20th July 2010
With this sermon, we begin a series on Jesus in Matthew's Gospel. We're jumping straight in with Chapter 3, because that's the first time we see the adult Jesus in Matthew's Gospel. (Chapter 1 is the genealogy from Abraham to Jesus and the story of Jesus' birth; chapter 2 is his childhood -- the visit of the Wise Men, the escape to Egypt and return to Nazareth).
Before we read the main section, let's quickly skip back and look at the background. How were things set up before the time of Jesus? How did people think about God?
From the law of Moses onwards, when God speaks with people in the Old Testament, the language is always about deals, bargains, agreements, arrangements, covenants. For example:
If you obey the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways, the Lord will establish you as his holy people as he swore he would do.— Deuteronomy 28:9
It's if you do this, then I'll do that.
But there are hints, threaded through the Old Testament, of something better. For example, David prayed:
Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.— Psalm 51:1-2
David is not saying that he is going to eliminate his own sin, but asking God to do it, and trusting that he will. And there are similar shafts of light in many other places in the OT -- for example, God's initial unconditional promises to bless Abraham, and his repeated promise to Ezekiel that a time will come when he will give his people hearts of flesh instead of stone.
So within Judaism, there was always a thread of hope for something better than "if you do your very best, I will bless you". Some of the prophets saw glimpses of how it would happen: glimpses of Jesus himself, as in the Suffering Servant prophect of Isaiah 53 for example. But also glimpses of how the way would be made for him. Hundreds of years before John came, Isaiah saw and predicted his role as a herald:
Listen! It's the voice of someone shouting,
"Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God!"— Isaiah 40:3
So John was part of a great plan that God was making. It was all laid out in God's mind long before it came to pass.
So Chapter 1 of the history of the world is everything before John.
When John appeared on the scene, shortly before Jesus, he was powerful and charismatic. He preached a message of law, of warning, and of condemnation: "You must do better".
In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, "Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said:"He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,John's clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
'Prepare the way for the Lord's coming!
Clear the road for him!'"— Matthew 3:1-6
John appeared to be the Real Deal. He had disciples of his own. He could have gathered many more disciples and made a credible claim to be the messiah -- in fact John's Gospel (1:19) shows us people coming to John and asking him whether he is the Messiah. He was obviously an impressive figure. And he did not hold back with the fire-and-brimstone:
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. "You brood of snakes!" he exclaimed. "Who warned you to flee God's coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don't just say to each other, 'We're safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.' That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the axe of God's judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire."— Matthew 3:7-10
But alongside this traditional message of Law was a higher one, looking forward: "prepare the way".
"I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am -- so much greater that I'm not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire."— Matthew 3:11-12
John saw further than just reiterating the message of the Law. He was looking for the Christ, someone who was not just a better preacher and teacher than he was, but someone of a completely different kind -- one who was anointed by God.
John's baptism was a symbol. Water baptism is an important symbol, and one that we practice, but a symbol nevertheless. But where John acted out birth into the new life through water baptism, he knew that Jesus would actually bring that new life, sending the Holy Spirit to live in people. In the same way, the system of animal sacrifices in the Law was a symbol illustrating the one great sacrifice of Jesus that would one day be sufficient for us all. All through the Old Testament, and on into the ministry of John, we see symbols; and Jesus is the reality that they symbolise.
Now, finally, he himself comes into the story.
Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. "I am the one who needs to be baptized by you," he said, "so why are you coming to me?" But Jesus said, "It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires." So John agreed to baptize him. After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy."— Matthew 3:13-17
When Jesus came and was baptised, John heard the voice, "This is my son", and he understood: this was the one he'd been waiting for. It was the clearest possible confirmation.
This was not just the beginning point of Jesus' ministry, which we will look at over the next weeks, but also the crucial turning point of John's. From then on, John's message changed. Instead of "You must do better", it became "Behold the Lamb". We see this spelled out best over in John's Gospel.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! He is the one I was talking about when I said, 'A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.'"That's why John said "He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less" (John 3:30). He recognised that Jesus was something completely new on the Earth: not just another prophet or priest or king, but the actual son of the living God, incarnate, alive in a human body, and with the power to bring forgiveness for sin.— John 1:29-30
John preached powerful messages on sin, hypocrisy and racism, but he saw that it was only in Jesus that the answers were to be found. His preaching pointed out the problems but his solution was to point to Jesus: "Behold the Lamb".
Since Jesus came, everything has changed. The whole book of Hebrews is an extended exposition of how he fulfils and surpasses everything in the Law and the Prophets. The ancient prophecies about the Heart of Flesh and the Suffering Servant are fulfilled in him: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Every healthy church, every religious movement, solical changes like the abolition of slavery -- every great thing that has been done in the name of Jesus in the last 2000 years has been done by people who saw and understood the fundamental change that John saw: that the Law's message "You must do better, you must try harder" has been superseded by a greater and higher and purer and clearer message: "Behold the Lamb of God". The very ground on which we relate to God has changed.
Modern philosophers call Jesus a moral teacher; Muslims call him a prophet; but John heard the voice of God call him his Son. Jesus was the culmination of the centuries-long story that John played a part in. All of prior history was converging on that point, on the life of Jesus.
John was himself the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, but his role was to point onwards to the completion of the great plan. The image is of the machinery of the centuries slowly but surely swinging into place, coming into alignment, to bring about the key moment in history. Everything the Jews went through -- exile in Egypt, the Exodus, the time of the Kings, exile in Babylon, the return under Nehemiah -- all of that was preparing the ground, leading up to that great and wonderful centrepoint of history: Jesus.
It makes me think of history as being like a gigantic Rubik's cube: as you start to solve it, it doesn't seem to be coming closer to a solution; it might even seem to be going further away. But when it is controlled by someone with a plan, the last few moves seem almost magical, and suddenly the perfect configuration is in place. John was one of the last moves before the world was ready. And the the puzzle was solved and Jesus came.
John had a lot of important issues he could have focussed on, and which he did preach about: sin, hypocrisy, racism, complacency. These things are important. But John saw his main mission as pointing people at Jesus. So with us: there are lots of genuinely important social, political and environmental causes, and we certainly shouldn't ignore them. But, just like John, we're ultimately here to point people to Jesus.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/matthew3.html