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Preparing the way for Jesus - Matthew 3:1-12

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 19th February 2006.

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I wonder if you have ever been present when a king or queen has come to town. Perhaps the most spectacular visits nowadays are the visits of the President of the United States, since he is the most powerful man in the world at the present time. His visits are planned with military precision. Two or three months before the visit a 12 man team photographs all venues, checks out hotels, hospitals and local protocol. About six weeks before the visit about 30 officials examine airports, helicopter landing sites, land routes and media coverage. Ten days ahead, huge cargo planes deliver limousines, helicopters, communications vehicles band a backup war wagon containing a crack armed response unit. In the final week the secret service plans the "spontaneous events" like walk-abouts, and up to nine hundred staff are brought in. And at last the President arrives on Air Force One, the presidential plane, itself costing $54,000 an hour to run. It is no surprise that Bill Clintonís visit to Africa in 1998 cost a staggering $42.8 million! Thatís what happens when the President comes to town!

Now this morning weíre looking at the arrival of another important visitor. But this visitorís arrival is something that had been looked forward to for 400 years, and which had been planned for all eternity. And this very important visitor is no paltry earthly monarch, no human president whoíll be here today and gone tomorrow. This is the coming of the King of kings no less, the very ruler of all monarchs, the one before whom very knee will bow, including presidents, tyrants and tsars. Itís the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If youíve been with us throughout these last few weeks, youíll know that Matthew has been building up his picture of Jesus from the very first verse of his book. For there we discovered that Jesus was a King in Davidís line. And in the rest of chapter 1 we saw what this king has come to do. Heís come to save us from our sins, and he is none other than God himself. He is Immanuel, God with us. And in chapter 2, we saw that the arrival of this king was accompanied with staggering signs. There were amazing astronomical phenomena. We saw foreign wise men bowing before this king. And last week we saw that this king was the rejected king, the one who is despised by the world he came to save.

And now weíre getting to the moment when this king will be publicly unveiled. He is about to make his grand entrance onto the stage of human history. But before we get there, we find ourselves face to face with a bizarrely dressed prophet, whose cuisine leaves a lot to be desired, but whose message is of incredible importance. Because John the Baptist, who we meet in this chapter, is on a mission to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of this great and awesome king. And his message is if you are not ready for the coming of this king, then you will seriously regret it. You will be in terrible dire straights if your heart is not right when this king comes. That his message. And although we live some 2000 years after the Baptist preached in the desert of Judea, yet his message is actually bang up to date. Because King Jesus is coming again. He is coming back for a second visit. And this next visit will be the end of history as we know it. And John pleads with us to do some very serious soul searching. Because as weíll see, itís possible to think you are ready for the coming of the king, and yet to be totally unprepared for his arrival. Which is a fate far worse than death. So letís turn to Johnís message to see what he tells us about this extraordinary royal visitor.

1) The Royal Promise is Kept (Vv 1-5)

2) The Royal Challenge is Issued (Vv 6-9)

3) The Royal Warning is Given (Vv 10-12)

1) The Royal Promise is Kept (Vv 1-5)

So the first part of Johnís message is that the royal promise is kept. Letís have a look at verse 1: "In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ĎRepent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.í This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ĎA voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'í" Now the fact is that the last prophet to come to the people of Israel with a message from God had been Malachi. And he had come about 400 years before this time. And his message had been very hard hitting to the lax and lethargic people of his day. And part of his message had been looking forward to a future time when God would send a messenger who would prepare the way for God himself to come. So Malachi had said in chapter 3 v 1: "See I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his Temple." And who would be that messenger? Well Malachi made it clear in chapter 4 in his final words: "See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes." One in the mould of Elijah would come and prepare the way for Godís coming. Those were Malachiís last words. Those were Godís last words. And then? Silence. Silence for 400 years. God had not spoken to his people for 400 years. But throughout those centuries in between there had been no shortage of expectation, and especially in the past decades or so before John turned up here in Matthew 3. Because more recently the Romans had come and taken over Israel. And the people of Israel longed for the promised liberator to come. They longed for God to keep his promise of 400 years previously and come to rescue them. And every so often someone would appear on the scene who might just fit the bill as the promised messenger, but actually it soon would become clear it was not he. And so the prayer continued: Lord when are you coming? Lord why donít you say something?

