display His mighty justice when He cuts down all unrepentant sinners. If you do not repent, God’s going to cut you down.
Whether you think you’ve already repented or you see no need to repent, the message is still the same: produce fruit in keeping with repentance. There’s got to be an outward change to show true inner repentance. We all know what it means when someone says or promises one thing and then goes and does another. Why wouldn’t the same thing be true with God? If you claim to be sorry for your sins and to trust in Jesus, that has real consequences in your life. You need to put down the sin in your life. You need to turn away from it and fight against doing it with all your might. You need to do good things instead, things that please God. You need to do the things God has commanded. You need to be kind, charitable, loving, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
What if I can’t? What if I’m not able to? If the memories of your past failures are staring you in the face, challenging you and holding you back, John urges you today: look to the Coming One! “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.” The One who is coming is stronger! Jesus is more powerful than any problem you face. He’s stronger than your sins. He already took care of them. He took them on Himself and atoned for them with His death in weakness on the cross. Now out of the weakness of His suffering and death, He makes you strong. He’s stronger than your weak flesh. His perfect obedience covers every flaw and every misdeed. He gives you a perfect standing before God. He gives you the grace – to repent every day, and to turn to Him and be forgiven. He gives you the grace to go on struggling against sin.
His love is more powerful than the guilt of your sins. Your guilt and your shame are gone! He has purified you and made you clean. You have been refined by the fire of the Holy Spirit. Christ has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom He has given us. John the Baptist, and every other true minister of God, can only preach God’s Word. They can only speak God’s powerful Word. That’s the only way a minister can be effective: by speaking the Word of God that condemns and kills, and that revives and raises to life. Ministers just have the Word; Jesus is the Word. He is judgment, because He is the Judge of the world appointed by God the Father. He is forgiveness, because He Himself won forgiveness for us by His righteous life and His innocent death. He Himself is our peace. He is mercy, because His love and forgiveness cannot be bought or bribed. It cannot be earned or merited. It is absolutely free. He only gives it because He wants to – nobody earns it or takes it from Him. God can raise up children for Abraham out of the stones, John said. We are the proof of that. We were never the children of God, yet He has chosen us to be saved. He made us His people because of His grace.
So in view of God’s absolutely free mercy, produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Live your whole life as a turning away from sin and a turning to Jesus for forgiveness and strength. Serve God by serving those around you. Whatever you do, do it to please God and to bring glory to Him. When you do sin, look to Jesus as your Hope and your Life. Keep yourself in His love by avoiding sin like the plague and hanging onto His promises in faith. Live your life looking for the coming of the Lord. Let His return be what you key off of as you go through your days – avoiding sin, doing what pleases Him, seeking His continual love and forgiveness. In other words: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near! Amen.