Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
You can listen to the recording of this Sermon HERE
John the Baptist, what a legend! Jesus Himself later said of John: “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” Here was a man who totally fulfilled the mission God had given him. And what a crazy mission it was!
Here’s a man who went out into the wilderness of Judea without any creature comforts. He wore a rough camel hair robe and a leather sash round his waist. He braved the elements, the wild animals, and the bandits; and he positioned himself far from civilization, living off the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey.
Allow me a moment to take a brief detour: I sometimes wonder which came first? The calling or the wilderness. Did he go to the wilderness in response to a clear call; or did he go to seek God and then hear a clear call? All I know is that if he didn’t have a clear understanding of his call … spending time in the solitude and silence of the wilderness is an awesome way to open one’s spiritual ears to the voice of God. That’s why I’m raising this as an aside… just to encourage us to consider the opportunities that Advent offers … opportunities to go aside and spend a season deliberately seeking God. if you’re going on leave this Advent … why not take time and make space to just be with God in a silent place of solitude. If you’re at home and still working, that will mean getting up earlier or going to bed later I suppose … but make the space and time and seek God! Listen for His voice. Listen for His call on your life in 2020. Detour over …
We also don’t know how God spoke to John to give him his clear instructions for his mission. However, given that Matthew and the other Gospels understood John’s mission as a fulfilment of the words of the prophet Isaiah … I think it’s possible that John was meditating on Isaiah out there in the wilderness. And perhaps one of the passages that helped to clarify his call was today’s passage from Isaiah 11. (We read it as the call to worship).
In chapter 11, Isaiah foresees the coming of the anointed saviour of Israel. And he foresees that the Messiah’s ministry will be a double-edged sword.
- On the one hand he says that, empowered by the Holy Spirit and guided by the Spirit’s knowledge, wisdom and counsel, “With the rod of his mouth he will strike the earth. With the breath of his lips, he will slay the wicked.” That’s judgment!
- On the other hand, he says that those who “know the Lord” will live in this amazing state of supernatural harmony where the wolf lies down with the lamb and the cow feeds with the bear, and no-one harms or destroys anymore. And this also, the Messiah will accomplish in the power of the Holy Spirit and guided by the Spirit’s knowledge, wisdom and counsel. That’s restoration and new life!
In the days of John the Baptist, almost everyone in Israel was eagerly awaiting the coming of this Messiah – this Christ – this Anointed Saviour. John was no different. And out there in the wilderness … it became clear to him that he had a call.
Please remember that in Luke 1:15-17 the angel Gabriel had told John’s father that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit “from his mother’s womb” and that he would go ahead of the Lord to bring many back to the Lord their God, and to prepare them for His coming. Here’s a man who was prepared for his mission by the Holy Spirit … called by the Spirit … gifted by the Spirit … anointed by the Spirit. And finally … here in the wilderness … led by the Holy Spirit … he begins his ministry of preparing people for the coming of Messiah. That was the sole aim of John’s mission: Get people ready to encounter the Saviour and enter the Kingdom.
Let’s take a moment first to think about John’s “Mission Methodology”. He had a really important message (which we’ll come to in a moment) but what was his Method?
John was literally what Isaiah had prophesied: “One calling in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.”
Come with me in your imagination to the Judean desert. If it helps, please close your eyes as you do so (not if you’re reading this online of ourse). For the sake of this exercise it’s a hot, dry day in a Karoo-like landscape … running somewhere reasonably close by was the Jordan River where the vegetation was at least a bit greener. You can hear the beetles. You can hear a crow cawing. You can hear and feel the gravely road under your feet as you trudge your way down the road from Jerusalem to visit your relatives in the countryside. You can smell sheep droppings and perspiration. Your eyes and ears are peeled for the bandits who frequent these parts. And then you hear a distant shout. It’s a man’s voice. It sounds quite wild and its definitely urgent. Your first thoughts are that someone is being attacked and is calling for help. But as you cautiously round the next bend in the path you see a lone man about 50 meters off the road. Another 50 meters or so behind him is the river you will soon be crossing. As he sees you he shouts again.
“What?” you call back, “I didn’t hear you.”
This time he calls back even louder: “Repent! The Kingdom of God is near!”
“What are you talking about?”
“You are a sinner! Turn away from your sin because God’s Kingdom is coming”
Please come out of your imagination again and rejoin me in the Service.
