… To Lead People to Repentance
Matthew 3:1 – 12
Why Christmas, Because People Need to Repent
The clothes make the man
In preparation for Christmas, I was re-reading this book that my sister gave me a few years ago, “Can Reindeer Fly?”
It’s all about the science of Christmas, from the thermodynamics of cooking a turkey, to the speed Santa would have to fly at to reach all 842 million households in the world that contain children on Christmas Eve.
It’s a terrific book, which, in The Guardian newspaper received the world’s shortest ever book review; Under the title of the book, the whole review simply said “No”!
But my attention was especially grabbed when I got to the section on Christmas clothing. And, numbers of us are probably going to unwrap some clothes in the next 24 hours or so, and if Christmas traditions are anything to go by, for some of us, it will be socks under the Christmas tree.
Roger Highfield in this book, goes into quite some discussion about these Christmas clothing items, even giving the mathematical reasons for why odd socks seem to multiply, every time you do the washing. There is actually a scientific explanation, for that frustrating experience when you have an odd sock, and you lose another sock, why it’s not the odd sock that gets lots, but a sock from a still-functional pair!
But it’s not all just ivory tower theoretical physics, he gives some practical advice about how to eliminate the problem of odd socks entirely, following the practice of none other than Albert Einstein, simply invest in a collection of socks that are all identical, and your odd socks dilemmas will be solved forever!
But the reason I was particularly interested in that book’s discussion of Christmas clothing, is because of what we find here in chapter 3, of Matthew’s eye-witness account of Jesus’ life.
There’s a strange detail given to us in verse 4, about this fellow who’s known as John the Baptist, and it might seem like some random kind of comment to us, 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
We’ve come straight out of the Christmas story in chapters 1 and 2, and now Matthew tells us about the strange clothes that this strange character is wearing.
What are we to make of this, and what on earth does it have to do with Christmas?
Well, let’s have a look at how the chapter opens, 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.”
Some of us, are old enough to remember Kylie Mole on TV in the 80s. Kylie Mole is a significant cultural icon for 2 reasons, she was the one who popularised the term bogan in Australia! That’s quite an accomplishment, isn’t it?
But she is better known for her particular, and particularly annoying way of speaking. Her catch phrase, was, and you may well remember it, “she goes, she goes, she just goes”, as she wound her chewing gum around her finger!
That way of speaking is called the “historic present”;, talking about that happened in the past, but speaking about it as if it’s happening now.
And although it’s hidden in our NIV translation, Matthew uses that historic present in his opening line, to describe the appearing of this man, John the Baptist.
Literally, Matthew says John “appears”, present tense.
It’s a way of emphasising your point;,
It made it sound like the thing you’re describing is happening right here in front of you!
Imagine Kylie Mole, describing this:
He just appears!
See Matthew has just finished telling us about the birth of Jesus, and then straight away he says, “John appears.”
Although our Bibles print a big number 3, and a chapter break, and a paragraph heading, Matthew actually moves straight form the story of Jesus’ birth, and full of excitement, he continues, “John appears.”
We might be tempted to think, “well, the important bit for us to think about at Christmas time is the story of Jesus’ birth;, angels, shepherds, wise men, all of that, but Matthew tells us, what comes next, is in every way, just as important as the nativity scene we’re perhaps much more familiar with.
John was God’s prophet
And so we come back to John’s clothing.
Not Christmas socks, and certainly not the height of 1st century fashion.
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
This might seem like a strange and insignificant detail to us,
But to Matthew’s original readers, and to the crowds who came out from Jerusalem and all Judea to see him, John’s appearance wasn’t so much, peculiar as arresting or confronting.
Imagine someone walked down the front here right now, wearing theatre scrubs, with a mask and a stethoscope.
That would tells us, perhaps what they got for Christmas, but more likely, it would communicate something about their occupation.
They’re a doctor or a nurse.
And we’d wonder, “Why are they here?
I read this week that more people get food poisoning at Christmas than at any other time of year.
