December 8, 2019

Matthew 3:1-12

I thought about inviting John the Baptist to fill the pulpit this morning, but today is the Sunday that we light the candle of peace, and John does not seem to be the right choice for this Sunday.

Besides, several of my pastor friends have had him in their pulpits, and his preaching was met with mixed reviews.

Some of the older people didn’t like how he was dressed. They said he looked like a hippie dressed in that camel hair with his leather belt and laced up sandals.

The younger crowd thought what we wore was cool. Someone said he looked like a Biblical version of Crocodile Dundee.

Apparently, John offended some of the members of these churches because he refused to eat their cooking.  There are still some people pride themselves on their cooking, gauging their talents on how many helpings of fried chicken, mash potatoes, and gravy the preacher eats.

I guess John’s spent too much time out in the desert to be very cultured. He kept saying he was on a strict diet of honey-covered locusts.  He says they are low in carbs.

One other thing I should mention,  John prefers the preach outdoors, preferably down by the river.  He likes to have a baptism at every service.  It doesn’t seem like John’s comfortable preaching unless somebody’s getting wet.

But here’s the biggest reason I decided not to invite John to preach: his message is offensive to some people.

On a Sunday that we are supposed to be focusing on peace, I didn’t think it was a good idea to invite John here to stir up things.

Now I know that John prepared the way for Jesus, but I also know that John’s gone into some of the churches and ended up offending the preacher, the deacons, the Sunday School director, and the Women’s Missionary Union director all on the same Sunday.

In one church, he even offended the church secretary. You can fire the preacher, and there will be another one in the pulpit the next week, but if you lose your secretary, it might be months before the church can function again.

John doesn’t care who he offends. That’s his problem. He ought to know that in the church he needs to tippy-toe around those leaders who can make trouble for him and light a fire under those that never show up to hear the message, you know, those that need to hear it. That way, you can appear to be tough on sin and never offend anyone.

John hasn’t learned that there are some people you don’t want to offend.

At one church near one of our Baptist seminaries, some leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention came to hear John preach.

They came down and sat close to the front and John noticed them right away.  John could tell somehow they had not come to worship, but to find fault in his message.

John the Baptist can smell a rat from a hundred paces, and what’s more, he doesn’t have any problem pointing one out front of the entire church.  That’s what he did to all those male leaders.
I hope that you understand, I couldn’t risk asking John to speak to you on the second Sunday of Advent. I’m sure he would have caused trouble.

John has never backed away from conflict. In fact, even when there isn’t conflict, John seems to find some. So on a Sunday when we are focusing on peace, why would I bring him here?

Don’t you remember the time he spoke out against King Herod after the king set aside his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife?

John the Baptist told the king what he was doing was unlawful.

John didn’t have to do that. In fact, why would you embarrass the king? The king can do what he wants, right?

He can, but if it’s unlawful for a common man, it’s unlawful for the king, too. It just takes someone with a lot of courage to point it out.

That’s John.

I don’t think a man with that kind of courage is going to worry whether or not his message to the church is offensive.

But to John’s credit, he doesn’t say things just to be offensive.  John has a distinct purpose in his message: to prepare the way for Jesus.  John wants people to come to Jesus.

Every week before we depart, I always say, “May the peace of Christ be with you.”

John the Baptist is rough around the edges, but if he prepares the way for Jesus, the Prince of Peace, maybe I should have invited him to come after all.

That’s what Advent is all about. This is a season that we are supposed to prepare ourselves to receive the Lord, to prepare for his coming.  What better person to help us than John?

Jesus once called John a prophet and said, “Among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” Matthew 11:11 (NIV)

I admit I was afraid that if I invited John to preach, he might have made us squirm in our seats with his fire and brimstone style of preaching. He would have been dramatic, passionate, in your face, making the moment seem urgent, critical, and necessary because what you decide this moment about Jesus, this very moment, may make a difference in your life for eternity.

John’s messages have no middle ground. John’s preaching leads you down a path that forks. He forces you to choose which fork you will take in every message.

When John preaches, he says that you are either for Jesus or against Jesus. To make it even plainer, John says you are either producing fruit for Jesus, or you are getting ready to be kindling for a fire. With John, it’s either fruit or fire.

I don’t like to hear those kinds of messages. I prefer messages that give people a little more wiggle room, don’t you?

John doesn’t preach that way. Nope, for John, it’s fruit or fire? Which is it?

Are you producing fruit?  Are you living a life centered around self or Jesus? If your life is centered around Jesus, then your concern is primarily for others and how you can help others in this life.

If you are not producing fruit, John says you are going to be kindling for the fire.

Those Southern Baptists I spoke about that John offended – he called them a bunch of snakes, and then he asked, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance?” (Matt. 11:7)

They were religious, but they were not producing fruit.

