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It's Not About Me

Date: Oct. 11, 2015

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Matthew 3:1-17

Key Verse: Matthew 3:11

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

I’m coming to believe that children are the rawest form of humanity that exists. Through them, you can see so much about absolute love and loyalty and how to let go and be free. The flip side is that through children you can also see the rawest form of sin. I have two small children: a girl 4 and a boy 2. They are very cute and such a wonderful blessing, but at their age, so much of their lives is all about themselves. They only do what they want to do. Their own happiness is what is most important. If anything disrupts that, they get very upset. This week my wife brought home a hand clapping noisemaker. It looks like a plastic hand sandwich on a handle and when you shake it, the outer hand smacks the inner hand and it sounds like clapping. The kids love it because it makes noise. On Thursday, my daughter brought it into the car when I drive them to their school. When I picked them up, it was still in the car and my daughter started to play with it. Soon, however, Lucas also wanted to play with it. Brother and sister would have to share. At that age, if you didn’t know, the word “share” is almost a bad word. When I asked Ella to share with her brother, she didn’t want to. It was hers. I had to convince and threaten and plan to get her to share. We finally agreed that she would give the clapper to Lucas when we got to 31st street. Which was another five minutes away, but she gave it to him immediately. For Lucas, he would, too, have to share. When I told him to share, he just said, “No, no share.” Although they expressed things differently, they were exactly the same. It was all about them. It is selfishness in its purest form.

We can look at our world and society and we can see that much of our lives is about our own lives. That sounds strange, but when we look at our finances, where the money goes, there is a great deal that goes to necessity, but there is also a great portion that goes to indulgences. We need water, but we drink Coke or coffee or juice because they taste better. We need simple meals with moderate portions, but we eat a large stuffed pizza on our own, or at least I did when I was in college and 80 pounds lighter. We need to get from point A to point B, but sometimes we like to do that with a little zip. We like to treat ourselves because we like to make our lives about ourselves. Now, when I say ourselves, that includes you personally and it may expand into larger personal circles, like your family: spouse, children and parents; your friends; your sports team; or your ethnic group or nation. We think these things are important because they are important to us, but we act like these people are the center of the universe and everything should revolve around them, but what if that isn’t the case? Let’s go into a little astronomy. The moon orbits the Earth once every 27 days. From the standpoint of the Earth, it is very important because the moon revolves around it, but it is not the center of all things because the earth orbits the sun about once every 365 days. Now the sun can feel important because the planets orbit it, along with the asteroid belt, the comets and all the Kuiper Belt objects. There is a lot orbiting the sun, but it is still not the center of all things. The sun and our solar system orbit the galactic center once every 225 million years or a cosmic year. Quite honestly, even the galactic center is not the center of all things because there are many more galaxies out there. Just because we feel that our lives are the center of the universe, it doesn’t mean that our lives are. It just takes a bit of perspective to see the truth. And the truth is that it is not about me and it is not about you either.

In today’s passage, we meet a man named John. I am going to tell you a secret about John, one that is not written in this passage. You see Jesus considered John the greatest man who ever lived. (Matthew 11:11) And I bring this up because the greatest man who ever lived knew that his life was not about him. Let me say it one more time, the greatest man who ever lived knew that his life was not about him. This is a guy who has more right to think that his life is the center of the universe, but he knew that his life revolved around someone else, like the earth goes around the sun and the sun goes around the center of the galaxy.

So, let’s start talking about John. Today’s passage begins, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (1-2) The passage literally begins with “In those days”. From the last passage to this one, nearly thirty years have passed. King Herod died in the year 4 BC and this passage takes place around the year AD 26, which is the same year Pontius Pilate became the governor of Judea. There is a lot about John that is not in this passage. He is a miracle baby. His parents were old and childless, but God gave them a son in their old age and they named him John. When John grew up, he went out into the wilderness to live. He was about the same age as Jesus, about six months older and when he was about thirty, he began to preach.

If you look at the basic message that John gave, it is simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” In modern times, this sounds like a message of hate from a fear mongering street preacher, but John’s words were not fear mongering. To repent is to acknowledge one’s sin and to turn to God. He was calling people sinners and telling them to turn back to God, and the reason he was doing so was because the kingdom of heaven is near. This isn’t some sort of doomsday prediction. John was preaching in Judea and the people there were waiting for a long time for God’s promised kingdom to come. Prior to John, there wasn’t a prophet for over four hundred years. It was a dry period for God’s power and the people were yearning for him. Because God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, was drawing near, the people needed to have their hearts prepared. The Messiah, the promised king and savior, was coming and the people needed to be ready for him.

