Sunday’s Sermon — Matthew 3:1-6, “The Key to Revival”

19 Jan

In America, there have been two Great Awakenings in our history: one in the 1700’s and one in the 1800’s. These were times of special spiritual revival that swept over our land and left our culture changed. There have been other outbreaks of revival here and there in our history but nothing as sustained as those two Great Awakenings. I think most of us would agree that we as a nation are in need of revival again. Not just an emotional stirring, but a deep work of the Holy Spirit that changes our lives and our community. Our year verse for 2015 is Psalm 51:12, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit.” This verse is a plea for revival because revival is about recapturing our joy in the Lord and re-establishing deep fellowship with Him. When He is changing us, He uses us to bless others. Spiritual fruitfulness comes when we are walking with God. But often for us there is a roadblock to that walk that keeps revival far from us. The passage we’re going to look at today is all about that roadblock. Turn with me to Matthew chapter 3. We’ll be looking at verses 1-6.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,

Many years have passed between the end of Matthew 2 and the beginning of Matthew 3. Jesus is now an adult. Matthew is not writing a biography with every detail of Jesus’ life at every stage. He is writing a selective history with a focus on the years when Jesus was most active in ministry. Verse 1 answers three questions: who?, what?, and where?

Matthew starts not with Jesus as an adult but with John the Baptist. John was a relative of Jesus, his mother Elizabeth was related to Jesus’ mother Mary. John became well-known for his ministry of baptizing people, so that even the Jewish historian Josephus makes note of John in his history of the Jews and calls him “John the Baptist.” So baptizing was John’s calling card, because the way he was baptizing people was so unusual.

The “what” in verse 1 is preaching. John is first and foremost a preacher. This word for preaching is connected to the word for announcing. John is a herald of the coming King, Jesus.

The “where” in this verse is the wilderness. This is where John spent his life and this is where he ministered. And there’s probably some meaning in that, although Matthew doesn’t come right out and tell us. John is walking in the way of prophets like Elijah, who ministered from the wilderness. But maybe John also ministers in the wilderness as a way of calling the Jews away from everyday life. I know for me I see life a lot more clearly when I get out in nature. The quiet of the land takes me away from everyday concerns and helps me focus on what really matters. The deserted wilderness with its quiet rolling hills would have been a strong contrast to the Temple in Jerusalem, with all its busyness and religious activity. Maybe the wilderness was part of the message. Get away from the hypocrisy of the religious leaders with their false worship. Get away from the power games and the use of God for self-advancement or self-aggrandizement. Come to this desolate place. See clearly. See that your own hearts are dry and dirty. In need of water to quench your thirst and water to clean you up.  In the city with all its hustle and bustle you can’t hear the message you most need to hear . . .

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

John’s message is simple but so profound. “Repent.” This word points to a total change of life and perspective. I see my true standing before God, I turn away from my sinful ways and I trust God for power to follow Him. And this was John’s message. And this is the roadblock to revival, our failure to repent. This message of repentance was a shocking message a message like the ones the prophets had given hundreds of years before. The reason it was shocking is because most of the Jews felt like they were secure. They were the seed of Abraham, the friend of God. The Lord had entered into covenant with them. They lived within a few miles of the Temple, the very center of Jewish religious life. And in the busyness of their lives and trying to get by in day-to-day life most people in Judea and the surrounding areas had assumed they were right with God because of this heritage and this background. And so there is a shocking sense to John’s message. Right from the start he is warning people that their religious heritage is not enough. He is telling them that if they are going to experience the coming kingdom of heaven, they have to repent. And so it is for us, if we would experience salvation, we must repent. Trusting in Jesus is about leaving and following, about turning away from sin and turning to Christ. Saying no to sin and yes to holiness. And yet many times people in church live in unrepentant sin and comfort themselves with the same kinds of things the Jews used for comfort. “I’ve gone to church all my life.” “I am a member of this church or that church.” “I was baptized in 1973.” “I read my Bible once in a while.” “I prayed a prayer when I was ten.” Am I saying we’re saved by works? No way. What I am saying is what the Bible says. A good tree produces good fruit and a rotten tree produces rotten fruit. We don’t seek to honor God in order to be saved, we seek to honor God because we are saved. And this honoring of God has to do with our hearts, with what we love and hate. It has to do with our affection for God versus our attachment to sin. So all these markers like walking the aisle or being baptized or joining the church or being involved in this or that in church, its all just rubbish if we don’t have a heart that hates sin and loves God. So John’s message is basically, “Wake up!” Stop making excuses.

