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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
John doesn’t waste any time getting to the point. He has one job to do and he does it. His job has three parts: preach repentance, baptize people confessing their sins, and point to Jesus. Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you. It’s right at the door. And people come to the Jordan River, being baptized by John, confessing their sins.
Repent, John says. But what is repentance? It’s not feeling bad because you got caught. It’s not feeling bad that other people feel bad. And it’s not something you can produce in yourself. If it were, there wouldn’t be any need for John to prepare the way. It would be something that people just did. But God sends preachers to proclaim repentance. Repentance is something that happens to you. It means, among other things, no more pretending that everything is fine. No more pretending that we have some things in our own hands that we can bring before God so that He will be happy with us.
The Pharisees and Sadducees, who have very little in common, have this in common: they don’t believe John’s preaching. And because they don’t believe John’s preaching, they don’t believe Jesus’ preaching. When the priests and the elders ask Jesus where He gets His authority to teach and do what He does, He asks them, where did John get his authority? From heaven or from people? And they admit to themselves that if they say that John got his authority from heaven, Jesus will say, why didn’t you believe him, then? And when they say nothing, Jesus says, then I will not tell you where I get my authority. Because the authority comes from the same place. John’s authority was from heaven and so is Jesus’.
In many ways, Jesus’ way is prepared by John. John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). When Jesus begins His ministry, He says the same thing (4:17). John talks about trees and fruit and calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” children of snakes. Jesus says the same thing: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers!” (Matthew 12:33-34).
So John preaches repentance to them. They aren’t outside the scope of God’s word because they “have Abraham for their father.” God can make rocks into children of Abraham, if He wants. There’s no special status awarded to children of Abraham when it comes to repentance, except, perhaps, that they should be first in line. Would they bring their genealogy to God as evidence of why they ought to be accepted, outside of repentance? Both John and Jesus say that genealogy might be a little more serpentine than they think. John’s words are clear-cutting words. Cut down all self-justifications and excuses and rationalizations. Your landscapes are barren. You are exposed and empty, except for your own evil. John’s words are locust words, devouring everything in their path. But all of that is to get rid of the obstacles in the way of the coming King, the almighty God who is coming near.
I’m baptizing with a repentance water, he says, but the One coming after me will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Lots of fire here. Fire for fruitless trees. Fire baptism. Fire for the worthless leftovers of good grain. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming fire. Don’t deceive yourselves! Bear good fruit in keeping with repentance. What would that look like? Well, you can take all the sins you’re confessing and turn them around and do the opposite. All the things you’re confessing against what God has said and commanded, do the opposite. John’s message is to the point: repentance is preparation, and the fruit is the evidence of it, or not.
But I wonder if John wasn’t a little surprised when that Lord did show up along that prepared way and that straight path. Because He doesn’t show up with all the majesty of the holy and righteous God. He doesn’t show up with angel armies. He doesn’t show up with the burning fire of judgment and wrath. He appears at the edge of that same Jordan River to be baptized by John, baptized in the same water that has been made filthy by the sins confessed there. He shows up as an infant, helpless and dependent. He shows up in the wilderness tempted by the devil, hungry and thirsty. He shows up with wounds and thorns and blood. He shows up on a cross, baptized in blood. And then He shows up dead.
This looks like the righteous wrath of God against sinners that John preaches, only it’s not directed against those sinners. Where is the axe and where is the burning? It’s at the root of the tree, but it’s at the root of the tree on which a man is crucified. The sacrifice is being consumed by fiery wrath, but it’s the one on the cross who is bearing the weight of the sin of the world. He’s the Lamb of God. The river in which Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were baptized, confessing their sins, flows directly to the cross. It’s that sin that He came to take away. It’s your sin and my sin that He came to take away. So before the baptism of fire, in which every creature is purified or unquenchably burned, there is a baptism of the Holy Spirit. There is a baptism that joins sinners to the death of Jesus, the same baptism in which you have been washed.
Jesus doesn’t need to come to condemn the world. The world is doing that perfectly well on its own. He comes, instead, to save the world from itself. He comes to plant good trees, and to gather a harvest into His own storehouses. He comes to clear His threshing floor and cleanse His threshed wheat. Because while there is fruit of repentance to be had, the fruit is not the root. The good root, from which all good trees grow, and from which all good fruit comes, is the singular tree of the cross. And before He comes in glory, with righteous wrath against sin and death and the devil, and all those who have joined themselves to them, He comes first in humility and hidden to shelter you from that wrath. John preaches the repentance and points to the Jesus by whom you will escape from the wrath to be revealed when He comes again in glory. And to assure the cleansing of the wheat, He gives you today the good fruit of the cross. It is that fruit you eat from this altar. And it is that fruit by which you will be kept from the burning of the chaff. Because the fruit of that tree is nothing other than the risen Jesus Himself.
Repent then, and confess. Drop all the things you were going to use to convince God that you deserve to belong. None of that is necessary. None of that will work. And when all that is gone, then the preparation is accomplished. When everything else is gone, then the only thing that’s left is Jesus and His honey-sweet words. Right to the point with one job to do: put Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, into your hands and mouths and hearts.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/6/19