So the arrival of the person in medical clothes tells us that perhaps somebody ate something they shouldn’t have.
I was having coffee with Nathan Watts the day of the terrible fire in Hahndorf last week. And I’m sitting across the table from Nathan as he holds his radio with one shoulder,
His mobile phone with the other,
While he checks his pager with his hands!
And I’m sitting there thinking, “Honey, we don’t talk any more!”
Who wears that much communications gear? Well, a group officer in the Country Fire Service, that’s who!
What he’s carrying tells you what he does!
John appears in the desert, not like some crazy lunatic which is how he us, but completely fitting the mould of the ancient prophets of God.
Instantly, we know what this guy’s job is.
His clothing, just like what Elijah wore, described in 2 Kings chapter 1.
His diet, which, like his clothing, is a sign of his rejection of the niceties of life, the things that people can so easily get caught up in.
Matthew tells us these things, so we understand, here is God’s prophet.
Someone who speaks God’s words.
When John speaks about this baby who has been born, we ought to listen to him, because his message comes from God.
If you turn back just one page in those blue church Bibles, you’ll find a page with a pattern on it,
Keep going back and you’ll find a map,
Go back one more page and you come to the end of the Old Testament.
And from the end of the Old Testament, to this part here, when John the Baptist appears, there has been no word from God to his people.
God hasn’t sent a prophet with a message to the nation, for 400 years!
But now that changes, because John has turned up.
No wonder the cities empty, did you see verse 5? 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.
God is speaking to Israel again, and his message is. “I’m on my way.”
God was coming to be with his people
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. Tuesday this week our year 12s got them, that can feel like it’s been a long wait.
Maybe a present someone promised you,
Perhaps you’ve waited years and years to get your driver’s licence.
Or maybe you’re waiting for your children to get their driver’s licence, so you can stop moonlighting as a taxi driver!
Imagine waiting for something, that you are sure will come, but that you have to wait your entire life for it to arrive.
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 Jews in Matthew’s day.
They knew that God was going to come.
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 wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ”
Isaiah had said, all those years before “God is coming,
But before God comes, a fore-runner will come.
He’ll be a voice out in the wilderness, calling on people to get ready for God.”
A friend of mine works for the Australian Federal Police, and before Hilary Clinton was a presidential candidate, she was Secretary of State, remember? And she visited Adelaide once, which meant my friend was involved in security for her visit.
I asked him what interesting stories he could tell me without having to kill me afterwards, and he said that before Mrs Clinton arrived, her advance team came to town;, diplomats, Secret Service, all of that, to make sure that everything was ready.
That’s what God promised through Isaiah,
A voice in the wilderness, preparing people for God himself to turn up.
In the last 2 verses of the Old Testament, the page we flicked back to a moment ago, another one of God’s prophets, a man named Malachi, brought a message to God’s people. And like Isaiah, he was talking about when God would turn up.
And Malachi tells us a little bit about the advance man. Malachi chapter 4 verses 5 & 6, God says, See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents;
Do you see the pieces starting to come together?
John appears, out in the wilderness, like Isaiah said.
He’s dressed like Elijah, just like Malachi said.
Jesus himself in chapter 9 verse 11 tells us that John represents Elijah.
Here is the advance guy.
Here is the one who gets people ready for God to turn up.
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.
And even the religious leaders get in on the action. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, came to where he was baptizing, verse 7, to see what was going on.
Now, we might think, that if anyone is going to be ready for God’s arrival, it would be these guys,
The religious heavyweights.
But even to these super-religious people, John says “you’re not ready for God’s arrival.”
Actually he says it much more strongly, doesn’t he?! You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
These are some of the most powerful people in the land. It’s these guys who had Jesus crucified. But John isn’t going to water down his message for anyone.
Everybody needs to hear this. “God is coming, and there’s something you need to do to get ready.”
One of my friends is a pastor in Melbourne, and he lists as is number one claim to fame, 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, or 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!
In fact, she’s waiting on the doorstep right 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 meet God, and not be ready.
