Second Reformed Church

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

"Prepare the Way" Sermon: Matthew 3:1-12

“Prepare the Way”
[Matthew 3:1-12]
December 4, 2016 Second Reformed Church
            Are you getting ready?
            Are you preparing?
            When you think of preparing or getting ready, what do you think of?  Cleaning the house?  Fixing food?  Buying presents?  Getting dressed up?
            On this second Sunday of Advent, we see that preparing the way of the Lord is believing the Gospel of our Savior, Jesus, and being changed people because of that belief.
            John, called the Baptist, was the son of Elizabeth and the high priest, Zechariah.  John was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah to send a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus, his cousin, the Savior, to come.
            We are not told how long John spent in the wilderness learning to be a prophet, but he was a little older than Jesus, around thirty, when he began preaching at the Jordan River.
            And we see, God revives us in the wilderness.
            “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”’
            “Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
            There had not been a prophet in Israel for four hundred years, and then John appeared in the wilderness by the Jordan River.  He dressed in the uncomfortable clothes of the prophet and ate a basic meal of what was provided for him from the land.  And he came with a shocking message:  Israel had to repent and be right with God.  John told the Jews that they had to genuinely repent and be ceremonially cleansed by water – just like the Gentiles.
            The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand in the person and work of Jesus.  The Savior had come, and God called John to call Israel to “make the way straight” – to remove any obstacles to believing in Jesus and His Gospel and becoming right with God.
            But there’s a problem, isn’t there?
            If someone does not believe in Jesus, he is a slave to sin.  Jesus said, “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father’” (John 8:34-38, ESV).
            And slaves to sin are dead to responding to the call to repentance (cf. Ephesians 2).
            So what is the answer to the problem?
            The answer is found in history, as the Jews would have well remembered:  they had been slaves in Egypt, and God freed them with His Mighty Right Arm.
            As the night of the tenth plague came, we read:
            “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
            “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD's Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:5-13, ESV).
            A lamb was sacrificed in the place of the firstborn, and the blood of the lamb was spread over the doorway as a covering for the believers within the house, so they would not die in their sin, but be freed from their slavery to sin to follow God.
            Israel was in slavery when God came to them to free them and told them to respond by making the preparations God called for.  Those who believed and obeyed we saved.  Those who did not, suffered the tenth plague.
            Now we have John in the wilderness – symbolically in the place of slavery and lost-ness and suffering, and John calls out to Israel with the message of salvation – that they need to hear and trust the promise of God’s salvation.  That they must be covered with the water as a sign of their genuine repentance, so God would pass over them and receive them as His own and not suffer them the wages of their sin.
            Paul writes, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:6-11, ESV).
            God does not save us when we are good enough.  God does not save us when we have checked off enough good works.  God does not wait for us to be clean and fluffy.  No, God comes to us in the wilderness and sacrifices His Own Son, and covers us with His Blood, He revives us to spiritual life and sends us with the command to genuinely repent of our sin and to go forth from the wilderness, believing and obeying – doing and being all those things that a slave to sin could not do or be, but a child of God now can and must.
            And so, the call to repent and believe and make the path straight is to all those God has made able – all those who can respond.  God revives us to spiritual life in the wilderness and then sends us forth.
            God revived many people and sent them to the Jordan to be baptized and to confess their sins.  And many of the Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious leaders who were largely telling the people that they didn’t need God to revive them – they had it all within them – they just had to believe in themselves and make the sacrifices – even if they didn’t confess or believe – and they would be right with God.  They taught the people that God was more interested in sheep’s blood than in them coming to spiritual life and being God’s obedient and faithful children.
            And John challenges them, telling them that anyone who does not bear good fruit will be cut off.
            “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
            John recognizes that these religious leaders are still in slavery to sin.  They were minimizing God and holding up the power of the human will.
            And John warns them that God’s Wrath is coming.  God will not wink at sin or allow it to pass.  The punishment for sin must be paid for.  And anyone who is not bearing good fruit – anyone who is not bearing fruit in keeping with repentance – anyone who is not genuinely repenting and believing in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and striving to obey Him – is under the Wrath of God.
            The Pharisees and Sadducees had it in their heads that their genetics would save them – they were children of Abraham – so God would accept them for Abraham’s sake.  They thought their baptism of themselves – which was the practice in those days – the Jews would wash themselves as a symbolic cleansing – they thought what they did would be enough.
            They thought they could go through the motions and not be changed and that would be good enough for God.
            “I go to church every week.  For funerals and weddings.  I go for special occasions and contribute to the funds when I am sent letters asking me to.  I stay awake during the service and thank the pastor afterward.  I help out during coffee hour, and then I go home.  That should be enough for God.  I do more than most people.  I am better than most people.  So, yeah, I would say I’m a believer; I’m a Christian.  I’m a good person.”
