Repent and Be Baptised
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Why did people go out into the wilderness to listen to the message of John the Baptist?
Jesus later asked the same question when talking about John the Baptist. What did you go out in to the wilderness to see? You have to remember, John was not preaching in the temple. This was not an interruption to your regularly scheduled viewing, like the people selling something or fundraising in a shopping centre that intrude on your thoughts when you are trying to go about your Christmas shopping. If you heard John the Baptist preach his message, it was because you had sought him out. And you had gone along way to hear him. So if you were offended by his message, well, I guess you didn’t have to be there.
So why? Why go and seek him out? Do people LIKE getting yelled at? Insulted? What was it? John was the first authentic prophet that we read about God sending to the people of Israel in some 400 years. That alone might have been a drawcard. A real prophet! None of the people alive then had ever seen a real prophet.
But they could just listen to others who made the trek. They could have got the information from them. His message didn’t change from day to day, and people talk, they would have filled each other in on what John’s message was. It was harsh and uncompromising, I don’t know the last time I responded to a request for a baptism by calling those who asked a brood of vipers. I would like to think: Never.
John didn’t have to please the crowds to earn his daily bread. He wasn’t preaching for a living, he wasn’t making a living off the religious people, he wasn’t trying to please the establishment. That’s why the detail was there about living off locusts and wild honey. He was tough, and cut right to the bone.
And still the people came. Why? The must have heard what he was preaching, and what he was doing: baptising with a baptism very different from Christian baptism, a baptism of repentance, and of preparation for Jesus to come.
John was a prophet who I would have called a prophet of the law. And the law, whether we know it or not, we secretly love. There is that feeling of delicious terror of a Holy God that people love to be reminded of. And it isn’t hard to remind religious people.
Why? Because the closer we get to God the further from God we realise that we are. The more we understand sin the more we are able to recognise it in ourselves. IF, that is, we are really convicted of sin.
But fighting with this, there is a pride in each one of us that really doesn’t like to admit that we are sinners, separated from God, unable to do anything about it on our own, and doomed to hell without help.
Look at those who came to hear John. He knew what they were like and that they were making excuses for themselves. He knew that they were thinking that they were okay no matter what and didn’t need to repent, because they were children of Abraham, of God’s chosen people, and John had to knock out of them any self-justification that they had left. And when he did that, it sounds like some of them finally hit that moment. That moment King David felt when he pronounced a sentence of death on the prophet Nathan’s hypothetical situation and then Nathan turned to him and said: “You are that man”.
That moment where your heart sinks and you know that you stand condemned before God of your own doing. That moment that makes you say “What then must I do?” And the answer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for you and me is different to the answer of John. He was very specific about what they had to do to prepare for the coming of Jesus, how they had to make amends, to make it right, and we too can do all those things.
But God’s answer to that question: “what must we do?” is “Nothing”. There is nothing that you must do, because there is nothing that you CAN do.
Just like the people that came to hear John, if you start trusting in your lineage, or your heritage, or your attendance records in worship, or your offering amounts or your service on the rosters or your devotional regularity or ANYTHING AT ALL, then you like the hearers of John the Baptist, need to have it knocked out of you too, by the word of God.
That is the work of the law. That is what it is for, to remove any notion that you are not utterly broken and unworthy before God.
But the law of God never works in isolation. It never works alone. Because when we read the word of God, we distinguish between two different actions of the word of God, different functions of the word of God, and they are the law and the GOSPEL.
Even after all the awful things John said, and all the warning things and insulting things that John said, the end of the gospel lesson speaks of all of them in a most unexpected way:
It says: So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. Did I miss something? Not much of what he was saying sounded like good news to me! Good news is what the word gospel means! You are utterly broken and unworthy before God? In need of a saviour? That doesn’t sound like very good news, but it leads us TO the good news.: You need a saviour? Good news! We have a saviour. His name is Jesus. All of the scriptures and all of the prophets point to him.
And he is here to bring about the Kingdom of God: to bring you into the kingdom of God. That’s the good news. That’s the news the world needs. While people still try to fool themselves that they are alright on their own because “you know, I live a good life, I treat other people the way I want to be treated” then they need to hear the law, but then….
Then they need to be pointed to a saviour. They need Jesus. So do you. So do I. Well, I have some good news for you. Jesus is coming. 13 days now. We celebrate that Jesus came. And one day, he comes again, to take us home. It turns out that John was not just a prophet of the law, but of the Gospel. Jesus is coming.