Monday, December 10, 2007

The Kingdom Has Come Near

The Kingdom Has Come Near
Matthew 3:1-12
December 9, 2007
2nd Sunday in Advent

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: John is called the precursor, the one proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near. The implications of John’s statement ought to cause us much discomfort, because we are closer to the final culmination of John’s proclamation that anyone who has come before us. The time of waiting continues, but we should be living as if that Kingdom has already come into existence. The present realities of our lives must reflect this reality, if we truly accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Sermon Function: To proclaim John’s message for the contemporary listener, who is otherwise distracted by the forthcoming secular form of the Christmas holiday. Are we really ready for Christ’s return? This is the question that ought to dominate our thoughts.

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We’re now into our second week of exploration of not just the first coming of the baby Jesus, but the second coming of Jesus the Christ. Luke records that Jesus and John where related due to the family relationship between Elizabeth, John’s mother, and Mary, Jesus’ mother. They were cousins.

John gives us words of warning in our text; words that, to our ears, might sound strange and even a bit off-putting. Imagine what it might be like to hear this strange man who, walking from the fields, comes into, say, the HEB, his words booming through aisles. To say that we would be surprised and shocked would likely be an understatement.

As we continue our preparations for Christ’s return, let’s listen to God’s Word and what it is saying to us know.

[Read Scripture - Matthew 3:1-12]

Opening Illustration – The Kingdom is Near

I have learned that it is possible to get at least a glimpse into what those of us in Portland are reading by examining the book and magazine sales racks at Wall-Mart. It is an interesting experience to see what is selling. I take it that Wall-Mart wouldn’t have what they have unless there was some prospect of selling a few copies.

Behind such titles as “Your Best Life Now,” multiple books by Beth Moore, and three of four books by Joyce Meyer – incidentally, how to these people have the time to write so many books? – are a few bibles (hooray!). Also in the mix is one of those “Left-Behind” novels that give a very dispensationalist interpretation to the end times to come and the arrival of Christ’s kingdom on earth.

I paused in front of that book and thought for a moment about our text this week, a text in which this wild preacher named John comes proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near. The Greek word ἤγγικεν, the verb translated as “come near,” is a perfect verb. In the Greek language, perfect verbs describe actions that have already taken place and which have continuing, full effect – a change of state that persists.

And as I sat there looking at the book from the “Left Behind” series, the one that purports to tell the story of the forthcoming arrival of Christ’s kingdom on earth, I realized that indeed, they have likely gotten it wrong. The kingdom of God has come near with continuing full effect. It might come as a surprise to you, but Christ’s kingdom has already come into the world. It’s here already! We live, right now, in a world in a condition where the Kingdom of God has come near to us. Right now.


We forget this fact – the fact that we live in a “now and not yet” Kingdom of God. We miss the boat if we think that the kingdom isn’t here yet, but is promised to us at some point in the future. If we believe that, then I think we run the risk of living in some pie in the sky world, so that we might be manipulated into thinking that if we don’t fix everything right now, well hey, that’s okay! The kingdom will come and set everything aright.

But that’s not what John is saying, nor is it what Matthew says. One of the things that distinguishes the Gospel according to Matthew from the other gospels is that Matthew seems keenly interested in the intersection between faith and ethics.1 Faith, our faith that God will ultimately set things right in final judgment is somehow merged with the need to do something in response to this good news NOW. That is, in fact, what John is preaching here. He is saying that God’s kingdom has been inaugurated already, and accordingly we need to, as he says, repent! This prophet, who materializes almost out of nowhere in the wilderness of Judea, dressed remarkably like the great prophet Elijah the Tishbite in 2 Kings 1:8, is telling us that we need to do something right now in response to the news that the Kingdom has been inaugurated on earth. For John, that process of doing something NOW takes the form of repentance and baptism.

The Nature of Repentance

Repentance is an interesting word. To the modern ear, to repent means, in some way, that we are called upon to apologize for a wrong committed against God or our neighbor. The New Oxford American Dictionary says as much. “Repent” is defined as the need to “feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one's wrongdoing or sin.”2 And we should feel sorry for abrogating the covenant God has made with us. But John’s call to repent here is much larger than that. Again, we have to understand what the Greek word means in order to get the full gist of what John is asking us to do. The Greek word for “repent” is μετανοέω, which mean much more than just saying, “I’m sorry, Lord.” “Though in English a focal component of repent is the sorrow or contrition that a person experiences because of sin, the emphasis in μετανοέω … seems to be more specifically the total change, both in thought and behavior, with respect to how one should both think and act.3 Total change. In thought and behavior. John uses the imperative form of the verb, a decision that puts a sense of urgency on the action. Well, that makes more sense now, doesn’t it? If the Kingdom is already here, in some fashion that we usually don’t remember or see, then there is HUGE emphasis on responding to that reality now, with our thoughts and our actions – reforming our ways, and becoming new people.

