Feb 24 and 25 The Birth of the King
Matthew 3: 1-12
Today we continue our journey through The Story, and something truly beautiful is taking place. For the past 20 plus weeks, we’ve watched God engage with His people from a distance, and in very mysterious ways. There was a burning bush and pillar of cloud; there were the prophets and smoke-filled mountains. There were dreams and visions and commandments and laws and angels. But now it seems as if God is writing a new chapter. He is putting all the cards on the table; now God chooses to enter the story in a real and tangible way through Jesus. And with the birth of King Jesus, we are finally beginning to see God’s plan of bringing us home, of bringing us back into relationship with him. I invite you to hear our text for today…
I don’t know how many of you remember the ministry of the late Billy Graham, who died just this past Wednesday. I asked our youth a few months ago and they had never heard of him. But Billy Graham was a special man. As a southern Baptist evangelist, Graham had a way with words, an ability to proclaim God’s message of salvation for the entire world to hear. He was known as “America’s Pastor,” and many came to know Jesus as Lord and Savior during the “Billy Graham Crusades.” He was a well-dressed man, polished and polite, and his humble demeanor was the stuff any person would want in a preacher or even a grandfather. The world will miss Billy Graham. But before there was Billy Graham, there was another evangelist known as John the Baptist. And as John the Baptist enters the story, we know we’re not in grandma’s church anymore.
John the Baptist shocks us with his weird factor. He’s the type of guy you might try to avoid by crossing to the other side of sidewalk when you’d see him. He doesn’t wear the right type of clothes (how much skin can camel’s hair really cover up, anyway?), he doesn’t have the right education (who goes out to the desert to learn?) and he doesn’t eat the right type of foods (I can picture certain people eating locusts, and I don’t think I’d let my kids near ANY of them). He is no Billy Graham. But what John the Baptist does have is a message that intrigues us. “The Kingdom of Heaven is near,” he says. And despite John’s strange looks and choice of diet and clothing, people flock to him. They come in droves because they’re hungry for a new reality and they’re thirsty for new possibilities. They line the banks of the river, ready to shed their old selves and commit their lives to something heavenly.
I find it interesting that John’s ministry doesn’t begin in the bustling city streets or in the busy temple courtyard, but in the wilderness. But then again, maybe that’s what makes this moment and this message so powerful. Maybe it’s the ones wandering through the proverbial wilderness who need a taste of God’s kingdom more than anyone. Taste and see that the Lord is good, says the old Psalm. When you’re stuck in the wilderness, tasting and seeing God’s goodness is an absolute delight.
Our family caught a glimpse of that goodness this past Monday. We traveled to Brookville, to visit Joanna’s grandma, who is now spending the rest of her days in a nursing home. And to call that nursing home a wilderness is not a stretch. You can walk up and down the hallways and see very few people; it’s almost as if you’re alone. The administrative staff gives only passing glances when you walk by and most of the residents’ doors are closed. And then there’s grandma’s fading mental health. Weren’t you just here yesterday, she asked. And we would shake our heads no. And tell me about my friend. And we would share the same news we had shared just five minutes earlier. But just as we were about to leave, there was a moment of unexpected clarity. Would you say a prayer for me? And in that nursing home wilderness, we gathered, held hands, prayed and acknowledged God’s presence. There was peace and hope and comfort- the kingdom of heaven was near.
For those in the wilderness, the news of the kingdom of heaven is wonderful and life giving. It’s like seeing a pool of water in the desert or a looking through the window of an ice cream shop on a hot summer day. But there’s something more John is trying to say with his message. Something more along the lines of an invitation. He’s trying to tell us that that we don’t have to just glimpse this good news, we can enter in to it, we can actually be a part of it. We don’t just have to stand outside the window and dream of an ice cream cone as sweat drips down our faces; we can go through the door and enjoy it! The kingdom of heaven is near, says John, so prepare the way. Make straight paths for him.
