While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptiser,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”
John and his message were authorised by Isaiah’s prophecy:
Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptised into a changed life.
When John realised that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.
“I’m baptising you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the rubbish to be burned.” (Matthew 3:1-12, MSG)
John the Baptist tells it like it is. God’s kingdom is here and now, and you need to change your life.
You’ll remember that we’re looking at Matthew’s Gospel through the lens of the question ‘how do we deal with change?’. This reading is all about change. Change has broken into the world, through arrival of God’s kingdom, and we need to change so that our lives reflect the new reality.
This kind of change is a deep and profound adjustment of our lives, not just a painting over the cracks. It requires a fundamental reorientation of who and what we are, so that who we are in our skins reflects who we are before God.
I think the key part of people coming to confess their sins is not so that they can perform some sort of transaction with God. We don’t just say “please, here are my sins, now free me”, important thought that is. We say “I recognise that I am broken, sinful and in need of your healing - I see who I am, and I want to be new, please free me.” We begin to see who we are in God’s eyes. This sort of seeing of ourselves is painful, but has the potential to free us at a far deeper level, because we begin to know ourselves, begin to know the programs we have running inside ourselves which cause us to do the things we do. We all have them - I know I do. They are so very destructive, but they’re false and need to be put to the fire. John the Baptist said “Jesus will place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the rubbish to be burned.” Those things in us that separate us from God and from one another are deadwood and need to be put on the fire. It is our very life - our animating energy - that must change, not just the appearances we project.
John reminds us that it is not membership of anything that is what counts - it is not being a church person - it is what your life looks like. In fact, to be specific, it is what comes out of your life. In our modern egalitarian world we don’t like to think of the idea of ‘progress’ in the spiritual life, but when we neglect that we’re actually neglecting a key part of the Biblical teaching on growth and change. There is progress in the spiritual life, there is growth, deepening and change. And the way we know that is happening is not by how you feel, but what sort of fruits your life is bearing. Paul taught clearly about this in the letter to the Galatians:
But what happens when we live God's way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified. (Galatians 5:22-24, MSG).
What we know is that we’re not capable of bring about this sort of change in ourselves. It just can’t be done. We can do all of the therapy we like, read all of the self-help books, go to worship services, try to correct habits - but without the action of God in us, cleansing us, healing us, renewing us, changing us at the deepest level, we’re lost. We can’t do it, but we do have a vital part in the process. It is God who does the work, but it is you who co-operates with God. Or not. We begin (and continue) this process by setting ourselves right with God, by acknowledging who we are in God, and what that means. I’d encourage you to do that. Take this time of Advent to actually search out your heart, and in the words of the 12 step movement, ‘make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.’ This isn’t a 10 minute process. It might take weeks. Most likely you will find you’re not as horrible as you’ve feared, but not as wonderful either. This sort of process, prayerfully done, will allow you to see who you really are, and begin to strip away the masks that separate you from God and from others. There may be sins to be confessed, apologies to be made, restitution to be offered. This is a vital step to allow us to grow and move on. In fact, I can’t overemphasise how important this is. All of us are funny about sin these days. What matters is that we all know it blocks our life in God and with others. So it needs to be dealt with.
God’s kingdom is not just about the future - it is also about the here and now. To the extent that we’re living a life in God, our lives will be marked by the gifts of the spirit. And that sort of living can’t help but bring about the Kingdom of God in the world.