See, even these religious leaders, who seem to be coming to John, not just to sticky beak, but to be baptised, Matthew says literally, “They came to John’s baptism”, But John seems to doubt their readiness to meet God.
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, who did so much good stuff, that he had, if you like, good deeds to spare!
And he had so many good deeds to spare, that in God’s eyes, they blotted out all the bad things, that his descendants did.
So, to say, ‘We have Abraham as our father’ was a way of saying, “God can’t see anything wrong with my life, because all the good stuff Abraham did is blocking his view.”
John says, “That’s not how it works”.
Christmas shows us, that’s not how it works”
When it comes to having a right relationship with God,
It’s not enough to just to be part of the right group,
Or to be born in to the right family,
Or have the right religious credentials,
To be able to tick off church attendance, or charitable giving,
Or being a better person than somebody else, because let’s face it, we can all do that. The headlines of 2016 were full of the names of people we could point to, and say, “Well, I’m not as bad as them.”
No matter who you are, there’s one thing you still have to do,
People need to repent
If you were going to meet the Queen, you might want to tidy your house, or change your clothes, or at least read up on how you’re supposed to bow or curtsey,
But if you’re going to meet God, you have to repent.
John’s message, verse 2, was Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
So what does it mean to repent?
I read once that when the first roads were being built across the United States, for stage coaches and what have you to travel on, the contract for the road-building, specified that when trees were removed for the road to 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 for a bumpy ride, you’d think!
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.
The roadworks are a metaphor for getting ready to meet God.
And John tells us exactly who you do that.
But what is it to repent?
In the Greek thought of Matthew’s day, repentance was something that didn’t necessarily have any moral or ethical value attached to it. It just meant a change of direction.
So they’ve been building that new roundabout out on Wellington Road, and so over the last few months I found myself stationary in a long queue of traffic. So what do you do? You think, “I’m going a different way, you do a U-turn.”
That’s how the Greeks thought of repentance. Just a change of direction.
The Pharisees, those religious leaders, their idea of repenting was to think of individual acts that were wrong.
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 something helpful in both of those ideas, Christmas tells us that repentance is something different.
The repentance that John calls for,
The repentance that Jesus came into the world to make possible,
Is a whole of life re-alignment of our will, to God’s will.
A whole-hearted engagement of our life, with God’s plans and purposes.
See the fact that no one, not even religious people, are ready to meet God without repenting, tells us that all of us are separated from God because of how we’ve lived our lives.
All of us live in God’s world, but with no regard for God.
That’s what the Bible calls sin.
Sin isn’t a list of dos and don’ts, the things I did wrong at morning tea time this week.
Sin is an attitude,
I reckon the best example of this, certainly the most Australian example of this, is Leonard Casley.
Many of you will know about Leonard, or, should I say, His Royal Highness, Prince Leonard!
In 1970, this wheat farmer from WA, in response to some new laws that he didn’t like, declared independence from Australia, turning his farm into a sovereign nation all of its own, called the Principality of Hutt River.
In April this year Prince Leonard received a letter from the Queen, extending Her Majesty’s best wishes for the celebration of the Principality’s 46th anniversary, which he takes to be binding legal acknowledgment of his country’s existence!
And so Leonard Casley happily lives out his life, more or less as if the Australian Government doesn’t exist, certainly he lives as if the government has no authority over his life.
In his mind, he has replaced the government.
He makes the rules.
He decides what’s right and wrong.
He 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, they were baptised.
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,
As if they needed to demonstrate the same kind of repentance and getting ready for God, as God’s enemies did!
This is hugely provocative!
I got a new driver’s licence this week, because my last one expired after 10 years. So imagine I said to all of you, “Even if you already have a driver’s licence, you need to come and see me today, and I’ll give you a new one.
Your old licence is no longer sufficient, and unless you come and see me, you’re driving unlicensed.
I’ve got my phone with me.
We can take the photo,
We can do the whole thing, but don’t get in your car, until I’ve given you one.