That is all we’re told John was doing. Shouting out in the desert that people should repent of their sin because God’s kingdom was near … it was at hand … and coming soon.
John’s effectiveness was supernatural. Anyone who responded to his method did so purely because the Holy Spirit had anointed John’s words. Only the Holy Spirit can take this message – calling people to repent of sin – and make it effective. Because more often than not we humans, left to our own devices, either:
- know we’re sinners and we love our sin … and therefore will not repent … OR
- believe we’re not sinners and don’t need to repent.
But Matthew records that, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins they were baptised by him in the Jordan.” That kind of effectiveness can ONLY be the work of the Holy Spirit.
John then completed his ministry to people by baptising all those who confessed that they were sinners and repented of their sins – turning away from a sinful lifestyle. This baptism marked them making a new beginning – resetting their lives and starting over with God … ready now to receive the ministry of the Messiah Jesus … who was just about to burst onto the scene. Now they were ready to encounter JESUS.
Do you want to encounter the Saviour of humanity and live in His eternal Kingdom? Then pay close attention not only to his Method, but also to John’s Message which we will unpack in a bit more detail now.
I think we see the importance of John’s message best in his interactions with the religious leaders.
When they come out to the wilderness, John clearly sees that they are not there to repent. They are just there to assess him. They don’t believe for a moment that they are sinners in need of repentance and a Saviour; and John greets them with total disrespect!
“You rattlesnakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming fire of God’s judgment? Hey?…What’s that?…What judgment, you ask? You’re so proud of your so-called spiritual heritage as Abraham’s descendants. You think you’re safe? I tell you, God can make descendants for Abraham from these rocks. He doesn’t care about your bloodline. He cares about your prideful, arrogant, sinning hearts. And if you don’t repent and turn your lives around, He’s going to destroy you.”
John was very clear. His call was for people to truly repent – to turn away from lives of sin and to turn to God … to be baptised as a sign of the old life of sin being washed away and the new life of living for God beginning … and then to go home and live like people who have truly turned away from sin and turned to God. There was no room for fakers and spiritual pretenders!
And then – for the sake of these men who were so resistant to repentance – and also for us today – John fleshed out his message into 2 promises:
- Promise #1: The coming Messiah – that’s Jesus – will baptise some of you with the Holy Spirit. To apply the images of Isaiah 11 – the coming Messiah will grant you life in glorious harmony with God and others through the power of His Holy Spirit … in His Kingdom-Family … both now and forever.
- Promise #2: The coming Messiah – that’s Jesus – will baptise some of you with the fire of judgment. To apply the images of Isaiah 11, He will slay the wicked. John’s image was just as strident: “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
To those who had been open, John had not warned them about the coming judgment … He had simply held out to them the beautiful first promise that the Kingdom of God was about to come and that to enter it they needed to repent of their sin and turn to God
But now, John presented the resistant religious leaders with the full truth. Seeing them in grave danger of failing to repent because they were blind to their need for repentance … John issues the 2nd promise. You have set your life on course for the judgment of God. if you do not change the direction of your life through repenting of sin and turning to God … you will walk headlong into the fire of judgment.
It is so sad to me that the promise of the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God is not enough to get all to turn to back to God. It should be, but its not.
However, today our job is not to criticize the ancient religious leaders … so resistant to the call to repent.
Our job today is to hear that call to US and to respond. Our job is to ponder deeply … what was the first thing to come to mind when – in your imagination – you came around the bend in that hot and dusty wilderness path … and heard John’s voice call out: “You are a sinner! Turn away from your sin because God’s Kingdom is coming”
I am convinced that anyone whose heart is even remotely open to the Holy Spirit today, will have had an immediate reaction to those words. At the sound of those words, a thought immediately came to mind of some attitude or action that is troubling your conscience before God. And our job today is to admit that to ourselves as sin … and make a deliberate decision to turn away from it and turn to God to receive His forgiveness and grace.
Our job is also to recognise the grave danger we are in if … upon hearing those words … the first thought that came to mind was of someone else’s sin and how THEY should be hearing this call and repenting of THEIR sin. That response is the response of a heart hard at work resisting the call to repentance.
This Advent season, let us be open and honest and pliable in the hands of the Holy Spirit as He works in us to continue the ministry of John the Baptist … calling us to repentance so that our lives will be better prepared to encounter Jesus … not at some future date … but this very day!