In other words, just because you are a big shot church leader does not mean you are producing fruit.

John’s big on wrath and repentance. It’s either repentance or wrath with John. There’s no in-between.

What John’s afraid of is that too many people get religion without getting Jesus. That happens too much during this time of year.

People make a token visit to the church, and they put out a nativity scene, and they have a little religion with their Christmas. It’s not much more thoughtful than adding a little butter to their bread or a little cream to their coffee.

John says that in order to prepare for Jesus, there has to more to it than that, much more.

Before Christmas can come, we must understand why Jesus came. It’s as simple and as complex as this: Jesus came to save us from sin.

Too many people are unwilling to admit sin, and take a step toward Jesus.  We are all sinners.  The first step in giving our lives to Jesus is repentance. It always has been. It always will be.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia (met-an’-oy-ah). It means to turn around.  We have to acknowledge we are going away from Jesus.  We cannot give our lives to Jesus if we do not turn around from our sinful ways and head toward the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb.

When we see the manger, we are shocked that God chose such a vulnerable way to enter our world.

We are shocked that God subjected his son to an earthly existence to show us the Heavenly Father.

When we see the cross, we are shocked that Jesus loved us enough to subject himself to an earthly execution so that death could be defeated.

When we kneel and see the empty tomb, we are shocked at the power of Almighty God. Not even death has any hold him.

This kind of power, love, and sacrifice demands a response from us.

When we respond to Jesus’ love, the result is peace.  Do you have that peace?

From John the Baptist’s view, we are either headed toward Jesus, or we are moving away from Jesus.

Our lives are lived with an ongoing desire to turn from every act of evil and evil influence or our lives are lived with a desire to do what we want to do without any interference from the Lord.

Sometimes, the religious garments are only smokescreens that keep others fooled, but we never fool our Lord. That’s the reason John the Baptist challenged the religious leaders of his day.

Ultimately, the proof of allegiance to Jesus is in the fruit, a metaphor for good works, for using the gifts God has given us for the sake of the kingdom.

All of us have gifts to be used for God. We have been given gifts for the sake of others.

Just as an apple tree doesn’t produce apples for its own sake, but for the consumption of others, our gifts are given to us by God for the body of Christ and for loving the unlovely.

Our gifts are given to us so we can bless others by ministering to them.

If John the Baptist had come to preach to you today, he would have been blunt. He would have told us that people whose lives are not being lived in keeping with repentance are headed for the fire.

I’m just telling you that John doesn’t mince words. He has no middle ground.

He told some leaders a while back that “the ax 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.” (Matt. 3:10)

He said that as he stood in the river, dripping wet, and he invited people to come and be baptized as a sign of their repentance to God. He then told the people to be prepared for one who was coming whose sandals he was not even worthy to untie, one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Are you preparing for Jesus this Advent season? For every hour of shopping and decorating you are doing, how much time are you spending producing good fruit, looking to help those around you, to give to others in the name of Jesus?

I’ve seen a lot of good fruit produced, but some people are still focused on what they are getting instead of focusing on how they can help others.

For every football game you will watch this holiday season, how many hours will you spend playing games with the children, allowing yourself to see Christmas through their eyes?

For every tangible gift, you give, how many intangible gifts will you give away? These last the longest, you know.  Your time to the lonely is worth more than you can imagine.

I didn’t invite John the Baptist to come today. It would have been rather cold down at the river anyway, and I doubt we could have talked anybody into being baptized outside.

But it’s just as well. John’s reputation has reached us all the way up here in Jackson County, a reputation for telling it like it is – it’s either fruit or the fire.

Some of you may have gone home mad.  You know, it’s important for me to keep my job.

John can be offensive, but what he says he says in love, to get us to understand that real peace doesn’t come unless we change, and changes don’t occur unless we recognize that we are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.

John has said that the Lord’s “winnowing fork in is his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning the chaff, with unquenchable fire.” (Matt. 3:12)

That’s not a very joyous verse to think about during Advent or to close a sermon with, but then again, John’s style of preaching wasn’t for entertainment, it was for repentance.

Such is this invitation.

If you don’t have peace in your heart, then the Holy Spirit lets you know.  If there is a restlessness in your soul, then John says, you need you to come down to the river.  John says that down at the river you can have your sins washed away if you will trust Jesus as your Savior.  Acknowledge that you are a sinner.  Repent of your sins.  Then allow God to live through you to help others through the gifts that God has or will give you.

The result of this will be peace, peace like a river, peace like a river in my soul.

It’s down by the river where all the rejoicing takes place.  Jesus will meet you there because John prepared the way for him.

There’s no better way to prepare for Christmas. If you have been heading away from the Lord, it’s time you came down to the river, repented of your sins, and became a baptized Christian.

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