Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Matthew 05: Repent!

John the Baptist Preaching - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1732-1733
Scripture Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Introductory Comments

Last week’s reading had three parts. We focused on the middle part: The story of Herod’s killing of innocent boys in Bethlehem to protect his power and authority. It was the story of original sin, and we saw how all human beings, including everyone in this place, are born with the same sinful tendencies as Herod.

We concluded, based on an examination of ourselves and recent events in the world, that we need nothing less than total liberation from this sin if we are to be saved. And Matthew shoes us who that liberator will be. He will be one who, like Moses, who led Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Matthew shows us how Jesus will liberate his people from the massive, Herod-shaped sin-hole in which we all find ourselves.

So the broad stokes of Matthew’s gospel painting look like this: First, there is an decisive announcement in the genealogy of chapter 1 that the messiah has come, the liberator who is both the eternal heir to the throne of David and who embodies the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, that Israel will be a beacon of hope for all the nations of the world.

Second, as evidence of this, Matthew shows us that how idolatrous, gentile pagan are drawn to and worship Christ, while the religiously Jewish “King” Herod stays home. The Magi showed us the power of grace, while Herod illustrated for us life under the power of sin and rebellion against God.

Third, we saw just how that sin and rebellion plays itself out. Sin is the power of death, and Herod, desperate to retain his control and power, takes out innocents in order to protect his own glory. Upon examination of some of the events of the world, and an honest examination of what goes on in our hearts, we also said that we are far more like Herod that we might prefer to imagine. Accordingly, we are need of a great Savior.

This week, we are introduced to the next character on the canvas of Matthew’s painting. It is John the Baptist. John’s ministry is one of calling people to repentance for sin through preaching.

John the Baptist – the Basic Message

Here’s how our text begins:
[3:1] In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, [2] “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [3] 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.’”

[4] Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. [5] Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, [6] and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
So who is John? John, we know from Luke, was Jesus’ cousin. And we also know from Luke that he spent a lot of time in the wilderness before his ministry of preaching and baptizing began. Matthew would have us know that John was a long-awaited forerunner of the Messiah. That’s why he quotes the words of the prophet Isaiah (the reference is 40:3). Many believed that the forerunner would resemble Elijah (see for example Malachi chapter 4), which is why John’s dress, grooming, and eating habits are mentioned here. “Here is the forerunner to the Messiah,” Matthew tells us, “Pay very close attention to what he says.”

What he says is what is required of God when we sin: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

What does it mean to repent? The Greek word translated as “repent” means to come back or turn around. It implies radically changing course from the route your on to on, one that leads to destruction, to one that leads to life.

John uses an imperative form of the word repent. His preaching is a plea to the people based on an urgent reality. His call is a warning. Why? Because of the second half of his message, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John knows that God has broken into the world, and that the kingdom of heaven has come near. And John, who stands as really the last of the great Old Testament prophets, knows what happens when repentance is lacking and God is near. There are tremendous consequences, and they are not good.

John’s call to repent is because the kingdom of heaven has come near. That means God has come. And that mean’s God’s judgment has come. This is not a plea to get people to repent so that the kingdom will come. Instead, the kingdom has come, and therefore we must repent.1

This has huge bearing on everyone hearing this message today. Why? Because repentance is not just for those who need forgiveness from God. We will see soon that repentance is also for those who are already in the church, and who by the power of the Holy Spirit know the saving work of God in Jesus Christ.

This Old Testament prophet in the New Testament draws a big crowd, and we should pay close attention to what happens next:
[5] Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, [6] and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
We see in verse 5 that many, many people were responding to John’s preaching. They would only do that if they were convicted that what he was saying was true. At this time in Israel’s history, Messianic expectations were on high alert. There was a longing for deliverance from the perceive exile of having to live under the hand of the Romans. And so the people came, in his expectation, that what John was saying was true.

And so they come to him to do two things. First, they came “confessing their sins.” Bruner translates this same phrase as “openly admitted their sins”2 and I think that’s a good translation. They came to John, and before him and everyone else declared their opposition to God, and their repentance was signified by a baptism. Sins need to be openly confessed. That terrifies most of us today, because we know what has been going on. But we need it. Confession of sins brings forgiveness. Second, they undergo a ritual bath as a public declaration of their repentance.

