I preached this sermon, the first of a new series in Matthew, in the context of grief and deep sadness in the life of our church. The series begins, appropriately, where the gospel begins: with God’s law and its condemnation of sin. The good news is that, like John the Baptist himself, the law points us to Christ, the only means of escaping God’s wrath.
Sermon Text: Matthew 3:1-12
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Last Thursday night, I drove home from Atlanta Medical Center, having ministered to Hettie and her family as best I could. It was rush hour, and traffic was bumper-to-bumper for most of the way home—imagine that. But I was nearly home when I got a call from Lisa: She was out running an errand, and did I want to meet her and the kids for dinner?
Truthfully, I didn’t want to at first: I was tired. I was hoping to steal a short nap before dinner. Besides, I was behind on work. It was going to be a late night.
Then I thought, “Brent, there’s nothing more important that you can do right now than meet your family for dinner. The time you have with them is a gift from God. Don’t take it for granted.”
As I said in my eNews article Friday morning, if you had heard the news about the traffic accident that took our brother Bill’s life on Thursday morning, and seriously injured our sister Hettie, you might have had a similar thought. If you hugged your children a little tighter when tucking them into bed, or remembered to say “I love you” to your spouse, or prayed an extra prayer of safety for your teenage driver as they left the house, I completely understand: Our lives on this earth, as the events of last Thursday reminded us, are incredibly precious… and incredibly fragile.
Our life is an amazing gift from God. But it’s not a permanent gift: it has an expiration date, ultimately determined not by the whims of fortune, or the laws of nature, or the law of the jungle, or blind physical forces, or even careless decisions made by distracted drivers—or worse. God determines the span of our life, from beginning to end. Job understood this when he said that a person’s “days are determined, and the number of his months is with [God], and [God has] appointed his limits that he cannot pass.” Similarly, Hebrews tells us that each one of us “is appointed to die once, and after that to face judgment.”
The psalmist says, “You [Lord] return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’… You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” For this reason, the psalmist goes on to say, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” We learn to number our days so that we won’t take even one of them for granted.
Life on earth is a gift, and if it is a gift, that means none of us is entitled to even a second of it. None of us is entitled to our next heartbeat. None of us is entitled to our next breath.
Do we live our lives like we believe that? How many parables, how many warnings, does Jesus give us about how unexpected the end of time is—whether that time ends in our natural deaths or whether it ends in the Second Coming? Jesus warns us again and again that we need to be ready. For example, in Luke’s gospel a couple of siblings are arguing over their parents’ estate—how often does that happen today? They want Jesus to settle the dispute. Instead, Jesus tells them a parable about a farmer who experiences a bumper crop—so much so that he doesn’t have barns large enough to store all his grain. But he thinks to himself, “Here’s what I’ll do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”
In other words, Jesus tells them—and us—we have only a limited amount of time to devote to ultimate things, to the things that are most important—which are the things of God and of God’s kingdom—yet we so easily get distracted worrying about far lesser things. We forget to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Or we tell ourselves, “I will seek his kingdom and his righteousness—only not this second. I have this business to take care of first, but then… but then I’ll get serious about my relationship with the Lord.” Jesus tells a parable about that as well, doesn’t he? A king throws a big wedding feast for his son. He invites all his friends—the important people, the powerful, the influential, the dignitaries—to come. And when the meal is ready, he sends his servants out to tell the invited guests to come to the banquet. And one by one they give him excuses: ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’
Similarly, we have many good excuses for not being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ…right now. But there’s always tomorrow… Except when there isn’t, and none of us knows when that will be.
There was a funny article in the satirical Christian “newspaper” The Babylon Bee. The headline read, “Rich Young Ruler Finds Home at Lakewood Church”—where pastor Joel Osteen preaches. The Rich Young Ruler, of course, refers to the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking how to inherit eternal life. And in so many words, Jesus tells him that he can’t—not as long as he continues to make an idol out of his wealth and continues to trust in money rather than trusting in God. So Jesus tells him to give it all away. Because if the man is truly repentant, and has truly decided to make Jesus his top priority, he’ll be willing to do that.
But at Joel Osteen’s church, the article says, the Rich Young Ruler faces no such dilemma. The article reads:
“This place just makes me feel so comfortable,” the man told reporters. “I came in and told Pastor Joel I was a good person and had kept all the commandments from my youth, and asked him what I still lacked—and do you know what he said? He told me I didn’t lack anything, that I was great just the way I am.”
And as a pastor, I could feel smug and self-righteous about it and think, “Thank God I’m not like Joel Osteen!” But who am I kidding? I would probably welcome any rich person to our church with open arms. Someone from the Truett Cathy family wants to become Methodist and join our church? I’m going to follow a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I’m not going to enquire very deeply about their spiritual lives. If they want to join the church, I’m going to say, “Come on down! Hallelujah! Let’s pass the offering plate!” Unlike Jesus, I certainly wouldn’t judge them for their sins and send them on their way.
