New Beginnings


Rev. Bryn MacPhail


Where have you heard that before? When I lived at Yonge & Eglinton, I occasionally heard that message from a "street preacher" who stood on the corner with his Bible--"Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand".

While you may fault this street preacher for a method of evangelism that is not very successful in the 1990's, you can't fault him for his CONTENT. This was the exact message John the Baptist preached.

I invite you to turn to Matthew, chapter 3, where we are introduced to the ministry of Jesus through His forerunner, John the Baptist.

In chapters 1 & 2 of Matthew we are told about the birth of Jesus--the Christmas story. Joseph, Mary, and the young Jesus move to Egypt to avoid the slaughter of Herod, and they eventually settle in a city called Nazareth.

Matthew begins chapter 3 with the phrase, "in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea"(v.1).

"In those days" is an interesting phrase because it conceals a lapse of about 30 years since the events of chapter 2. A modern biographer could never pass over the bulk of the subject's life, but Matthew does just that. Matthew hastens ahead to his true subject--the public ministry, death, and Resurrection of Israel's Messiah, Jesus Christ. And this ministry emerged on the heals of the ministry of John the Baptist.

John's message was a challenging one, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand"(v.2). The Greek word translated to "repent" means far more than simply "being sorry". The word literally means, "to turn around". To the ears of Jews in a relationship with their God, YHWH, to repent would mean to "return"--return to the God of the covenant, and to return to covenant obedience.

John wanted his fellow Jews to recognize their disobedience to God, and then to respond by renewing their commitment to God. Baptism then, was the symbol of this recommitment. Baptism, in this context, symbolized returning to God.

Matthew points out that this following of John wasn't a tiny movement either, nor was it an extremist sect, but Matthew says that "Jerusalem was going out to (John the Baptist)", and "all Judea", and "all the district around the Jordan"(v.5). Even the religious leaders of the day went to John--virtually everyone recognized that this was a genuine movement of God.

The people came confessing their sins, and John responded by baptizing them in the Jordan river(v.6). When the Pharisees and the Sadducees came for baptism, however, John was not inclined to baptize them. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, you might know, were the religious leaders of Israel--the Jewish version of Presbyters, if you will. John wanted no part in their baptism. He did not politely shoo them away either, nor did he get his disciples to slip them a note, but instead he shouted at them, "You brood of vipers! . . . bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance"(v.7,8).

At this point, you may be tempted to write John off as unnecessarily harsh--telling everyone to "repent", passing judgment of the religious leaders and calling them "snakes"--but we can't. We can't write John off as some well-intentioned, but offensive, street preacher because his message was repeated by Jesus. Jesus said all the same things.

If you look at chapter 4, verse 17, you'll find the only recorded phrase from Jesus' first preaching endeavour. Guess what it says? That's right, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand".

If you flip to the end of chapter 12 in Matthew, you'll find Jesus in conversation with the Pharisees. Guess what Jesus says to them? I can tell you that Jesus was no diplomat. His words to the Pharisees are the exact same as John's, "You brood of vipers" he calls them in 12:34.

When John calls them a "brood of vipers" he warns the Pharisees not to trust in their lineage--in their membership privileges. Instead, he tells them to examine the "fruits" in their life warning that, "every tree" that "does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire"(v.10). Have you heard that warning before? Jesus says exactly the same in chapter 7, verse 19, "every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire".

Why is John's message the same as Jesus'?

Matthew gives us a clue when he quotes Isaiah 40 in verse 3, "The voice of the one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord". John's purpose was to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of their Messiah, and to prepare them, he gave them a sample of the Messiah's message--"Don't think you can rely on membership privileges. Return to God in obedience. Bear fruit--the result of obedience".

John's message applies still, to all of us. Don't rely on your church membership or impeccable attendance on Sunday--how are we living Monday to Saturday? For God or for ourselves? For me, I can't rely on my status as "clergy"--it certainly didn't help the Pharisees and so I doubt it will help me. God requires our devotion to be constant and visible--like fruit on a tree.