Most of you who are tuned out right now are tuned out because you love your sin more than you love God. And you say, “No, I love God, it’s just you’re too boring or the music is too old-fashioned or the pews are too uncomfortable or somebody made me mad or the preacher didn’t talk to me enough.” And I just want to say to all of that, bull. If you’re tuned out right now, if you have no enthusiasm for God, no desire to worship Him, no joy in being here, the problem is 99 times out of a hundred that you love your sin more than you love God. Repent.

Why repent? Because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. What is this kingdom of heaven? It is God’s decisive action in the world to establish His rule. There is one sense in which God has always reigned. He created everything, He sustains everything. Yet there is another sense in which He people rebel against God and His reign. We try to build our own kingdoms and we can do a pretty good job of building a kingdom that looks pretty impressive on the outside. But the foundations are shaky, the structures are unstable and the story of history is simply the story of the passing of one kingdom after another. It will happen to America too eventually. We are a young nation. But there will come a time when our nation will be covered over by the sands of time. It happens to all earthly kingdoms, both personal and national. We spend so much time in our lives building our own kingdom or wealth or fun or family or friends or status that we fail to see that in the end our little kingdoms all crumble and we are soon forgotten. Most of us will only be remembered by a very few people, and truly known by even fewer.

This issue of kingdoms was something Daniel spoke about in the second chapter of his book. King Nebuchadnezzar had this dream about a statue made of four different materials: a head of gold, a chest of silver, thighs or bronze, and legs of iron, with feet mixed with iron and clay. And Daniel interpreted his dream. And here’s what Daniel said,

Daniel 2: you are the head of gold. 39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. 40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. 41 And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay. 42 And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, 45 just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.” Nebuchadnezzar was the leader of the Babylonian Empire. Then came the Persian Empire, symbolized by the chest and arms of silver. Then came the Greek Empire, symbolized by thighs of bronze. And finally the Roman Empire, the legs of iron. Yet even in Rome, there was the beginning of breakdown, as the Empire in its expansion became weak and diluted, like iron mixed with clay. There were four world Empires that ruled from the time of Daniel to the time of Jesus: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Then, the kingdom comes. That stone not made with human hands comes and breaks apart the statue, making it like chaff to be blown away by the wind. And the stone becomes a great mountain and fills the whole earth. This is the picture I believe John is referencing when he says, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” With the coming of Jesus we have God’s decisive action to bring the kingdoms of the world to nothing and to establish His reign over all. He will judge those who continue to rebel against Him and He will save those who believe. And He will do it all through His cornerstone, Jesus. Of course, the fullness of this reign and judgment is not going to happen not at the first coming, but at the second coming. But the point John is making is that with the coming of Jesus, God’s kingdom has entered into the world in a new way. Something decisive has happened, not out of line with what God has already done in the Old Testament, but as a fulfillment of what God has promised there. So the call to repentance is a call to not be left in the dust of the Savior but to be gathered to Him and to reign forever with Him in a kingdom that will not be shaken and that will not fade away. This is how high the stakes are when it comes to Jesus. It is the difference between earthly good and eternal life and earthly emptiness and eternal damnation. John wakes us up to the reality that what we talk about here on Sunday morning and what we do in our lives day-by-day is not a joke and it is not optional. We don’t play around with these things. We don’t try on the kingdom like a new sweater. We don’t say, “Let’s change the message so we can get a few more people in the door or keep the ones we already have.” We don’t back down not because we want to be stubborn but because the stakes are eternal. And we don’t water down because we don’t want to give people false assurance like so many of the Jews of John’s day had. We preach repentance and faith for salvation. Because we are part of a kingdom. And the King demands the allegiance of His subjects. Therefore repent.