We now turn to the next part of our text, which shows us that those in the church needs repentance, too.

The Church Needs to Repent
[7] 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? [8] Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. [9] 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. [10] 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.
When the religious leaders come to see what’s up, John preaches a second message that is, shall we say, indelicate? He doesn’t flatter them at all, but instead calls them a “brood of vipers.” He expresses, it seems, surprise that they would even be there, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He directs them, the pious Pharisees and education Sadducees, to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, John is saying, you religious leaders need to repent just as much as everyone else you came here to see.

And then he explains to them why: “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.” Don’t presume, pious religious laypeople and leaders, that you can simply say you are circumcised and keep the law and expect to be safe. As we will see, it is not membership in a covenant community that saves you. If you’re not genuinely repentant, God will go ahead and raise up others who will be faithful.

I think this text from Matthew is a warning to the church today: Don’t just presume the benefits of Christ. Don’t just say, “I’m baptized and therefore safe.” God isn’t safe! But he is merciful to those who are truly repentant and who bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The message is: Do not think, beloved Saint, that you’re perfect yet. There is still Holy Spirit work to be done to you, which means there is still sin that must be mortified, put to death, by confession and repentance, so that the sin will be banished from you life and you’re made more like Christ, your adopted brother. Don’t be complacent, church, don’t be lukewarm in attending to your ongoing, every single day need for the grace of Christ!

The church needs this same reminder today. We too often take our salvation for granted. We need the reminder from the law that we, too, must be bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. And the church, perhaps now more than ever, needs the reminder that we cannot simply lay hold to the claim that we’re Christian, have been baptized, and find ourselves on the membership roles of a local church (or, in my case, a presbytery), and participate in a lot of good “mission.” What counts most to God is not the externalities of our faith, but the internal condition of our hearts, the place from which all sin originates. We should be a very concerned if we meander through life and it never occurs to us to repent of our sin. Too many times, Christians neglect repentance and true confession of sin, and as a consequences are subject to temptation.

The other day I heard a story about a person who said, very plainly, that they never sinned. That’s a sign of living without any knowledge of our need for the grace of Christ.

Scotty Ward Smith, a great pastor, said this week, “A sign you’re growing in grace: Your humble cry for mercy is much louder than your angry cry for justice.” Why? Because our angry cries for justice are usually predicated on our own sense of pride in knowing what is right and wrong. In fact, however, our knowledge of our own sinfulness and need for forgiveness is what always leads us back to the one who can save us – Jesus. The self-righteous shouting for justice too often leads back to the self, while the plea for mercy takes us to the Cross and to Jesus.

Jesus will make this plain in his story about the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee stands in the temple and loudly proclaims his righteousness under the law before others, and thanks God that he’s not a sinner, especially one like the tax collector nearby. The tax collectors, as this is going on, is beating on his chest in mourning and pleading with God for mercy for his sin. Who went home justified, asks Jesus? Why, it was that tax collector whom the Pharisee referred to as a sinner. We must not be like the Pharisee in this story, and the best way to do this is to be sure that we’re well acquainted with repentance. Repentance shows our dependence upon Jesus.

John Summarizes His Ministry

John summarizes his ministry this way:
[11] “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. [12] 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.”
As great as John’s ministry was, of calling people to repentance for sin and preparation for the arrival of God’s kingdom, it was limited. But he knows something more magnificent is coming. There is a person who will come who will bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, who will bring cleansing from sin, meaning, will bring righteousness.

That person is the subject of the gospel, Jesus. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. That’s so huge. If you’re in Christ, you’ve been baptized with the Holy Spirit. You have received, in Christ, the very fullness of God. We’ll speak more about that next week. He’s gathering his wheat into the barn of the kingdom. How does he accomplish this? By calling people to himself, and to accept his sacrificial death on their behalf for their sin. John the Baptist calls us to repentance for our deep sin. Jesus gives the grace of God, forgiveness from sin, rescuing us what condemns us. Amen.

1Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. Vol 1. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007. 87.
2Ibid. 89.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
August 21, 2001
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

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