Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand!
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 3:1: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
|"St. John the Baptist" by El Greco|
Look at it closely, because it’s all there for a reason. John’s preaching in the wilderness of Judea, next to the Jordan River. He’s eating locusts and wild honey—desert trail mix, I guess. God once led His people through the wilderness, and then led them through the Jordan River on dry ground into the Promised Land. Now, one can go into the wilderness and into the Jordan, be baptized by John and have the hope of entering the Promised Land of Heaven.
John’s dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt. The last time a prophet wore that get-up, it was Elijah. King Ahaziah heard that a prophet had spoken against him. And when he heard it was a hairy man with a leather belt, he knew it was Elijah. Twice he sent a squad of fifty soldiers to apprehend the prophet. Both times, Elijah called down fire from heaven that consumed the soldiers. Tradition has it that Elijah was whisked off to heaven centuries earlier from this very spot.
Has Elijah returned? Yes, in a sense. John is fulfilling prophecy. He’s the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’” John’s also fulfilling the prophecy of Malachi, who promises a messenger to prepare the way for the Savior, and then identifies the messenger: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” And Jesus will later confirm that John is the Elijah who was to come before Him to prepare the way (Matthew 17:12-13). The setting, the clothing, everything is all for a reason—to prepare the way of the Lord.
And as crowds gather to hear this prophet speak and prepare, here is the essence of his sermon: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That’s it. That’s the whole message in a nutshell. Let’s break it down a bit.
Repent. We normally think of repenting as being sorry for our sins. This is true enough, but there’s more to it than that. To “repent” in the Greek means literally to “change one’s mind.” You can see the obvious part of repentance. When you repent of sin, you’re saying, “I thought it was a good thing, but now I know it’s not.” That kind of mind-change only happens by the grace of God.
But again, there’s a greater depth to repentance because there’s a greater depth to sin. Sin is not just something you do, but something you are. When John calls the people to repent, he’s not calling them to change their behavior; he’s calling them to recognize their sin, their sinfulness. But he’s also calling them to repent of all of their misconceptions about the Savior. That’s important. You see, if they have the wrong idea of who the Savior is supposed to be, then they’re not going to recognize Him when He makes His appearance.
Remember, John the Baptist is called by God to prepare the way of the Lord. He therefore prepares the people by teaching them the true nature of their sinfulness, so that they see the need for the Savior. And he prepares them by teaching them who the Savior is, and what He will do. For instance, Pharisees and Sadducees both come to see what John is up to, and each has an idea of what the Savior will be like. Since the Pharisees believe that they’re saved by keeping rules and doing works, they’re looking for a messiah to show them how to be saved by their own righteous works. The Sadducees are skeptics who deny the resurrection of the dead. They want a messiah who’ll make life in this world better, because they believe this world is all there is. Pharisees and Sadducees make strange bedfellows, but they find a common cause in their hatred of Jesus. They also both believe that God loves them because they’re descendants of Abraham.
So if the Pharisees are looking for a messiah who teaches salvation by works and keeping the Law, they’re not going to follow Jesus, who teaches that no one can save himself by his own works and righteousness. And if the Sadducees deny the resurrection of the dead, they’re not going to follow Jesus who has an appointment with a cross and an empty tomb. Because they’re both looking for the wrong sort of savior, they’re both going to miss the real one unless someone sets them straight and prepares them. That’s the work of John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” And you’re not going to get that done with a lot of smooth, sweet talk. The only thing sweet about John is the wild honey he eats with his locusts. And his pastoral demeanor is about as rough as the camel hair robe he wears.
“Brood of vipers,” he calls them. They’re looking to flee from the wrath to come. But their preconceived notions are going to keep them from believing in Jesus and will lead them to the judgment they seek to avoid. So, along with repenting of their daily sins, they need to repent of their untrue expectations. Jesus isn’t going to save them because of their rules. He isn’t going to make their life easier. He isn’t going to save them because of their ancestry. They need to stop saying, “The Messiah will save us because of who we are and what we do.” They need instead to say, “The Messiah will save us because of who He is and what He does.” Those are the fruits that are in keeping with repentance —confessing one’s sin and unworthiness, and trusting that Jesus saves solely by His grace.
Which brings us to part two of John’s sermon: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Growing up, I always misunderstood these words as a dire warning, something along the lines of: “Shape up and be sorry now or you’re going to be in big trouble.” But John isn’t using the coming kingdom as a threat to make people fall in line. Instead, he’s preaching good news. The kingdom of heaven is at hand—it’s almost there.
Why? Because the King is about to arrive! The Lord Himself is about to make His appearance. Jesus is about to appear at the banks of the Jordan to be baptized by John. After preparing the crowds for the arrival of the Savior, John will soon point at the Savior—in the flesh—and cry out, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
And the fact that Jesus is nearly there explains the two-part sermon: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Turn away from all of your misconceptions of who the Messiah is, and don’t try to make Him into someone He’s not. He is, after all, the Son of God—not a piece of clay to be molded. He isn’t going to change to fit your mind. You must change your mind to trust in Him. And do it now, because here He comes for your salvation!
