The Reason for Christmas – People Need to Repent
Matthew 3:1 – 12
The Reason for Christmas: People Need to Repent
Waiting for God
Well, it seems we all survived the end of the world, doesn’t it?!
In case you missed it, December 21 this year was apparently the day that the ancient Mayans expected the world to end, or at least that’s the sensationalised media version of the story.
And some Christians even, got on the band wagon and were suggesting that the Mayans had somehow cottoned on, and that Thursday was the day that Jesus was coming back.
But we’re all still here!
And we’re still waiting!
A few years ago, I saw a well-known Christian leader being interviewed on TV, and he was asked, “if you knew God was coming, if Jesus was coming back in a week,
What would you do, in the next 7 days?
No doubt the interviewer was expecting some kind of, “Well I run round, madly, get really busy”, something like that.
But this Christian leader took out his diary, opened it to the page for the coming week, with all the things he was already intending to do that week, and he said “I’d do these things”
So let me ask you, you knew God was coming, what would you do?
How would you prepare?
What do you need to do to get ready for God?
Are you like that preacher, you’re already ready for God, or is your situation reflected a bit more in the bumper sticker I’ve seen, “Jesus is coming, look busy!”?
Are you ready for God?
If Christmas means that God comes, God makes the ultimate transmission, like we heard at Carols, and turns up in person, what do you need to do to get ready for Christmas?
That was the very real challenge that John the Baptist was putting to people in the first century AD.
You need to get ready for God!
John was God’s prophet
Have a listen to how Matthew the historian describes it. In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Literally, Matthew says John “appears”, present tense. It’s deliberately dramatic, highlighting that this was a critical moment in time.
It’s like “pay attention because something significant is happening here.”
Verse 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.
The story of John the Baptist is my 3 year old son Jamie’s favourite Bible story! John’s funny clothes, his funny diet, are ideal story fodder for a little boy!
And if you ask, Jamie will give you his impersonation of John eating honey and locusts!!
But while all that is just strange and amusing to us, to the eyewitnesses, to the crowds who came out from Jerusalem and all Judea to see John, his appearance wasn’t peculiar, it was arresting!
Imagine someone walks down the front here right now, wearing a white coat, with a stethoscope around their neck?
What would you say is that person’s occupation?
They’re a doctor, obviously. And we’d wonder, “Why are they here? Has someone passed out in the heat? Somebody must be sick.”
Or how about a hard hat, steel cap boots and a high vis vest?
A construction worker or something like that, and we wouldn’t really know what they’re doing here, would we?
But what about someone in a white helmet, yellow fire-proof suit, breathing apparatus, big black boots, and a hose!
It’s a firefighter! And when the CFS turn up to church, you know something’s wrong don’t you!
Nathan, or Jonno, or one of our CFS boys walks down the front in their firefighting gear, and we pay attention, don’t we?!
John appears in the desert, not like some crazy lunatic, which is how he appears to us, but completely fitting the mould of the ancient prophets of God.
The clothing, just like the clothing of Elijah, 2 Kings 1:8.
The diet, which, like his clothing, rejects the niceties of life, which the people all around where so caught up in.
Here is a man, who is obviously God’s prophet.
And for 400 years, there has been no prophetic voice from God among his people.
But now that changes, because here is a message from God: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near
No wonder the crowds flock to hear it.
God is speaking to Israel again, and his message is. “I’m on my way.”
God is coming
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.
I wonder what has been the longest you’ve ever had to wait for something.
Maybe it’s something you’re still waiting for.
Perhaps exam results. Some of you received those this week.
Maybe a present someone promised you,
Perhaps you’ve waited years and years to get your driver’s licence. Or you’re waiting for your children to get their licence, so you can stop moonlighting as a taxi driver!
Is there something that you were sure would come, but you had to wait for?
Now, thinking of that thing, imagine that you had to wait your entire life to receive it.
And then imagine it turns out that your parents have been waiting for it for as long as they can remember too,
And so you go and see your grandparents and you tell them what you’re waiting for, and it turns out they’ve been waiting for the very same thing all their lives!
That’s something of the experience of the Jew’s in Matthew’s day.
They knew that God was going to come.