In today’s scripture, there are probably a hundred Rich Young Rulers that are coming out to see John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness. Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees tended to be wealthy and religious people. And what does he say to them? “Come on down. It’s great to have you at my church. You don’t lack anything. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing you need to change. God wants you to know that you’re great just the way you are”?
Is that what he says? Not by a long shot. He says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Not exactly How to Win Friends and Influence People. But this is the message that these sinners needed to hear. You say, “That’s not very loving or grace-filled.” Of course it is! Suppose a blind person is about to walk over a steep cliff if they keep walking in the same direction. If you really love them, you’re going to use whatever language you need to use in order to get their attention and warn them about what’s going to happen if they keep walking in that direction. If you love them.
We twenty-first century American Christians, not least of which those Christians who are part of the United Methodist Church—we say we’re all about love, love, love… But are we? Because if we really love people, that means we should love them enough to warn them that unless or until they repent of their sins and turn to Jesus Christ, they will face God’s judgment, God’s wrath, and an eternity in hell! That’s what’s at stake here. If we really love them, we should love them enough to share with them the only means to escape God’s coming wrath, which is faith in the atoning death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. There’s no other way to be saved. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Peter says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
And you know that if Hettie Chandler were physically able to be here this morning, she would say a hearty “Amen!”
Hampton United Methodist Church, if we want to prove that we love people, let’s go out and share the gospel! Because we know people—we know people—like these Pharisees and Sadducees—who are lost and need to repent and be saved. And time is running out! It’s running out for them—they only have a limited amount of time to hear the gospel—and it’s running out for us: we only have a limited amount of time to share it with them.
But please notice: This can’t be a message of us versus them. Because John the Baptist would want us know—because God wants us to know through his Word—that we may be them. What do I mean?
Well, the Pharisees and Sadducees were a lot like us: They were the faithful churchgoers of their day. They had every reason to be confident of their standing before God: “We have Abraham as our father,” they might say. “So of course we’re saved.” And what does John do in this passage? He strips away their confidence: John says, “Your heritage means nothing. Where you come from, the family you were born into, the kind of church you attend, the things you do to show that you’re religious, even the things that you believe up here, in your head—all of these things are worthless unless you repent.”
Couldn’t John say the same thing to us today? “The fact that you grew up in a Christian family; the fact that you got baptized when you were three months old; the fact that you went through confirmation class and got a certificate from the church; the fact that you walked down an aisle on a Sunday morning or at a camp meeting or on a church retreat one time; the fact that you attend church today—all of these things are worthless unless you repent.”
And how will we know that our repentance is sincere and we are truly forgiven of our sins? John tells us in verse 8: We will “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Paul describes what that fruit looks like: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This fruit doesn’t show up overnight—but it is something that grows within us over time. Make no mistake: fruit is the result of repentance and saving faith; not its cause. It’s not a matter of working really hard to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, et cetera—and then we’ll be saved. It means if we are saved, these good actions and this transformation of our character will naturally follow.
So, for example, Zacchaeus the corrupt tax collector gets saved—and what’s the evidence of his salvation? He gives away half his fortune to the poor and pays back everyone he’s defrauded. His life “bore fruit in keeping with repentance.” The so-called thief on the cross does nothing to be saved except repent, which means to confess his sin, turn to Jesus, and trust in him for salvation. He did nothing else. And Jesus tells him, “Today, you’ll be with me in Paradise.” If it were possible, however, for that same man to then come down off the cross and to be healed from all his wounds, to live a “normal” life and then die a natural death, his life would have borne “fruit in keeping with repentance.” Because he sincerely repented.
Paul says, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”
More than a few of you have reached out to me and told me how much Bill Chandler meant to you. You talked about his love. You talked about his Christ-like example. And it’s because you sensed in him a life that had been transformed by grace; a life that exhibited love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; you sensed in him a life that “bore fruit in keeping with repentance.”
One small measure of this fruit was the fact that you knew where Bill was every Sunday morning when he was in town: right back there, in that pew. And so he was last Sunday morning at the 9:00 service, when I preached about Simeon, and his parting words, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation.” He sat there when I asked, “Will we be ready to say those same words when our Lord calls us home?” And I challenged us to live our lives in such a way that we will be ready to die like Simeon. I did not want or expect God to put those words to the test so soon after I preached them. And I’m going to miss Bill like crazy—my family will miss him; my son Townshend will miss talking college football with him, as he did probably last Sunday, or at least the Sunday before.
But Bill was ready. Are you?
1. Job 14:5 ESV
2. Hebrews 9:27 NIV
3. Psalm 90:3, 5-6, 12 ESV
4. See Luke 12:13-21.
5. I’m combining Matthew 22:1-10 and its parallel in Luke 14:16-24.
6. Acts 4:12
7. 2 Corinthians 13:5 NIV