            But God says and John says that it is not enough.  God can raise up children for Abraham from the stones of the ground – after all, He made Adam out of the dust.  Unless there is a baptism by God – symbolized in John baptizing the repentant believer – there is no salvation.  We cannot save ourselves, someone else has to save us – to bring us back to life, and then we can and must respond.
            Jesus explains it like this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:1-6, ESV).
            Jesus says that becoming a believer – a Christian – means fundamentally changing.  Just as a branch is taken from one plant and grafted into another and then grows there and bears fruit according to that plant.  Someone who truly believes in Jesus – who has been freed from slavery to sin, revived, and enlivened spiritually – will bear the good fruit of obedience to Christ.
            If you persistently, unrepentantly, refuse to believe and do all that God has said, then you are not a Christian.  If you strive to believe and do what God has commanded, and you continue to repent of your sin, and strive after holiness in all your life, then you are a Christian.
            Rev. Paul Washer, who some of us will remember from our “Behold Your God” study, gives this example:  He says to pretend he was invited to preach somewhere, and he arrives thirty minutes after the service starts.  When he gets there, the elders are mad and want an explanation of what happened – why he didn’t think it worthy of him to show up on time for the service.
            And he tells them that he was on his way, but he got a flat tire, and when he got out of the car to fix the flat tire, he didn’t see that there was a ten-ton logging truck barreling down on him, and there was nowhere for him to run, so the truck hit him head on, and when he got up, he still had to change the tire, so that is why he is late.
            At that point, the elders would say that he is either a liar or insane.  Why?  Because you cannot encounter a ten-ton logging truck head on and not be fundamentally changed – splattered all over the road.  And in the same way, you cannot genuinely encounter Jesus – truly believe in Him and His Gospel – and not be changed.
            If someone says they are a Christian and there is nothing different from when they weren’t a Christian – they aren’t a Christian.  A Christian will bear good fruit.  A Christian will want to grow in faith.  A Christian will want to do and be all that God has said.  A Christian will strive and plead and beg God for help to be the man or woman God calls us to be.
            And John gives the warning – the axe is laid at the tree.  The axe is a symbol of judgement in Scripture.  The axe is laid at the root of the tree.  John tells them that judgment is coming.  There no more time to fool around and to be pretend Christians.  The Savior is coming and He will judge the world and anyone who is not bearing the true fruit of a Christian will be cut down – cut off – and throw into the fire.
            And the message is the same today – you and I all know people playing church – playing Christian.  People who think church is a club that teaches people to be moral and to have a positive view of the world.
            I can’t tell you the number of people – even in my own family – who say, “Yes, I am a Christian; I am a good person.  But I don’t believe the Bible.  I don’t believe in Jesus and His Gospel.”  Well, then you are not a Christian and you are not a good person, and if you don’t fundamentally change by receiving the Gospel by faith alone and then repenting and obeying Jesus, you will be cut off!
            Finally, John tells them that Jesus sends God the Holy Spirit to indwell and sanctify believers.
            “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
            John explains that what he is doing is preparatory:  he is calling people in the wilderness to believe and repent by the Grace of God working in them.  But he tells them that he is only the voice in the wilderness.  He is the one calling them back to God and the promised Savior – Who is greater than John – and Who is come.
            The Savior is come, and He also baptizes, but He baptizes by giving the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit, Who works like a purifying fire within the believer to make us holy – to sanctify us.
            This is how Malachi proclaims this: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4, ESV).
            One will be sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  The Lord, the Savior God, will come.  He will indwell those who believe with the Holy Spirit.  And He will cut off those who do not produce fruit.  But God the Holy Spirit, will purify – He will make holy – those who do believe – and they will bear fruit – and then they will be faithful and obedient and pleasing to the Lord.
            And at the end of days, Jesus will come as the Judge.  He with take the grain and throw it up in the air with His winnowing fork – like a rake – and the grain will fall to the ground, while the chaff – that papery covering on the grain – will float down more slowly – and He will separate the grain from the chaff and throw the chaff into the fire.
            That means Jesus will separate those who are true believers from those who don’t believe – from those who are just playing church – from those who think their years of service or degree or family earn them a place in the Kingdom.  It also means that you and I will not be judged by our parents, or our teachers, or our ministers, or anyone other than Jesus.
            So, as we walk through the Second Advent, awaiting the return of our Savior, let us prepare the way.  Let us be sure that we truly – genuinely – believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ – Who He is and what He did in history to assure our salvation.
            Let us seek to bear fruit.  Let us strive to know what God has said and to become and do all that He has commanded us.  Let us ask God the Holy Spirit to lead us and strengthen us and make us into the Image of God’s Son.  Let us not rest, but strive with everything we are to love God so much that it pains us to sin against Him and gives us great joy to obey Him.
            Let us become a people who can truly say with all of our hearts that what we believe and what we do is in response to the salvation that we have received through Jesus Christ.
            Let us pray:
            Almighty God, we thank You for sending John to prepare the way for Jesus.  We thank You for calling us in the wilderness of sin in which each one of us first lived and reviving us to live eternally through Jesus.  We thank You for indwelling us with God the Holy Spirit.  And we ask that You would continue to revive us and stir up the fires of purification in us that our greatest joy would be to know and obey You.  Lord, make us more like Jesus.  Please make us more like Jesus.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

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