God was going to come to his people,
But it was nearly 700 years since Isaiah the prophet had spoken those words, quoted in verse 3,
“A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ”
Isaiah had said, God is coming,
But before God comes, a fore-runner will come.
He’ll be a voice out in the desert, calling on people to get ready for God.
One person here was involved in the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton’s visit to Adelaide last month. And he said that before she arrived, the advance team came ahead, to make sure everything was ready.
That’s what God promised through Isaiah,
A voice in the desert, preparing people for God himself to turn up.
And now, John appears, out in the desert, and Matthew tells us, he’s the advance guy,
He’s the one who’s getting people ready for God.
In the last 2 verses of the Old Testament, another one of God’s prophets, a man named Malachi, brings a message to God’s people, once more, about the arrival of God some time in the future.
But in Malachi, we’re given a bit more detail about the advance man, the one who comes to get people ready for God.
Malachi chapter 4 verses 5 & 6, God says, See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers
And who does John look like?
Who does John dress like?
Who does Jesus actually, in chapter 9 and chapter 11 say John is representing?
The forerunner has arrived,
Elijah has come,
And with such expectation, centuries worth of expectation, now being fulfilled, it’s no wonder that the people came out in droves to see John, to hear him preach, and actually, to respond to his message.
It’s front page news every day,
The Palestine news networks are all trying to get a sit-down interview with John, this is the biggest news story of the century!
The man who’s job it is to get us ready for God, is here!
No surprise then, that the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, came to where he was baptizing, verse 7, to see what was going on.
And even to them, these religious leaders, who you’d think would be ready for God, if anyone’s going to be ready for God’s arrival, surely it would have to be the religious hierarchy,
Even to these ones, John says, you’re not ready. Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
“God is coming”, John says, and there’s something you need to do to get ready.
I think I’ve said this before, but a friend of mine who’s now a pastor in Melbourne, lists as his big claim to fame, the fact that the Queen has been in his driveway.
As a kid, his family lived opposite one of the venues the queen visited on a trip to Adelaide, and so for whatever reason, turning circles, security or something, Her Majesty’s car stopped in his driveway for a moment or two.
But imagine it’s not just the driveway.
Imagine the Queen is going to come into your house!
She’s waiting on the doorstep now!
Just picture, for a moment, what state is your house in right this second?!
It would be awkward, embarrassing, to meet the Queen, if we were unprepared,
Not dressed right,
Not up to date on all the protocol,
How much worse, it would be, to not be ready for God.
See, even these religious leaders, who seem to be coming to John, not just to sticky beak, but to be baptised, John seems to doubt that they’re ready.
do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.
There were some ancient rabbis, who taught that Abraham was such a good man, such a righteous man, who did so much good stuff, that he had, if you like, opened an account of good deeds, before God, and in his “good deeds account”, there were so many good deeds, that they blotted out all the bad deeds, of all of his descendents.
But John says, “That’s not how it works”.
Christmas shows us, that’s not how it works”
It’s not enough to just to be part of the right group,
Or the right family,
Or have the right religious credentials,
There’s one thing you still have to do,
People need to repent
If you’re going to meet God, you have to repent.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.
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.’
So what does it mean to repent?
I read once that when the trans-continental roads were being constructed across the United States, for stage coaches and what have you to drive across the country, the contract for the work, specified that when trees were removed so that the road could go through, the stumps had to be cut off, no more than one foot off the ground. That is, any stump up to a foot could be left in the middle of the road!
Which would make stage coach travel interesting, wouldn’t it!
No wonder then, that back in the ancient world, whenever royalty were due to pass through an area, the roads were repaired, patched up, made ready for the king and his entourage.
A few chapters earlier from the words of Isaiah quoted here in verse 3, the Isaiah describes the work of God among his people, and he speaks of a highway called the way of holiness.
If you like, that’s the kind of highway that John wants people to build as they prepare for God’s arrival.
“Make a way of holiness, ”
In Greek thought, repentance was something with no moral or ethical value inherent in it. It just simply meant a change of direction.
You could repent of bad things, and turn to good things, but it was just as valid to describe someone repenting of good things, and turning to bad things.
