Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, December 15, 2018
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Being Ready for Good News

Matthew 3:1-12

 And just out of nowhere, here comes John.  

 Have you noticed that when you read Matthew’s Gospel?  He just shows up.  When you read Luke’s Gospel, he tells you about John’s birth, his relationship to Jesus, and you even get a nice little story about Jesus when he was 12 years old.  But in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s “Here’s the birth of Jesus, and then, boom!  Here’s John.”  

 Sometimes that’s how it is with God.  We’re just going along, living our lives, doing as we please, and suddenly, God intrudes.  God just shows up.  And nothing is the same after God shows up.

 John appears, preaching in the wilderness.  Well, that’s kind of a stupid thing to do!  What sense does that make?  Why doesn’t John show up preaching in Jerusalem?  There’s a lot more people there.  It would be more comfortable, too.  There’s no place to sit in the wilderness, except on rocks.  And it was hot in the wilderness, too.  And dry.  

 What is the wilderness as we see it in Scripture?  Well, the wilderness can be a place of danger: robbers and wild animals.  It can also be a place of safety, refuge from trouble, like it was for David.  It can be a place of testing.  But mostly, wilderness is a place of preparation.  Israel was prepared in the wilderness to live as a free people in the Promised Land.  They had been slaves for too long.  They needed to be prepared for something more.  Jesus was prepared in the wilderness for his ministry.  Paul went to the deserts of Arabia before he became a missionary.  You know I like the wilderness.  Why do I go there?  To be prepared for the rest of life.  

 How long was John in the wilderness?  We don’t know.  Except that it was long enough for him to be prepared to hear the voice of God and proclaim God’s message.  

 Now we can’t say this for certain, but we are reasonably sure that John was a member of the Essenes.  The Essenes were a group of Jews who left society to live in the wilderness, so that they could be prepared for the coming of Messiah.  They lived in the Judean wilderness, not far from where John did his baptisms.  They practiced extensive rituals of purification with water.  And they ate things like locusts and wild honey.  They didn’t want to eat ordinary food because they were afraid of being defiled, so they ate only what God provided.  

 In the wilderness, John was prepared to be the prophet foretold by Isaiah, a voice shouting in the wilderness, “Prepare for the Lord’s coming!”  

 People flocked to the wilderness to hear this strange man and his dramatic message.  They were intrigued.  And also, people are hungry for God.  They might not always know it, but they are.  And they will respond when they see a sign from God.  

 John proclaimed his message to them:  “Repent from your sins and turn to God!  His Kingdom is near!”  Why not, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?”  Why all the doom and gloom?  Why be so harsh, John?  Because people needed to be prepared.  The coming of God is only good news for those who have turned away from sin and turned to God!  It is nothing less than terrible news for those who have not repented!  We can’t be safe in our ethnicity, our history, or even our religious affiliation.  We must be prepared personally for God’s coming.  

 “The axe is poised, and every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down!”  Repentance means that we turn away from self-centered living and live a God-centered life.  It means we stop living by our own will and according to our own desires and our own standards of right and wrong.  It means that we begin living in obedience to God’s will.  And we show the fruit of these things.  Our lives change.  We can’t truly receive grace from God without being transformed by grace.  A life touched by God will not be an unchanged life.

 I said earlier that John attracted curiosity.  His strange lifestyle and appearance and diet drew people to him.  And his powerful message attracted attention.  What is it about your life that makes people curious?  If you begin to live by a different set of values and priorities and principles, that will attract attention.  If your life is changed by God’s grace, that will attract attention.  People will find it strange, especially if they knew you before you received grace.  If our way of living is not attracting attention, then have we really been transformed by grace?

 Now John expected that the coming of Messiah would be a coming of judgment.  He thought Messiah was going to reward the righteous and punish the wicked immediately.  We know that Jesus came mostly in his first appearance to bring grace and redemption.  And we know he will come again in his second appearance to bring judgment.  So we know John got some things wrong.  He may have been a prophet, but a prophet only knows what God has revealed to him.  He doesn’t know everything about

God’s designs.  And we also know that when Christ returns, he will come again to judge the living and the dead.  And we must be prepared for that.  

 John’s image of judgment is the wheat and the chaff being winnowed.  Now, me personally, I’ve never done a lot of winnowing, so I have no clue what John is saying by personal experience.  But his audience certainly knew.  

 When wheat was harvested, you would take it to a threshing floor, a flat stone area on a hilltop.  You would beat the wheat to separate the wheat kernels from the other parts of the plant, the chaff.  And when evening came and the wind picked up, you would throw it up in the air so that the wind would catch the chaff and carry it away.  But the kernels would fall back onto the threshing floor.  Do it long enough and you had your wheat, free from chaff.  

 Why do the kernels fall back onto the floor?  Because they have weight, substance.  What is a substantial life?  Is it gaining wealth?  Achieving success?  Finding fame?  Seizing power?  Enjoying pleasure?  Those are the things “the world” calls substantial.  But they are not.  A substantial life is one that honors God.  A substantial life means we have turned away from sin and turned to God.  We are bearing fruit worthy of repentance.  

 Now that was John’s image of coming judgment.  Jesus’ image was almost identical.  In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  A man sows wheat, but his enemy sows the seeds of tares, weeds, among his wheat.  So the man waits until both have grown, and then he separates them.  It’s basically the same image John used.  

 It is a picture of the Church on earth.  Not every person in the visible church is prepared for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  Only those who have truly turned from sin and turned to God, those who have been transformed by the experience of God’s grace received through Christ, are prepared for the coming of Christ.  We can’t rest on our ethnicity, our history, or our religious affiliation as a source of security.  We must be ready personally.  

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