There is no doubt that repentance is the key to revival. Not just sorrow over sin or sadness at being caught but a deep-down, gut-wrenching recognition of our sinfulness that results in our calling out to God for mercy and for power to live a holy life. Repentance is John’s message because he wants to see revival. Do you want to see revival? Be careful. Make sure your real heart is not, “I want to see us have more people, new members, so we can feel like the church is going well.” Watch out. Watch out that your heart is not more for West Hickory Baptist Church than for the kingdom of heaven. I’m talking to myself too. It’s so dangerous. No, we want to see revival because we want spiritual life and growth. Why be half-hearted? This is why God so hates the lukewarm. If these truths are touching your heart today, go for it. Don’t hold anything back. Believe the good news and walk with Jesus. Let go of your need to succeed or to possess or to control. Believe the good news that there is a King and you’re not Him. Repent, the kingdom is here. But John is not the King. Look at verse 3 . . .

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

make his paths straight.’ ”

I love Matthew’s insistence of sticking close to Scripture, don’t you? He’s always

looking for connections to what God has said before. He doesn’t use the word “fulfilled” here, he seems to reserve that for words about Jesus. Yet he clearly thinks Isaiah 40:3 speaks about John. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” This verse reminds us of the passion of John. He is crying out in the wilderness. I am afraid that our own sin, the hard knocks of life and lack of affection for God has robbed us of our passion. I want to be like John the Baptist. I want to be passionate for Jesus. I know that there are lots of personalities in this room but there is no personality that keeps you from being passionate for Jesus. You may express it a little differently than me but by all means express it. Cry out to God in prayer and cry out for God in the world around you.

Verse 3 also reminds us of the necessity of repentance. John calls us to prepare the way of the Lord and make straight His paths. How do we do that? Through repentance, through turning away from our sin. The book of Joel contains the great promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit which was fulfilled in Acts. But right before the Spirit is promised in chapter 2, we read these words, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. The promise of the pouring out of the Spirit follows a call to repentance. And with our year verse from Psalm 51, restore to me the joy of your salvation, remember that Psalm begins with David’s deep confession of his sin. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your love, blot out my transgressions. Against You, You only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” So it is here in Matthew as well. Repentance prepares us to receive God’s blessings.

Finally, verse 3 teaches us that John is only a forerunner to the true King. John’s role is preparatory. He is a messenger of the King. His ministry is meant to point to the King. How easy it would have been for John to make the ministry all about Him. We will see in this passage that he was wildly popular. Yet he was also incredibly humble. What a warning to all Christians, especially pastors and teachers, to remember that we are just messengers of the King. I get concerned when I see churches today that are recognized more for their Senior Pastor than for Jesus. I get concerned today when I see the culture of celebrity that surrounds so many Christian figures in our time. I can’t help feeling like Jesus is getting obscured. And it can happen in small places as well, where some person in the church, pastor or otherwise, can put themselves on a pedestal. But how dangerous is this focus on men and women. How careful we must be to keep Jesus first in our hearts. Verse four shows us John remembered who was King, not only by his words but also by his lifestyle.

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

Many who have studied this passage have made note of John’s simple lifestyle. His highest concern was proclaiming Jesus. R.C.H. Lenski says, “His very appearance was a stern sermon. It was a call to all those who made food and drink, house and raiment their chief concern in life to turn from such vanity and to provide far more essential things. He was a living illustration of how little man really needs here below—something we are prone to forget. And by drawing people out into the wilderness John made them share a bit of his own austere life. Men left their mansions, offices, shops, their usual round of life, and for a time at least gave their thoughts to higher things.” And John stood in stark contrast to so many of the religious leaders of his day, especially the Sadducees, who tended to live luxurious lives. How about us? John’s simplicity should challenge us as we consider how much stock we often put in having this thing or that thing. They are just things. The new car, the computer, the new phone, the new outfit, the new book, the good meal. They are just things. John got along just fine in the wilderness eating bugs and honey wearing a scratchy suit of camel’s hair. Would we be OK with that? Or would we fall apart if all our props were taken away? Oh, this is challenging. We know Jesus said, “You can’t serve two masters. You can’t serve God and money.” And you know, it doesn’t really matter how much or little you have. It matters what you do with what you have, whether God has your heart or money has your heart. John shows us that a kingdom focus leads away from an obsession with possessions.