To the Greeks, repentance simply meant “a U-Turn”
The Pharisees, the group of Jewish religious leaders who had evolved in the centuries before Jesus, their idea of repenting, was to think of individual sins that might need to be repented of.
Monday morning, at morning tea time, I was greedy. I need to repent of that.
Tuesday morning, I was greedy again!, So I need to repent of that!
And while there’s truth to that, and there’s something helpful in that picture of repentance as doing a U-Turn, the New Testament understanding of repentance is something vastly different.
The repentance that John calls for,
The repentance that Jesus came to make possible,
The repentance that Christmas lays before us, is a once-for-all commitment to God,
It’s a whole of life, alignment of our will, to God’s will.
A whole-hearted engagement of our life, with God’s plans and purposes.
And if doing that requires a complete U-turn, what does that say about where people are before that?
It says that all of us, are opposed to God’s will.
All of us are actively working against God’s plans and purposes.
All of us are living in God’s world, but living with no regard for God.
That’s what sin is.
Sin isn’t a list of dos and don’ts,
Sin is an attitude,
At Carols, which many of you were at, I used the example of Leonard Casley, from Hutt River in Western Australia, who declared independence from Australia.
He turned his wheat farm into a sovereign nation all of its own, and lives more or less as if the Australian Government doesn’t exist.
Actually, what he’s done, is in his own life, tried to make himself equivalent to the Australian Government.
He calls himself Prince Leonard.
And Leonard makes the rules.
Leonard decides what’s right and wrong.
Leonard decides on what basis he’s going to interact with the Australian government.
Clayton makes the rules.
Clayton decides what’s right and wrong.
Clayton decides on what basis he’s going to interact with the God who made him.
And that attitude,
Needs to be repented of.
That was the purpose of John’s baptism, it was a sign, of repentance.
An outward and visible sign, of something that had happened inwardly and invisibly.
Now this wasn’t the first baptism that the Jews had seen.
In the centuries up until John, when someone who wasn’t a Jew, wanted to become a Jew, and take their place among the community of God’s people, they were baptised. It was called Proselyte Baptism.
But John was taking, what up until now had been usually reserved for people from the pagan, idol-worshipping, baby-sacrificing nations, all around, and inviting Jewish people, to take part in it, as if they needed the same kind of washing, they needed to demonstrate the same kind of repentance and getting ready for God as God’s enemies!
This is hugely provocative!
It’s like if I brought in a really big bucket of water in today, and said “Everyone here who has been baptised, needs to be baptised again. Your current standing before God is not good enough,
Something is missing from your relationship with him.”
Or if I started handing out cards with prayers on them, you know, the little prayer some Christians call “The Sinner’s Prayer”, the kind of prayer that people pray when they first become a Christian.
If I gave one out to everyone here who’s a Christian, and said, “You have to pray this, in order to get right with God. I don’t care if you’ve prayed something like this before, you have to do it now.”
That’s exactly what John is saying.
Jesus is coming, the one who we’re told in chapter 1, will save his people from their sins, so repent of that sin, John says, and Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
Verse 11 I baptize you with water for repentance.
It was the first word in Jesus’ preaching ministry, chapter 4 verse 17,
When Jesus sent out the disciples 2 by 2, we’re told they went out and preached that people should repent
George Campbell Morgan, Pastor of the famous Westminster Chapel in London commented about John the Baptist, He came with no theology;, he came with no philosophy to discuss;, he came with no new cult to introduce;, he did not come to ask men to consider a position which they could accept or reject as they pleased;, he came with the thundering voice of a great inspiration—“Repent”
People need to repent because God’s king is coming
By Matthew chapter 3, probably around the end of the first quarter of the first century AD, Jesus has already been born of course, God has already turned up. But his public ministry hasn’t yet begun. In fact it doesn’t begin until John’s ministry of preparation is over, when he’s put in prison by King Herod.
But when Jesus’ ministry begins, it’s clear that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and in fact, those are the words with which Jesus commences his ministry in Matthew 4 as I mentioned, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
The kingdom of heaven is not a geopolitical entity,
It’s not the nation of Israel,
It’s not some future country that the UN will establish with Jerusalem as its capital.
The kingdom of heaven, is God’s rule.