I’ve always thought it a bit strange that John says we need to prepare ourselves for Jesus. I mean, we call him the King of kings and Lord of lords, which tells me that Jesus can do whatever he well pleases. But he doesn’t and he won’t. He waits for us to give him the “green light.” He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, refusing to kick it open and waiting patiently for us to stop looking through the peephole and turn the knob. This is one of the reasons the good news comes to those who are in the wilderness. Those who are in the wilderness are far more aware of their need for the kingdom of heaven than those who are not, and thus they are more likely to drop their old ways and latch on to something new. It’s the sick who need a doctor, says Jesus, not the healthy. But sometimes our sickness is spiritual in nature, a faith that is dried up and withered. It’s to those whom John speaks today; it’s to those who John says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
I don’t know if that describes you today, but I know it’s described me before. But if that is you, and if you sense that maybe the Holy Spirit is calling you out of the wilderness, John the Baptist offers a way to let Jesus in, a path so that the king might be birthed in your hearts once more. I will caution you, however. These are not three steps you take for a better life, nor are these three steps you take once and then you’re done. Rather, these are steps disciples must come back to time and time again.
The first step on that path is to confess. Confession, which St. Augustine once described as “good for the soul,” is an honest examination of the heart and a willingness to call it like you see it. And it’s not all about sin. Sometimes it is, and sin certainly keeps Christ on the outside, but sometimes it’s hurt, and sometimes it’s fear and sometimes it’s just the awareness that something about my life isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. That’s what happened to the younger brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. He “came to his senses” and looked around and was living in pig slop. He didn’t want to be there, his father didn’t want him to be there, and I’m pretty the certain the pigs were tired of sharing their pen with him. But that moment of realization, that confession, began his long journey home. What needs to be confessed in your life? What needs to be acknowledged? What needs to be proclaimed? That’s the first step in preparing your heart for the King.
The second step is much more difficult, and it will probably hurt more than the first step, but it’s this: repent, which is an old word that means “to change direction.” In other words, what needs changes, tossed out and thrown away? Jesus also calls this process pruning. And sometimes we need a good pruning. There are habits, behaviors, attitudes and lifestyles that just need to go because they’re no good. And if they stay around, they’ll steal our joy and rob the fruitful life God wants to give. A few years ago, my mom had some of her trees pruned by a professional. It was hard to watch those old limbs and branches come down, but they were literally killing the trees. And left unattended, those unhealthy parts would’ve killed mom’s trees way before their time. When the professional was done, we could hardly believe they were the same trees! These were the same trees, but then again, they were different. You could see the difference. The trees took on different shapes and they weren’t quite as big, but over time they sprung to life like we hadn’t seen in years. The old had been tossed, making room for the new. That’s the work of repentance. We toss out the old to make room for Jesus. Like an annual rummage sale. So, when you examine your life, what needs to go? What needs to change? What needs to be tossed and thrown out? That’s the second step of preparing your heart for Jesus.
Now, there is a third step, and John the Baptist would remind us that repentance doesn’t end with walking away from an old life, but in walking into a new way of life. That’s the third step. Committing to a new journey. What new way of life do you need to commit to? That’s the role of baptism in this wilderness story. In a very powerful way, those who entered the waters of baptism burned with a desire to embrace a new direction. You might say that they were sick and tired of being sick and tired and were ready for their hearts to catch fire. This past summer I had a conversation with a young man who was at the end of his line. His marriage was in shambles; he was estranged from his kids and he was emotionally worn out. But the real problem is that my friend isn’t ready to commit to a new way of life. That wasn’t our first conversation, and I doubt it will be our last. That won’t happen until something in his heart catches fire and he opens the door to the One who knocks and says, “Will you let me come in?”
I hope my friend eventually finds freedom and victory. And I believe he will when he confesses, repents and finally lets Jesus set him on fire. Confess, repent and commit. It’s a simple (though not an easy) path that leads to life. It’s the message of John the Baptist, pointing to the King who wants to enter our lives and set us on fire. So, what needs to catch fire inside of you? What do you need to commit to? What doors does Jesus still ask you to open? “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. May that be our hope today. Amen.