The word "gospel" is sort of a churchy word and literally means "good news." It's used for the first four books of the NT, which includes the book of John. John, while incorporating some of the same material as the others, often does it from a different angle. The notion that these books constitute good news implies that there's a potential for bad news, doesn't it? Often we get good news when something has the potential of being bad.
Like the doctor who took his patient into a room and said, "I have some good news and some bad news." The patient said, "Give me the good news first." "Well," the doctor said, "They're about to name a brand new incurable disease after you."
Or, the story of Sally, who phoned her husband at work for a chat. "I'm sorry dear," he said, "but I'm covered up today. I don't have time to chat." Sally replied, "But I've got some good news and some bad news for you." "OK," he said, "but could you just give me the good news right now?" "Okay," agreed Sally. "Well, you'll be happy to know that the air bags in our new car work perfectly!"
The gospels bring us good news because we need it. Jesus once said that he came so we might have a full and meaningful life - a life filled with purpose. Why is good news needed? It's because on our own we fall into sin, and sin separates us from God. The Bible says we all, like sheep, have gone astray. The good news is Jesus bridges the gap between us and God. And he had someone who preceded Him - he set the table for Jesus' ministry. The Bible tells us this man named John the Baptist came to prepare the way.
Matthew 3:1-3, In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Wilderness of Judea 2and saying, "Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!" 3For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said: A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way for the Lord; make His paths straight!" This preparatory ministry of John the Baptist is mentioned in all four gospels and it was predicted long before he was even born. His forerunning was integral to what Jesus had come to do. John got the people thinking about their lives - about their relationship with God.
If you're going to bake a cake, you've got to prepare - you've got to grease the pan first so the cake doesn't stick. If you're going to paint a wall, it's usually a good idea to prepare the wall by priming it first. We painted one of our dining room walls red the other day, and after three coats and little coverage, I went to ask the guy at the paint counter what I needed to do. He gave me red paint with a red base tint, and after one coat it looks amazing.
Proper preparation is so important - even for a pastor. I heard about a priest who ran out of time to prepare for a sudden funeral. He went to his computer, found the last funeral service he had preached, and did a quick "find and replace," putting the name of the newly deceased woman, "Bertha," as a replacement for the woman in the previous funeral, "Mary." Everything went fine until he came to the end of the message where he was reading the Apostles' Creed. He declared that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was born of the Virgin Bertha.
John the Baptist was the preparer of the way for Jesus. Johnny B Good was one odd cat, I must say. Matthew 3:4-6, John himself had a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then [people from] Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the vicinity of the Jordan were flocking to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.
I. John the Baptist: An attention grabber
This seems a little odd to me. Why would people come from all over the place to see this man? I know this … people respected him. John the Baptist (or the Baptizer) was Jesus' cousin (he was 6 months older than Jesus). Jesus once said of John, "I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11).
Jesus also referred to him as a prophet. That's significant, and quite a compliment, because a prophet was someone who boldly spoke for God - one who wasn't afraid to say what God was really thinking. Prophets were politically incorrect - often issuing warning of impending judgment. When John showed up, there hadn't been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. Then out of the blue walked this fellow, out into the desert near the Dead Sea, wearing a rough, dark camel hair coat (the garb of the poor), offering this one provocative message: "Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!" (Matthew 3:2). This is a message of challenge and hope.
One reason John got people's attention was that he lived in the desert, a tough area where nobody wanted to live. It made sense however for John to call the desert home, though. Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had said that he would be: "A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert" (Isaiah 40:3).
Another reason John got the people's attention was that he lived simply. Most of the poor in Jesus' day ate fish, figs, and barley loaves. But John was so poor that he ate locusts as his source of protein, perhaps drying them and adding some wild field honey to sweeten them enough to get them down. John's appearance and lifestyle spoke volumes: "I'm not sold out to the culture. I'm nobody's pawn. The man don't own me. I can tell you the truth, straight up." When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.
Finally, John got the people's attention because he dressed exactly like the ancient prophet Elijah. Every Jew knew that before the Messiah came, a prophet like Elijah would show up who dressed like him and talked like him. This was so the people would know that God was up to something, and they needed to get ready.
II. John the Baptist's good message
Once John had their attention, what did he say? He told the people two things they could do to live a life that pleased God. The first, as we've mentioned, was to repent. You don't hear a lot of messages about repentance today. We hear that God loves us, which is true. But we also need to hear that God expects us to follow Him - to live a life that pleases Him. And, if we're heading down the wrong path, to turn around!
That whole message of repentance seems so old school - so hellfire and brimstone, doesn't it? One day two old country pastors held up signs at the edge of the road. One said: "The end is near!" and the other said, "Turn yourself around before it's too late!" As a car sped past them, the driver leaned out his window and yelled, "Leave us alone, you religious nuts!" A moment later you could hear screeching tires and a big splash. One pastor looked to the other and asked, "Do ya think the signs should just say 'Bridge Out'?"
'Repent" is rarely the message we want to hear because it means we're heading in the wrong direction. But if you're heading in the wrong direction, isn't that exactly the message you need to hear? Has anyone in here ever been going in the wrong direction and needed to repent - to turn over a new leaf, or to radically change your ways? I have.