It’s about what God is doing, not about a place.
The kingdom of heaven is the rule of God’s king.
And because in John’s day, God’s king is about to be manifested on the earth,
Because God’s rule is about to be established in a completely new and different way,
Because God’s plan to give new life, and create a new kind of community from people of all nations,
Because God himself is about to appear in the person of Jesus, people have to repent.
In that Isaiah quote, it’s Yahweh, the Lord Almighty, the Creator God, the covenant God of Israel, who he’s speaking about.
If you have an NIV Bible, if you flick over to Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 3, you’ll see that the word “Lord” is written there in all capital letters. That’s the way the NIV translators show us that it’s Yahweh, God’s personal name, in the original language.
And yet, clearly John, understands this prophecy to refer to Jesus,
And clearly Matthew, writing for us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understands this prophecy to be referring to Jesus.
Jesus is the one who inaugurates the kingdom of heaven,
Jesus is the one who establishes God’s reign,
Jesus is the one who makes possible this new relationship between God and people,
Because Jesus is God himself.
People still need to repent
And so today, as we stand, looking back at John’s ministry,
Looking back at the first Christmas, and the birth of Jesus, God’s king,
And yet also as we look forward to celebrating this Christmas,
The message that we need to hear from John the Baptist, is the same.
People still need to repent.
If you’re here this morning as someone who’s not a Christian, but you’re here to find out what Christianity is all about, and what God wants from you, we’re so glad to have you with us, and perhaps this is the answer to your question.
If you’re still doing the Prince Leonard,
If you’re still making the rules,
If you’re still deciding for yourself what’s right and wrong,
If you’re still living in God’s world with no regard for God,
Please hear John’s words, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near
God’s king has come.
God himself has turned up.
We’d love to talk to you some more, if that’s something you need to think about.
You can use that Green Communication Card and we’ll get in touch with you.
If you are a Christian, hear John’s words to produce fruit in keeping with the repentance you profess!
But also don’t buy the lie that your friends and family can go on with their lives without repentance.
It’s slightly ironic, but Christmas time is perhaps the time when I become most acutely aware of notions of religious tolerance, and all of that.
The whole, “you can’t say ‘happy Christmas’ because you might offend someone thing.
I read this week of a survey of 2000 managers, three quarters of whom said they didn’t allow Christmas decorations in their work-place because of the fear of offending people who aren’t Christian.
If ever there was a time of year, where we were constantly told, “don’t say anything that will offend people”, as we see “holiday trees” and get wished “season’s greetings”, Christmas is it!
But if ever there was a time of year, when we were reminded that people need to repent,
And that they can’t go on living in God’s world as if God doesn’t exist, Christmas is it.
What do your friends really need, this Christmas?
Some of you will be aware of the activities of the Westboro Baptist Church. This is a group in the US which is not really a church at all, but a group of people who seem to see it as their God-given mission to use the broken-ness and hurt of our world as a means of pointing out sin. Sin in other people, of course, not themselves!
So our church’s web address, is trinitymountbarker.org.au
The Westboro Baptist Church website is godhatesfags.com
You can see we have a slightly different approach to ministry!
This week Westboro announced they would be picketing memorial services for the children and teachers killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
In their words, well, in a version of their words that I have edited to make them suitable for saying out loud!, Westboro claim that the school shooting is God’s judgment on evil people,
That we should praise God for the deaths of those killed,
And that the shooting, like pretty much everything else in American public life, is a result of that nation abandoning God, rejecting the 10 Commandments, etc, etc.
But what I noticed as I read through Westboro’s announcements, and press releases, and various statements, is that for a group that seems to find a lot that they think is wrong with the world,
A lot of sin that they can point to,
You’d have to say they seem to hate sin,
But nowhere, in anything I read, did I find a single call to repentance.
Somebody’s sin is pointed out on every page of their website, and in every line of every article they write, but nowhere could I find a single call “Get ready for God”
“Do something about the situation you’re in”
See the way that God himself engages with lost and sinful people is vastly different isn’t it?
God himself is coming.
He’s promised it,
He’s been planning it,
He’s sent his messenger ahead,
He wants his people to be ready for his coming.
And Christmas tells us, he came, in person.