That’s exactly what John is saying.
Jesus is coming; he’s been born, chapter 1, and now he’s about to appear publicly, 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.
And in case we missed it, Verse 11 I baptize you with water for, repentance.
In chapter 4, when Jesus’ preaching ministry starts, the very first word recorded from his lips, is repent.
When Jesus sent his disciples out 2 by 2 to continue his work, we’re told they went out and preached that people should repent
Last week I met a new baby. Alistair and Chanelle McLean’s baby, Arthur.
And my response when I met Arthur, was, later in the day, at Trinity South Coast carols, when I saw Chanelle’s grandparents, my response to seeing him was to boast to them that I had met Arthur. And Chanelle’s grandmother’s response to that was to hit me, because she hadn’t yet met him, and I’d got in first!
Maybe your response to the arrival of a baby is something like that, or the typical response of oohing and aahing,
And yet we find here, that the response required to the birth of this baby at the first Christmas is none of that,
Our response to this baby, must be to repent.
People need to repent because God’s king is coming
And I get that that is confronting.
The Oxford Dictionary people have just announced their “international word of the year.” And although there was strong contention this year from words such as “adulting”, that is, having to behave, like a grown up,
The word that was selected as most representative of 2016, was “post-truth.”
The definition is, “relating to, or denoting, circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and what people already believe and feel.”
In 2015, the word of the year was the little smiley face with tears of joy that people stick in text messages! which itself was a step up from selfie in 2013, So we’ve really come a long way since then, haven’t we?!
But in a post-truth era we’d be tempted to shy away from facts that we don’t like, evidence from history that we disagree with, and just focus on what makes us feel good.
Which isn’t this.
Being asked to repent isn’t an appeal to emotion that makes us feel good.
But here we’re told the reason that this baby demands such a different response from us;
It’s because Jesus is God’s king.
Jesus’ public ministry begins, as I said, in Matthew chapter 4, with the words, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Now, the kingdom of heaven is not a geopolitical entity,
It’s not the nation of Israel set up in 1948 with the end of the British mandate,
The kingdom of heaven is about the rule of God’s king.
When Isaiah spoke those words quoted in verse 3, he’s talking about Yahweh, the Creator God, the covenant God of Israel.
If you flick back to Isaiah 40 verse 3, not now, but some point later, you’ll see that the word “Lord” is written there in all capital letters. That’s the way that the translators of our modern Bibles show us that in the original language, it’s Yahweh, God’s personal name.
Isaiah was talking about God himself, turning up among his people.
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 brings about the kingdom of heaven,
Jesus is the one who establishes God’s reign,
This baby laid in a manger is the one who makes possible a 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 God’s king, Jesus,
As we celebrate Christmas, and enjoy it’s benefits, tomorrow / today,
The message that we need to hear from John the Baptist, is the same;
People still need to repent.
If you’re here this Evening / Morning, you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, but you figured that going to church at Christmas seemed like a pretty good idea, we’re so pleased you’re here.
And I’m so pleased you get to hear John’s words, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near
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 saying that God’s king has come.
God himself has turned up.
What better reason could we have for a public holiday and a party, than that God who made us, arrived to be with us?
If you are a Christian, then you need to 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.
You may have seen that this Christmas a couple of enterprising young blokes started selling a hipster nativity. What the stable scene would have looked like if Mary and Joseph were Millennials!
For $130 US, you can buy a nativity set for your home with a shepherd listening to music on his iPhone,
The Wise Men arriving on Segway scooters carrying gifts, form Amazon.com.
The cow is 100% organic and is eating gluten-free feed.
Mary’s oversized t-shirt is off her shoulder, and she’s drinking out of a Starbucks coffee cup.
And the pièce de résistance is Joseph with the baby Jesus, taking a selfie!
Now I hate selfies.
I will unfriend you on Facebook if you fill my feed with your selfies!
But this one I’m happy with.
Put yourself in the picture of Christmas.
Put yourself in the picture with Jesus.