There's an uncomfortable biblical truth that we must understand: God is a God who sorts. I remember being at college and talking with my mother on the phone about coming home for Christmas break. She asked what special meal I wanted. I could have had anything; I didn't have to think very long about this decision though. I wanted the meal that makes every southern boy smile - pinto beans and cornbread!
I want to use that bean you were given this morning (as people entered the sanctuary, each was given a raw pinto bean) to illustrate something. Before you can cook a big pot of beans you have to sort them - you have to separate the beans from the stones. You don't just pour the contents of the bag into the pot and boil; sometimes little rocks and clumps of dirt are bagged and you have to eliminate those before you cook. I've seen my mother do it a million times.
I have the hard job of telling you a hard truth: God is a God who sorts - only he does it with human lives. God is looking for whatever he can keep, build on, use, and bless. He has gone to great lengths to keep people, clean them up, and use them. But there are some people whose lives he cannot work with. When God is looking to pour out his Holy Spirit on people, these lives are not included. They're discarded. Spiritually speaking, they have hearts of stone.
Maybe this understanding of God upsets you. It may seem barbaric. Maybe it's upsetting because you believe it, and you aren't sure which way your life would be sorted by God. Or, maybe you're concerned about people you love. As unsettling as this is; it's clearly taught in Scripture. Consider the words of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:10: "Even now the ax of God's judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire" (NLT).
Some fruit trees are extremely productive, so you fertilize, water, and tend to them. There are other trees that aren't. They just take up space and resources, so your only option is to cut them down.
Now look at verses 11 and 12: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but the One who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to take off His sandals. He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. [obviously speaking of Jesus here] 12His winnowing shovel is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn. But the chaff He will burn up with fire that never goes out."
Some people are like wheat, because they bless and feed others. Other people are like chaff. They look like wheat. They are the same color as wheat. They grow up along with the wheat. But in the end chaff is useless. God sorts human lives. He's looking for - and is hoping to find - lives that are "keepers." It's not his will that anyone should live his or her life in such a way that they end up in the spiritual trashcan, but some will, because their lives offer absolutely nothing that God can use.
The question we must ask and answer, then, is this: "Is my life pleasing to God?" The kind of life that pleases God starts with repenting of sins. The first thing John said to the people was, "Repent! Be honest with God about your junk. Confess your sins. Tell the truth about the messed-up places in your life." John even asked them to confess and be baptized. This wouldn't have been easy for the people - these were public acts. You waded into the muddy Jordan River with people standing around, listening in on what they were saying: "My anger is out of control;" "I stole this;" "I did that." But John was trying to make a point - following God isn't for show, its gut honest.
Back then, pretty much the only person who got baptized was the occasional pagan who wanted to convert and become a Jew. John said to all the Jews - the religious insiders, "Guess what? You need to be baptized, too! You need a conversion just as much as the wildest pagan!"
John's reputation grew and soon some of the most respected religious people in the country started coming. This was no easy deal, to come all the way out to the desert to hear John the Baptist preach. Matthew 3:7-9, When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the place of his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 9And don't presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones!
Prophets weren't subtle, were they? "Brood of vipers" - not very PC. It must've been shocking for John to criticize the religious elites. The crowd would've gasped at these words. Ordinary people looked up to these folks. But the Pharisees and Sadducees had a weakness for public spirituality. They enjoyed being known for their good lives. "It's better to look good than to be good" was their motto. That's an easy lifestyle to fall into because we'd all like people to think we're decent folk.
B. Be real
The second part of John's message is "live for real." We start by repenting and then, if we're going to live a life that pleases God, we have to get real with God. We don't act like we're better than we are, we don't put on a plastic Jesus face when we come to church. We just need to be real and open and honest with God. He knows our junk anyway.
I would love it if people saw my life and thought I was great. But that's pride, and when it gets mixed with spirituality, things can get out of whack. When I start believing my own press clipping, I'm lost.
When he says, "produce fruit consistent with repentance," he's saying our faith will influence our actions. We're not trying to impress people or God for that matter; we're simply allowing God to influence our actions. What sorts of actions is John talking about? Luke 3:10-14 reveals John's answer: "What then should we do?" the crowds were asking him. 11He replied to them, "The one who has two shirts must share with someone who has none, and the one who has food must do the same." 12Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13He told them, "Don't collect any more than what you have been authorized." 14Some soldiers also questioned him: "What should we do?"He said to them, "Don't take money from anyone by force or false accusation; be satisfied with your wages."
Bottom line answer: act like God is your leader. Act like you're a bean and not a stone. Treat people right. Be honest. Be generous. Look for opportunities to serve. Love God with more than words; love Him with your life. Someone might say, "Well that was just John's message. Jesus' was much less divisive, much less forceful." Matthew 4:17 has the first recorded words of Jesus ministry: From then on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!" Sound familiar?
Finally, let's not lose sight of the fact that the kingdom of Heaven is near. Forgiveness is as close as your asking. A full and meaningful life, lived with an eye on eternity and not just on the now, is as close as turning to God and away from selfishness. Today, the Kingdom of God is near. That's really the reason Jesus came, to bring heaven near. He loves us as we are, and He loves us too much to leave us the way we are.