Last week, we were talking about watching and waiting. And part of watching and waiting is responding to God’s wonderful work now by fundamentally rearchitecting our thoughts and actions so that we become proper reflections of Jesus Christ in the world. Paul rights to the Galatians and says “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27 NRSV). We don’t belong to ourselves anymore – we belong to Jesus.

So, Now What?

Advent is a time of watching, of waiting, and now we see it is also an opportunity ripe for transformation, for putting our faith into practice in our lives.

Reverend Billy Graham was recently asked what he thinks the greatest need is in our churches today. Is it better preaching? More youth work? What is it? The writer asking the question is on the board of a church, and they are debating this subject recently.

Billy Graham’s answer is illuminating and motivating and encapsulates our response today to John’s imperative to repent by transforming our lives in the knowledge that God’s Kingdom has come near and is currently near. Here’s Billy Graham’s response to the concerned church board member:
I'm convinced that the single greatest need in most churches today is spiritual revival - for a renewed commitment to Jesus Christ and a greater desire to do His will, regardless of the cost.

How does this happen? It must begin with an awareness of our spiritual poverty - an acknowledgment of our sin and our emptiness before God. It is no accident that Jesus' first words in the Sermon on the Mount dealt with this truth: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). This must lead us to confession and repentance, asking God to forgive us and turn our hearts toward Him.

Spiritual revival also means seeing the world the way God sees it, with all of its brokenness and rebellion and heartache - and then asking God to use us to touch it for Christ. When we are concerned only for ourselves, our lives and our churches will grow cold and stagnate - but when we become burdened over a world that has lost its way, then God can begin to use us.

Spiritual revival cannot be manufactured or created by our own efforts; only the Holy Spirit can bring true revival to our hearts. But we can pray for revival, and we can ask God to remove anything in our lives that would create a barrier to God's work. May the ancient prayer of Habakkuk become yours: "O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years" (Habakkuk 3:2, KJV)4
The Surprise of Advent

This is the surprise of Advent – The Kingdom of God has come near and remains near to us, even as we watch and wait. We are called to fundamentally change our focus, to shape our thoughts and our actions in response to this great thing that has happened. John, the firebrand, warned the Pharisees and Sadducees of “the wrath to come” as they stood there awaiting baptism. John implores them to bear fruit worthy of repentance – the fruit of repentance is personal transformation. Again, Matthew point to the ethical implications of personal transformation. The Pharisees and Sadducees through that claiming Abraham as their ancestor would be enough to absolve them for their sinfulness. But it wasn’t enough. The fruit of repentance was missing. I think we run a similar risk if we think that we can sort of coast by as a body of faithful believers who claim Christ as their ancestor.5 We know that God works through us and calls us to discipleship before we are even aware of it. But if our lives do not reflect that reality, then of what use are we to God? We become as useless as that tree which no longer bears fruit. If you have such a plant in your own garden, you don’t keep it around, you cut it out and replace it with one that is productive, and fully lives into its function of bearing fruit. Similarly, we are called by God to live our lives in the reality that the Kingdom of God is here.


How are we called to bear fruit? Matthew 28 gives us a clue.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20 NRSV)
We are to extend the message of the Gospel to the entire world. This church is called to extend the mission of the Gospel to the entire world. And we should ask ourselves if we could be doing more? Does our church budget reflect the reality that the kingdom has been inaugurated and is awaiting fulfillment with the return of Christ? Are we doing enough mission and evangelism in our community? How is my own budget a reflection of the reality of God’s kingdom? How do my relationships with other need to change to reflect the reality of the kingdom? Do I need to seek reconciliation with a friend or a family member? Do I need to cut back on a luxury so I can buy a family a meal, or giving gifts to children in need through the Angel Tree program? I implore you to reflect this Advent on your own spiritual life and the spiritual life of this church! Are we bearing fruit worthy of repentance? And if we are not, what must we do to be transformed? Are there hungry people in Portland that we need to feed? Are we using our land and our money appropriately? We’re going to need to work together to discern that answer as we get close to the end of the calendar year. The Kingdom is here, and Christ is coming. And we need to get on with being the people God has created us to be, not just to look busy, and we need to get on with the task of bearing fruit worthy of repentance, worth of that calling and ministry into which we have been baptized by the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Let us pray.

Merciful God, you sent your servant John to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Give us grace to heed his warning, and to forsake our sins and transform our lives, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.6

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Hare, Douglas. Matthew. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1993, p. 2.

2New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Edition) entry for “repent.”

3Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Eds. “μετανοέω.” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989.

4Graham, Billy. “My Answer: Spiritual Revival.” Christian Post. Nov. 30, 2007. Online here.

5Hare, p. 20.

6Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993, adapted from Prayer of the Day 1, p. 174.