This wasn’t something that John thought up for himself. It came from God himself. “This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’” (3) More than seven hundred years prior to John, God said through the prophet Isaiah that he would send someone who would prepare the way for the Lord, and the best way to prepare is to prepare the people’s hearts for the Lord’s arrival. And the way to prepare people’s hearts is to get people to recognize how short they fall from perfection. Not even the greatest man in the world could hold a candle to the perfection that is the Lord. By definition, everywhere we fall short of the Lord is everywhere we sin. We need to recognize that we need to come back to God and so did the people of John’s time. John’s message was what the people were prepared to hear.

Now, someone who prepares people for the coming of the Lord sounds like a very important person. He’s greater than the announcer at a sporting event that tries to rile up the hometown fans. I guess St. Louis could have used a little of that last night when they lost to the Cubs. That type of person is more important than the Secret Service agents that go before the President to make sure everything is safe. A person like that has got to have the first century equivalent of the earpiece, black sunglasses, and massive black government SUV, right? Let’s take a look. “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (4) So what do you think? Do you think that he has that whole Men-in-Black feel? No? The guy wore typical wilderness attire and ate typical wilderness food. It wasn’t mainstream, but everything was 100% organic, his clothes and his food. He actually seems more like a hipster to me than anything else? Locusts and honey are just he kombucha and kale of today. You’ll be hearing next that locusts and honey are the new superfoods. It might not be that far off. After all, locusts are arthropods just like lobsters, crabs, and shrimp.

So, John could have been called John the Hipster and his message was one of repentance. You might guess that people would look at him with sideways glances, thinking he was a little strange and not want to hear his message, but then you would be wrong. “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” (5-6) People came from all over the region to see John. He was out in the wilderness and people came from Jerusalem the largest city, to hear him, confess their sins and be baptized. The people were waiting for the kingdom of heaven. Their hearts desired God more and more each day. Their everyday lives were filled with oppression and Roman occupation. They had essentially been an occupied people since the exile, under the heel of a foreign ruler. The Jews longed for their freedom and the restoration of their kingdom. They knew that it was the sins of the people that caused God to abandon the kingdom of Judah, so the people knew that they needed to have an accounting of their own sins.

The people were ready for John’s message and they came to him so that they could be prepared for the coming of the Lord. This preparation involved repentance, which means turning from your sins and turning to God. This meant that the people needed to confess their sins to repent of them and they did so freely. As a sign of their repentance, John baptized the people in the Jordan River. Baptism was not something that was new or unique to John. The Jews practiced baptism as an initiation for those who were converting to Judaism. Plus, a Jewish sect near Qumran, the ones who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, practiced daily ritual bathing for the cleansing of sin. However, John’s baptism was different. John’s baptism was a one-time baptism for the repentance of sins for people who were already Jews. He was the first one to practice baptism in his way, very hipster indeed. Once the people confessed their sins and were baptized there wasn’t a need for them to be baptized again. This is even true for those who would go on to follow Jesus later.

John was so popular that some of the religious leaders wanted to check out what was going on. These people were members of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which were two of the main religious sects. We might think of them as political parties but for religion. The Sadducees were a small priestly sect that had made peace with the Roman government. They held to only the first five books of the Bible and didn’t believe in anything outside their pages. The Pharisees were a much larger group of teachers of the law. The opposed the Romans and created an oral law to help the people to follow God’s law. We many times hear that the Pharisees were despicable people, but the people generally like the Pharisees and it is only a few bad apples that have tainted the name in modern times. One thing is true, the Pharisees and Sadducees rarely agreed on anything. The views differed so much that the only things that they could agree on was that there is one God and John looks interesting and suspicious.

When John saw them, he had some choice words for them, filled with rainbows and sunshine. He said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (7) Like I said, not all of them were bad people, but John must have recognized the ones there as being some of the hypocritical ones. I’m pretty sure that John knew that they were there to judge him and ask many questions about why he is doing what he is doing. So he tries to help them better understand the nature of God. John is, after all, the last prophet. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (8-10) The Jews were very proud of their heritage. They were Jews because they were born Jews. Their identity was handed to them by their parents and grandparents going all the way back to Abraham. It was something that they were proud of, but John asserted that one’s ancestry was not sufficient enough to ensure one’s relationship with God. I’ve heard it said that God does not have grandchildren; he only has children. Our parent’s religious affiliations are no substitute for our own relationship with God. My dad’s family has been Catholic for generations, but that doesn’t mean that I am Catholic. I’m not. What matters is my own relationship with God and my belief in God and the result of such a belief is proof of that relationship. The same goes the other way. My children are not Christians because they don’t yet have a relationship with God. I can teach them and show them the way, but until they develop their own relationship they are not actually Christian.