Now I donít think anything in our experience quite catches the longing of Godís people at this time. It had been a 400 year wait and now the expectancy was at fever pitch. The nearest I can get is a childís longing for something he knows is coming. I remember one of the first times I went to the cinema was to see The Return of the Jedi in 1983. I wasnít very young, but still it was an exciting experience. And my friends and I talked for ages about the Star Wars films that we had all seen. And then someone mentioned the possibility of George Lucas making the first three in the Star Wars set, three films before the Star Wars trilogy. Well we all thought that would be amazing. But it was only a rumour, and nothing was coming of it. And for years and years, the hope lay dormant in our hearts. But many years later, it was announced that George Lucas really was making the other three in the series. And many people were ecstatically excited. Remember that for about 20 years weíd been waiting for this awesome phenomenon to appear on our screens. And then at last the great day came, when Star Wars 1 came out in the cinemas in the summer of 1999. And we wentÖ. And it was a total let down!

Now I guess all of us have had the experience of waiting for something special to happen. But not for 400 years, and not for the liberation that God promised at that time. So can you imagine, then, the excitement when a prophet appeared out in the desert, where prophets normally were. And this guy even looked like Elijah! Thatís why Matthew mentions his clothes and his food. Verse 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." He wants us to see that John the Baptist is the promised Elijah figure. Heís not the prophet Elijah come back from the dead. Rather John is one in Elijahís mould. Heís a prophet come to speak Godís words to a people who had not heard anything for 400 years. And what does he say? "Repent for the kingdom of God is near!" Get ready for Godís king is coming! Yes at last the time is coming when the prophecies are going to be fulfilled, says John.

And if we are in any doubt as to what Matthew means, then he gives us a quotation from the OT prophet Isaiah which confirms our suspicions: "This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ĎA voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'í" Now this is a different prophecy to Malachiís but God is making the same point. A messenger will come who will prepare the way for the Lord. He will straighten out the paths. In ancient times, the roads would be straightened or flattened so that the coming of the King would not be delayed or hindered. And even in cities today you can see traces of past glories where kings or emperors have made long straight roads for them to parade into the city in all their pomp and glory. Cities such as Paris and Rome are good examples. And here this messenger will straighten the road for Godís arrival in the world. He will prepare Godís people for Godís coming. And this prophecy in Isaiah 40 has an added thrill. Because it was originally written to the people in exile in Babylon. It was a promise that God would bring them back from exile in Babylon which he did. He had indeed comforted his people and ended their labour. But that was not the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy. Because now Matthew says that the messenger has come and is announcing the coming of the Lord. And it means therefore that the peopleís spiritual exile is over. God will release his people from the hard labour of sin. It means that with the coming of God into the world, with the coming of the King Jesus who is God with us, Immanuel, our spiritual exile from God can be brought to an end. And the people were buzzing. They loved it. Verse 5: "People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan." They came from miles around to hear this prophet. Why? Because at last after all this time, Godís promise of freedom and forgiveness and liberation is being fulfilled. The ancient prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi are being fulfilled. After 400 years, God is speaking again. What he has promised to do, he is doing. And that is a real message of comfort isnít it?

Now itís worth us pausing for moment to consider that truth, that God always keeps his promises. Because it is a truth that is vital to our spiritual health. Because if we forget this most precious truth, then the little ship of our faith will be so easily shipwrecked. Now there is no doubt that sometimes it is very hard to trust God in the midst of the great difficulties we sometimes go through. And maybe you feel like these people of Israel that God has been silent for 400 years. It seems as if there has been no answer to your prayer. It seems as if the heavens are silent. But be assured by what we read here, that no matter the time scale, God is faithful. Yes it may be that he asks us to be patient, but God is faithful. If he has promised never ever to leave you or forsake, then he will keep that promise. The length of time makes no difference to the promises of God. Are you tempted sometimes to think that the promises of God have sell by dates? Like yoghurt than is not eaten within a few weeks so Gods promises go off after a certain amount of time. So heís not answered your prayer in such and such a way, so God canít care. The promise to love you and shepherd you has worn off. Do you think that Jesusí promise to return to this world and wrap up human history has gone off? Is there a little piece of small print on the promise of Jesusí return which says "Best Before July 1465?" No of course there isnít! And whilst it mean seem like God has forgotten us, let me assure you from the scriptures this morning he has not. What he promised to the people in Malachi, he did 400 years later in John. And what he has promised to us as his people, he will do. And he does it in the small and big things of life. So there was wonderful moment in our Homegroup this week when we were able to share two remarkable answers to prayer, one of which weíd been praying for for months. Yes, God is faithful. He does not forget his people. He wonít always answer as we expect, but he will never leave or forsake us. And for those who are undoubtedly going through tough times at the moment, then cling on to that promise. Because the King of kings always keeps his word. The royal promise is kept.