John was not only making a statement about single-minded devotion to God by his lifestyle, he was also again acting like a prophet. We read of the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”

The prophet Malachi had said in Malachi 4, Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. Most Jews believed that the prophet Elijah, who had been taken up to heaven, would come back. But Jesus, in Matthew 11, gives us a different perspective. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. So Jesus is telling us, Elijah has come, the kingdom is here, repent and believe the good news.

This new prophet, coming some 400 years after the close of the Old Testament, was making quite an impression. Look at verses 5 and 6 . . .

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

People from the regions all around are going to John. It is possible that John baptized thousands of people. It seems like the Holy Spirit is moving in this passage and I say that not because of how many people are going to John but because of what they are doing when they go to him. They are being baptized in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. The baptism was amazing in itself. The Jews had nothing like this in their experience. There were ritual washings in the temple and things like that. Where we find a parallel to what John is doing is among Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. Throughout history many non-Jewish people, in seeing the religion of the Jews, have desired to become Jews themselves. These Gentiles were allowed to become Jews through three steps: being circumcised, offering a sacrifice in the Temple, and being baptized. This baptism symbolized repentance and cleansing and entrance into the people of God. So what is so amazing here in verses 5 and 6 is that the Jews are submitting to baptism, something normally reserved for Gentiles. So they are admitting through baptism that they are no better than Gentiles, that they too need to be forgiven, inwardly changed and living with a heart of faith if they are going to be part of God’s family. So it is an amazingly humble thing they are doing here, especially since most Jews were taught to look down on Gentiles. And yet great crowds willingly submit to baptism, confessing their sins. What a joy! Visible and verbal signs of repentance. John’s mission is being accomplished. The way for the King is being prepared.

This morning, is your heart prepared for the King? Or has your heart grown cold because of obsession with the things of this world? Or has your heart grown dark because it is focused on sin? Is your heart hard because of bitterness toward others or even toward God? Is your heart calloused because you have repeatedly ignored the saving Word that comes to you? John’s message was so simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” My message is simple too, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.” Jesus has come. He has lived a perfect life. He has died on the cross in the place of sinners, the perfect, acceptable sacrifice. He has risen from the dead, defeating death and sin. He has ascended to heaven where He reigns and intercedes for us. He is coming again to judge all people, bringing home His own and damning those who have rebelled against His reign. If your heart is not singing over these truths, if your life is not bearing the good fruit of love, joy, peace and all the rest, repent. Maybe you need to repent and believe for the first time, maybe you’ve never trusted in Jesus to save you. There may be children here or young people or maybe even some older people for whom that’s true. Turn to Jesus today. There’s no age requirement for the kingdom. If you have understood what Jesus has done for you repent, turn away from your sin and trust in Jesus to save you. Just call on Him right now. And then, when we start to sing in a minute, come up here to the front and share with us what you have done. God would be honored through that. Maybe today you know you are a Christian. You have trusted Jesus to save you, but you have drifted. Your heart is not right. Today is the day to come home. Today is the day to re-align your heart to the heart of God. Today is the day for revival to sweep your heart. I want to say to everyone this morning, we may hope for more from our life as a church. And we may make plans or have ideas of how things can be better. Everyone does and most people’s plans for the church are more about what would make them comfortable and happy than what would honor God. But what I am calling us to today is not comfortable. The call to repentance will hurt, because it is an admission that we have been falling short. And the call to repentance will cost us something, because repentance means a change of life. But the call to repentance is worthwhile, because repentance is the gateway to revival.


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