BIBLE READINGS: Romans 15:4 -13 Matthew 3: 1-12
The good news - the gospel - began before Jesus arrived on the scene It began with John The Baptist, and John's message was received with the same great joy that the message of Jesus was received with.
John was the one spoken of by Isaiah - He was the voice crying in the wilderness "prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!"
And people heard John this way - they saw him as the promised one, the one who was to come before the Messiah, and they went out to him in the wilderness out to him from Jerusalem, and Judea and from all the region around the Jordan and they listened to his message - and they responded to his call - and in the thousands they were baptised for the forgiveness of sins.
"I tell you", said Jesus later on, "I tell you that among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist..."
And why is this?
Why this praise?
Looking back I think we often see John as strange character.
With his camel hair clothing and leather belt, and his long hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey, John often ends up reminding us of the cartoons we have seen, the cartoons of a strange looking character who stands on the street corner waving a sign that says - "repent , the end is near."
John seems scary - frightening almost - telling people that they are a brood of vipers, and that the axe of judgement is even now being laid to the roots of their lives. And yet - thousands heard his message that the kingdom of God was near - and thousands responded to his call to repent of their sins – and thousands were baptised and made ready to welcome Christ into their lives.
What are we missing in our picture of John? In our picture of what he did and said as he spoke of repentance and the one to come after him?
I think what we are missing is the marvel of what John called the people of Israel to receive as they came out to him at the Jordan.
John called people to be ready for the coming of Christ, by letting go of their burdens and receiving the forgiveness of God. John said to all who came near to him that they could get a fresh start in life; that they could begin again as newly washed individuals - pure and holy in God' eyes; and that God would visit them and redeem them as promised by all the prophets of old.
John proclaimed the love of God - the forgiveness God, and the day of God's coming, and he made this personal and particular, by giving that love and forgiveness to all those who came to him and entered the river with him.
What John proclaimed and gave was hope....
the hope that peace in our lives is possible,
that the past can be forgotten,
that it can be washed away,
and that when the new comes, when God comes, we can meet him and stand before him without fear.
The call of John for us to repent is not a word of criticism nor a word that claims that somehow he is better than we. No, on his lips the call to repentance is a word of opportunity
- it is a way into the future with God,
- it is a renewal our relationship with the Lord.
- it is a new beginning in our relationships with each other.
It is a foreshadowing of the message of the one to whom he pointed, the one who preached peace to those who were far off, and to those who were near.
Peace in forgiveness,
Peace in the Spirit,
Peace in a new life,
Peace in a new heaven and a new earth.
Despite how John railed against the sins of those who thought they had none, his message was that of the one who followed him:
There is none so lost, that they cannot be found,
none so bad, that God still will not seek them out to save them,
none so hopeless, that their life cannot be changed.
It is important that we open our hearts to God, to admit to him what is wrong in our lives to ask for his forgiveness and to vow each day to live as he has shown us.
It is important, not only to have a vision of what God has done, is doing, and will do; it is important that we be willing to confess our need for him and to accept from his hands the forgiveness he offers, the new life he gives - the life which leads us to his son.
It is what, in the end, we all need, and it is what God offers to us, it is what John pointed to as he spoke in the wilderness of the one who was to come after him..
I invite you all now to close your eyes, and to think of John the Baptist,
standing by the River, calling to you to be ready, ready for the one whose sandals he is not worthy to carry, calling you to be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins, and to start new today, walking in God's way. knowing that Christ will appear to you, very soon.