Last week we heard about John's mission and ministry, but we didn't talk much about his actual message. ??To start this morning, we begin with a rude awakening and strong words. ??We speak of the gospel as being the message of salvation, and it is, but we do so in a way today that keeps things calm and cool. ??We try and be nice about what we are doing and saying. ??But what John does here in our text is anything but nice.
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ???You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come???8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ???We have Abraham as our ancestor???; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.???10And the crowds asked him, ???What then should we do??????11In reply he said to them, ???Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.?????12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ???Teacher, what should we do??????13He said to them, ???Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.?????14Soldiers also asked him, ???And we, what should we do???? He said to them, ???Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.???
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,??16John answered all of them by saying, ???I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.??17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.???18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
The call to repent and be baptized is anything but nice and pleasant to anyones' ears! ??The call to repent is the call to turn away from everything you know and hold on to so dearly and to put your whole trust in God through Jesus Christ. ??The call to be baptized is to claim the grace of God for yourself within your own heart and life and to live that out every moment of every day for the rest of your life! ??Does that sound like something that isn't going to compete with your current life, with the things that you have immersed yourself and your families within? ??The call of God through John is tough and we are going to come face-to-face with it today.
It would seem that John has a confusing message, in that, first he invites people to repent and be baptized and then immediately turns and chastises the people for coming. ??John's meaning in this is that he wants the world to take seriously not so much the sign of the baptism itself but the lifestyle of a baptized person that goes with it. ??If baptism is only a sign, then the people are looking to the "thing" as their salvation and not to the One who claims them in that baptism. ??When we are baptized, we are gifted with all the spiritual grace that is needed for us to live in communion with Jesus Christ. ??We CAN and WILL live a transformed life with a transformed heart if we will hold fast to the transforming God.
The big issue for John concerning those coming to the river to be baptized or hear his message is that many of the religious people of that time thought that their souls were safe because of their association with Abraham and their Jewish heritage. ??V.8 states, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ???We have Abraham as our ancestor???; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." ??John saw straight through these ideas, chastising the people for thinking that salvation comes from being associated with something or someone, as if it made them a cut-above. ??
And we do that today, as Christians, do we not? ??We think that because we go to church or because we grew up in the church that we are entitled; we think that because our grandmother is a saint then we are grafted in somehow. ??But for John, it was crucial that all within range of his message knew full well that in order to be saved it would take both the acceptance of God's grace through baptism and the living out of that grace daily. ??In other words, we must put into practice all that we believe.
Baptism as defined in our Methodist tradition is said to be an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. ??This means that the act of baptism is made complete in the action of your life. ??How you live your life is a direct result of your relationship with God, and sometimes your lack of relationship with God. ??With God's grace as the fuel and your commitment as the vehicle, the life of the Christian is proven to be a life transformed; a life no longer living for itself but one wholly devoted to God; a life that produces fruit that comes from God ??? fruit that looks, smells, and tastes like Jesus, filling the world with godly things and making us more and more complete as we live with Christ.
John's strongest warning comes in v.9 saying, "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." ??Christians are not Christians by name only. ??We are to be known by the love we share with the world; a love that comes from God ??? a holy love, a perfect love. ??Our beliefs and our actions must match up or we run the risk of living fruitless lives, stumbling down the path of life with no real end in sight. ??We will be dealt with, judged for the lives we live, not by the name we carry.
A quick sidetrack: have you every thought about why we say, "In Jesus' name" after we pray? ??Is it because we think that by invoking the name of Jesus that will make something happen and if we don???t it won???t happen? ??No. ??To say "in Jesus' name" means that we are saying or doing something in communion with him; that we are accomplishing something with Jesus and Jesus with us, connected, and having all the spiritual grace and power that goes along with being in and with Jesus. ??That goes way beyond an association or a name.
To close this morning, there may still be some who are wondering ??why we speak this way so close to Christmas. ??We examine scriptures like these because it is through baptism that we properly understand the context of Jesus Christ???s coming into the world. ??God has come, and for any who would come to the manger and witness the birth of Christ, they too may witness new life birthed inside of them through the waters of baptism and the fruit of a baptized life. ??We are invited to witness Christ in the manger and to witness Christ in our hearts through our repenting of a life-without-God and being made clean through the One who has come to take away the sins of the world.??
John's message should be and is a call to truly examine our live
s ??? our motives, our intentions, our actions and most of all our lack of any of those things. ??What do you have to say about your spiritual life today? ??What things can you not affirm about your spiritual life today? ??Have you experienced the waters of baptism? ??Are you living a fruitful life? ??Or do you feel the cool steel of the axe that God has placed at the roots of the tree? ??Have you been baptized but you???re missing some fruit? ??Today is a gut check. ??If you need to get right with God, then here is your chance, now is the time, and you are invited to come and make a decision if the Lord is leading. ??Let us move toward the feast prepared for us today by our Lord…
Rev. Whit R. Martin
Pastor, New Liberty United Methodist Church