Oh, the time will come when He will sweep sinners like chaff into unquenchable fire, but that time is not yet. Now, He comes in mercy to go to the cross. Now He comes to win your redemption, so that you might be part of the harvest for eternal life. Now He comes to live your life, to die your death, so that you might die to sin and live to Him. Now He comes to rise from the grave, so that you might be raised from your grave to everlasting life with Him. But the time is short! So repent and trust in Him now, for He is here for you!
John’s simple, two-part sermon sums up the proclamation of the Church today. To all those who will hear, we declare, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
You see, when John is preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he’s looking at you. He’s pointing in your direction. Yes, he means you—the religious one. Lutheran. Pious Israelite. Pharisee. Sadducee. Scribe. Tax collector. Prostitute. Sinner. It doesn’t matter who or what you are. Repent. Are you good? Then repent of your goodness—you’re not good enough! Are you bad? Then repent of your badness—it’s much worse than you think!
Repent. Get rid of all those preconceived notions of who you think Jesus ought to be, and instead trust in who He is. This is the Son of God, begotten of the Father from all eternity who became flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary to be your Savior. He bore your sin to the cross and suffered God’s judgment for it there. He died your death and rose again, conquering death and the grave for you. He promises to return in glory to deliver you to everlasting life. That’s who your Savior is, according to His own Word. Why would you ever want Him to be something else, something much less, instead?
Yet, that’s exactly the temptation that always appeals to our sinful flesh. We want Jesus to be a Savior that He’s not, instead of the Savior whom He is. We try to put Jesus in a box and make Him into a messiah of our own liking. In effect, we try to limit the holy Son of God, to make Him less than He truly is.
There’s the Pharisee in us, which says, “I am saved—at least in part—because of what I do or who I am. God looks at me and sees something good. It might be my works or my intentions or my feelings or my decision to follow Him. But there’s something about me that triggers His love and Jesus’ salvation for me.”
Much of this sounds good. But look again. If you say, “I’m saved, at least in part because of what I do or who I am,” you’re saying, “Jesus’ death didn’t quite do enough to save me. I have to help Him out by doing my part to make up what He didn’t accomplish.”
Do you see the problem? That desire to play a part in your salvation ends up robbing Jesus of His glory and taking some of it for you. And if you persist in believing that your works contribute to your salvation you’re not going to listen to your Lord who declares He saves you by His grace alone. And if you believe in your works enough, you’ll miss the Savior who did all the work. By the grace of God, change your mind! Or, in the words of the text, repent!
There’s also the Sadducee in us, which says, “All I want out of Jesus is help for this life. If He gets me out of a jam, cures my ailments, or keeps me wealthy and prosperous and out of trouble, well, that’s the savior I’m looking for. I’m not really concerned with abstract concepts like judgment, the resurrection of the dead, or eternal life. I want a savior who’s going to help me to have a better life, a life of purpose here and now.”
That’s the sort of savior that you’ll find from popular television preachers or pop Christian authors. But if this is the Savior you’re looking for, you’ll pass right by Jesus. He declares that He’s sacrificed Himself to make you holy with God, not to make you popular or successful in the world. In fact, He warns that the world will persecute the Church. He tells you that He disciplines His children and even uses affliction and weakness to strengthen their faith. No, if you’re looking for a savior to make this world paradise, you’ll go right by Jesus. He came to deliver you from this world to everlasting paradise. Better change your mind while there’s time! In other words, repent!
And as if that weren’t enough, there’s still that Old Adam in all of us that just doesn’t want to be righteous, that wants to hold onto sin. That sinner in us constantly tempts us with thoughts like, “Jesus is so loving that I can hold onto this sin for any number of reasons. Maybe it makes my life easier. Maybe I’m afraid to live without it. Maybe I’m addicted to it. Maybe I just like it. At any rate, the savior that I have in mind is one who tells me that those sins are okay, they’re not so bad, that I’m okay, he’ll save me anyway.”
That’s a popular idea of Jesus in today’s world, too. But it’s not the Jesus proclaimed by the Scriptures. That Jesus declares, “Let you hold on to sin? I’ve already carried all your sins to the cross and suffered them there. The only way you can have them now is to take them back from Me. I didn’t go to the cross to let you hold on to such poison. I died to set you free!”
Do you see? To hold onto sin now, any sin, is to say that you want a Savior who dies for most of your sins, but not all of them. It’s to say that Jesus isn’t quite so righteous and holy that He won’t let a few slip by. But that’s not the Savior Jesus Christ who promises forgiveness and eternal life. Change your mind while there’s still time! In other words, repent! Repent, because there is still time! Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Nearer now than it was before.
We look forward to Christmas in just a couple weeks’ time, and marvel that Mary holds her newborn Creator to her breast. The King is born in Bethlehem, which is why the shepherds will gather there, too. But dear friends, the King is just as near to you as He is to His mother Mary the day of His birth. He graces you with His presence in His Word and His Sacraments. He does not yet come with winnowing fork, to sweep the sinner into judgment. Still now, He comes with grace—to strengthen your faith, to prepare you for everlasting life. Jesus comes through these means of grace, bringing forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.”'In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.