2) The Royal Challenge is Issued (Vv 6-9)

But that leads us secondly to see that the royal challenge is issued. This is Johnís second lesson for us about Jesus. In the light of Jesus coming, the people of God need to act and get ready. And that is always the case when royalty turn up. You need to be ready. So when Prince Philip came to our primary school to open a new school hall, there were parts of the school that saw paint for the first time in about 50 years. The kitchen staff suddenly became pleasant. Boys combed their hair for the first time in their lives. You get ready for the visit of royalty. So it is with the coming of Jesus. So what is the heart of Johnís message? Verse 2: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." The king is coming. He is bringing in his new kingdom! So, repent! Thatís how the people of God get ready for the coming King. They repent. Thatís the kingís challenge! And it was true for the Godís people then, and itís true for Godís people now. So what does Ďrepentí mean?

Well if you look up "repent" in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find this definition: "Repent: To feel deep sorrow about oneís actions, to wish one had not done something, to regret." But actually that is not the Bibleís way of understanding repentance. Repentance is not just saying sorry or feeling sorry for yourself. Thatís only half the story. Imagine that my wife and I are planning one Saturday morning to go shopping in town. Itís very hard for me to imagine that, but letís try and imagine it anyway. And we drive out of Desmond Avenue and turn right onto Beverley Road towards Beverley going north out of town. And Debbie says to me: "Youíre going the wrong way. Youíre driving away from Princesí Quay, not towards it." Now I could say at that point, "Oh Iím so sorry. I deeply regret my actions. I am weighed down with sorrow and woe by the fact that weíre driving the wrong way and going away from Princesí Quay." Well thatís all well and good and but it doesnít make one jot of difference to the way we are going. No, I need to turn around and start going the other way. I need to take action. I donít just need to think about it and feel sorry. And repentance is both a change of mind and a change of action. It involves the mind and the actions. Itís not just saying sorry or feeling remorseful. And if youíre just feeling sorry for yourself and never do anything different, then you have not repented. And that is what our passage teaches us.

a) Repentance: A Change of Mind- So notice first that repentance is a change of mind. Verse 5: "People went out to John from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River." In the light of the coming King, the people confessed their sin. They had to have a change in their thinking. They had to acknowledge that they were not in a fit state spiritually to welcome Godís king. They had to turn from self sufficiency and saying that they were fine and essentially good people, to realise that they were not good enough for God. And the sign of that change of mind was to undergo baptism. Now usually this ritual in those days was reserved for non Jews when they wanted to become Jews. It was for the pagans to have to go through. And it was a humiliating thing because you publicly acknowledged that you were a sinner and needed Godís forgiveness. And baptism symbolised the washing away of sin. So it was this humbling public confession and watery sign that the people submitted to. And itís the same for you and me today. If we want to be fit for the coming King, if we want to start following this Saviour King Jesus, then the first thing we must do is admit our sin. We need a change of mind. And that is a very painful thing to admit. Itís admitting you cannot save yourself. Itís admitting you are helpless. Itís swallowing your pride and saying to God- I desperately need you to save me and forgive me. It involves first a change of mind. But if repentance were just that, then it would be as useless as me saying to my wife "Iím sorry weíre driving to Beverley instead of Princesí Quay," and doing nothing about it.

b) Repentance: A Change of Action- Because repentance means secondly a change of action. Have a look at verse 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?" Now a changed life was precisely not what these guys had. These men, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious rulers of Israel. They were the clergy of the day, the guys who are supposed to lead by example and put their own sermons into practice. But did they? Well see what John calls them- "You brood of vipers!" Itís hardly a complement is it? They are a bunch of hypocritical snakes. The sort of people who slither away when the fire gets hot. And what was their problem? Well these men talked a great game. They were brilliant at doing religion. They wore the fancy clothes, they had that pious look, they performed all the right rituals and said the right things. They no doubt even confessed their sins. But was it genuine repentance? No. Because there was no change in their life. Do you see Johnís challenge in verse 8? "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." In other words, repenting is not just about words, itís about actions as well. You have not genuinely repented unless your changed mind leads to a changed life. And these men failed totally. And to cap it all, they trusted not in the grace and mercy of God but in their own religious heritage. Verse 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." They thought they were fine because theyíd been brought up in the church! They were Jews! They were kosher. They were fine. But no, says John. Your bloodline doesnít help one jot. Itís about mind and actions.