It is possible that John may not have fully recognized his role as Jesus' forerunner, but he did have some sense of what he was doing. He told the multitudes that came to him about One who "is coming after (him)", One who is "mightier", and One "whose sandals (John) was not fit to untie"(v.11).

John even realized the superficiality and limits of his baptism--that his water baptism was only a symbol of repentance--while Jesus' baptism was by "the Holy Spirit and fire"(v.11). A bit later, when Jesus goes to John for baptism, John insists, "I have need to be baptized by You". It is as if John is trying to say, "I need Your Spirit-and-fire baptism, not You my water-baptism".

While it is true that Jesus insisted on John's water-baptism "to fulfill all righteousness"(v.15), it is interesting to note that nowhere in the Bible do we ever hear of Jesus baptizing anyone with water. The real, and only, requirement for salvation was baptism of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean water baptism is optional, it just means it is not a prerequisite for going to heaven.

Now some Christians, from the more charismatic wing, will tell you that baptism "in the Spirit" MUST be accompanied by the "speaking in other tongues", but I can assure you that Matthew chapter 3 reveals what a Holy-Spirit-filled-Christian looks like--someone whose life consistently bears "good fruit"(v.10). It's not that bearing good fruit will earn you salvation--salvation cannot be earned--but good fruit bears testimony that the gift of the Holy Spirit has already been given.

In case you hadn't figured it out, the reason I have entitled this sermon "New Beginnings" is because repentance very often takes place when there is a genuine opportunity to start over. Immediately following the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashana--the Jewish New Year, is a period of repentance in preparation of the next Jewish festival, Yom Kippur--the Day of Atonement. The idea is that new beginnings and repentance go hand-in-hand.

So along with our New Year's resolutions to "eat less" and "exercise more", why not add to the list "being more diligent in our Christian lives"? Surely there is room in all our lives for some repentance. "Repentance from what?", you ask. Quite simply, "sin" and "disobedience to God"--we are all guilty of it. Let me offer an analogy that might help:

Imagine a husband--a husband who never hits his wife--not once. Imagine a husband who never curses his wife. A husband who is never explicitly mean to his wife. A husband who never orders his wife around. A husband who doesn't expect his wife to do anything for him. Does that make this husband a "good" husband? Not necessarily.

What if this same husband never lifted a finger to help his wife with something. What if this same husband never said "thank-you" for small courtesies, never said "I love you". What if this husband never shouldered the burdens of his wife, never shared in her joys--Would you consider this person to be a good husband? I don't think so.

The truth is, we often live our Christian lives like this husband. We are careful not to blatantly hurt God. We avoid sinning grossly. We avoid using His name in vain, we don't expect God to help us at our every whim, but that's it.

Quite often, Christians become overly concerned about the "don'ts" of Christianity that we forget that Christianity is more like a RELATIONSHIP than it is a religion.

When was the last time you told God you loved Him? Quite honestly, when I wrote this question in my sermon I realized I hadn't done it in a while. I needed to repent. How often do we thank God for things? Sure, we give thanks before we eat, but God has done infinitely more than just providing us with food. We just celebrated Christmas--the birth of Jesus Christ--God's gift to save a sinful world. What an appropriate time to say "I love you God!". What an appropriate time to say "Thank-you".

Surely in this time of reflection and repentance we find that we all could have prayed more, treated so-and-so better, helped out at church more, and told God that we loved Him more.

Well, here's our chance. It's a new year. It's a new period in the history of this church. Let's not retreat to our private fortresses, but let us return to God, in Christ, with passion . Let's resolve to treat this place less like an institution and more like a family--after all, God does not call himself "Dictator of the Universe", but He calls Himself "Father". Christ does not call Himself "President of the Church", but "husband" to the Church, His "bride".

We are a family called to be faithful to our Heavenly Father, faithful to Jesus Christ our husband, and faithful to one another--our brothers and sisters.

So let us return to our Heavenly Father in obedience--not merely out of obligation, but because we love Him and are thankful for the precious gift of Jesus Christ to the world.

If we do this, we will not be turned away as "snakes", but we'll be welcomed as "children".