John was pretty bold to call out some of the religious leaders. They were skeptical of him and what he was doing. Likely, they wanted to know under whose authority he was preaching and baptizing. It wasn’t under the authority of the Pharisee or Sadducees. So, who gave him the authority to do so? Speculation was running so rampant around John that a number of people began to wonder if he was the Messiah. He seemed that important. Perhaps he was the center of everything, but he wasn’t and John himself knew it. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (11-12)

John recognized, that compared to who was coming, he was nothing. He was considered to be the greatest man to ever live, but he is nothing when compared to the one who comes after him. John uses the term “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” Sandals were pretty nasty things and carrying someone’s sandals was usually left to the lowest slave on the roster. Dealing with sandals was a rookie initiation level task, because no one wanted to do it and the task kept getting passed down the line to the person with the least seniority. Yet, the one who was coming after John was so great that John considered himself below even his sandal servant. That’s some level of perspective!

So, who is this coming after John? John says that he is going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Who can baptize with the Holy Spirit? Who can command the Holy Spirit? Well, since he is the forerunner of the Lord, preparing the people for the coming of the Lord, it would seem like he is talking about the Lord. God was coming with his Holy Spirit to separate the fruitful from the unfruitful. God was stepping into this world to find his children. I could see how John could feel lesser to God. I mean how can you compare to that? The Lord, the creator of all things, the creator of the universe, is far greater than a man wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. The Lord is the center of the universe.

While John was waiting, Jesus came to see him to be baptized. Now, we know that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s chosen one, and in one look, John knew it too. Jesus had no sins to confess and no reason to be baptized, so John tried to deter him, but Jesus insisted. When Jesus came up out of the water, for the first and only time in history something happened. “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (16-17) The first to be baptized by the Holy Spirit was Jesus himself and the people heard God say that Jesus was his son. Jesus is the Lord. He is the one who is greater than John. He is the one who is greater than us all.

John came to prepare the way for Jesus. He came to get people’s hearts ready so that they could accept his message and his salvation. If their hearts were not ready, the people wouldn’t think that they need to be saved. If they think themselves to be all right or good enough, then they wouldn’t need Jesus. With John preparing the way, Jesus can come into their hearts and remove all the sin and save people from eternal death. John knew that what he was doing wasn’t for his own edification. He wasn’t doing it for his own glory. He wasn’t doing it to amass followers for himself. He wasn’t doing it for a pat on the back or even to feel good about himself. John prepared the way because Jesus is greater than him and all he wanted to do was to bring people to Jesus.

We are inherently selfish. We like to think that because we are spinning, that must mean that we are the center of everything because it sure looks like it. When we do almost anything, it is for our personal benefit. We choose classes that interest us. We give in to our children because we don’t want to go crazy. We don’t like our jobs or coursework because they cause us grief. We are generous when it makes us feel good. But we should do things because those things bring people to Jesus. Often, even when we serve the Lord, we choose to do the things only we like or share Jesus with only those we like. Building a community of believers requires more than getting together for only church service and meetings, but some people don’t like it. Reaching out to people to share Jesus requires assessing each person individually and that takes a lot of effort, but there are some that would rather use a cookie-cutter approach because it is what they know. There are some that think music or dress should only be a certain way, but they neglect to see that those things have been changing over the course of centuries. People feel this way because of that’s their own personal preference and not because they want to bring people to Jesus and they think that those methods are the way to do so. But it is not about you. It is about Jesus.

I have my own preferences, but I recognize that how I was reached is unique and probably would not work for anyone else. John’s method was unique, but the point is Jesus. He wasn’t preaching repentance for the kingdom of heaven is near because it was his preference or he thought it was a good idea. It was because it would prepare the people’s hearts for the coming of Jesus. We have to give up our selfishness and look beyond ourselves. The world doesn’t revolve around us. Each of us is unique and special, but we are just snowflakes that melt in the heat. We are nothing when compared to the Lord who created all things. We were put here to bring people to him. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus.

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