And you know there are many today who fall into this very dangerous trap of thinking they are OK spiritually, when all along they are not. And often they inhabit our churches. People whose confidence is not in their standing before God and his grace and mercy, but in their own religious performance. So they talk a great game. They perhaps come from a religious family. They know their Bibles, they come regularly to church, they say all the right things, and they take Communion. But the question is not are you doing all the right religious things, or have you got the right Christian upbringing or heritage, but have you repented? God has no grandchildren. Just because you were brought up as a Christian does not entitle you to become a child of God. It does not buy you a ticket to heaven. Rather you need, like everyone else, to repent. So have you done that? Has a changed mind led to a changed life? You see you can do all the right things, but have never submitted to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. And it may be that you are here this morning, and you know itís true. You know deep down that you have actually never repented. You play the Christian game, do and say the right things, but you have never truly repented. Thereís no genuine fruit in your life. Well if that is you, then like the people of Johnís day you must confess your sin and admit your need and come to Christ. And begin to live life as is meant to be lived.

But let me remind us all too before we move on, that repentance is not just to be done at the start of the Christian life. Itís something that happens all the way through. Because as our minds are shaped by the word of God, so there will be things in our lives which will need constant attention. Areas will be exposed as we go on in our walk with God, and we will need to repent of those too. Changes in action will need to happen- perhaps with our tongues, our money, our priorities. You name it, it will need the attention of the master. Yes, weíre on the right road, weíre going the right way, but frequently weíll veer off that road and weíll need to come back. So are you willing continually to make those changes? To bear the fruit which is in keeping with repentance? Or have you grown just a little complacent of the sin in your life? If truth be told, there hasnít been much fruit for a while. We all need to repent whatever stage weíre at today. For the royal challenge is issued.

3) The Royal Warning is Given (Vv 10-12)

And that brings us to our final lesson from John and that is the royal warning is given. Because John warns us that unless action is taken, unless repentance is genuine, then we will face very serious consequences. Because King Jesus is not a king to be trifled with. He is not someone we can hoodwink. And he will expose all sham religion and hypocrisy. And John makes it clear in these final verses that Jesus is returning to carry out the judgement that he promised to bring. So listen to the warning of verse 10: "The axe 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." This King will throw out any tree that does not bear fruit. Itís like a farmer walking through an orchard and marking all the trees that havenít borne fruit that year with a spray can. He marks them with an Ďxí. They are fit only for the fire because they are dead. And that is the dire warning that we need to listen to. See how John goes on in verse 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. 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." Johnís point is that Jesus is supremely more powerful than John himself. Jesus has the power to change the heart. He can give us his Spirit to change us and purify us. But if we reject him, if we hold him at armís length, however politely we try and do it, we show ourselves to be chaff that is fit to be thrown into the fire. We can either bow the knee to him willingly today and allow him to do his refining work in our hearts. Or we can bow before him unwillingly on the day when we he comes again and face the fire of judgment. Fire of change now, or fire of judgement later. Thatís the choice we face. Thatís the warning weíre given.

On September 10th 2001 an American Airlines passenger noticed a stewardess breaking up ice with a wine bottle. Concerned that she might hurt herself, he asked if there was some other way of doing this. The stewardess was impressed that he should be so concerned and after theyíd talked together she gladly accepted a Christian booklet from him. Later in the flight she told him it was the sixth booklet of this kind that she had been given recently and asked ĎWhat does God want from me?í The man replied, ĎYour lifeí. Then he explained her need to get right with God through trusting Jesus Christ. Less than twenty-four hours later that stewardess was on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Centre.

You see, our trouble is that we cannot predict the future. None of knows how long we have until we meet him. We donít know whether he will come before we die, or if weíll die before he comes again. But one thing is sure. We will meet the king, and we need to be ready. And if you are not ready to meet King Jesus, if you have not yet repented, then can I urge you to think very seriously about what we looked at this morning. Itís not a matter of opinion. Itís God truth. And we need to decide. And if we have repented, if we do love Jesus as our King, then you can be certain of his promises. He is faithful. And surely his coming will be a spur to us to continue to live a life of repentance, knowing that our master hates sin and loves holiness. Because when the King of kings comes to visit, then every one us must make sure weíre ready to meet him.

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