with Tony W. Cartledge

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Matthew 3:1-12

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” – Matthew 3:2

Starving for Hope

What does it take to get your attention during worship? Imagine that one Sunday morning, as the choir concluded the anthem, a bushy-haired wild man dressed in a burlap bag should come dancing down the aisle shouting “Good news! Repent! Good news! Repent! Good news! Repent!”

He would get your attention. He might even get attention from the police if an overzealous member should dial 911. It’s unlikely that anyone would sleep through that service.

No one went to sleep when John the Baptist preached, and he did not have to invade the quiet synagogues of Judah to get an audience. John went out into the wilderness near the Jordan River, started shouting, and people came out in droves to hear him.


John the prophet(vv. 1-5)

Jesus’ cousin was no ordinary character. He would probably have attracted an audience no matter what he said, for it was evident to any good Hebrew that he looked like a reincarnation of Elijah the prophet, and they had been hoping for Elijah’s return.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were anxiously awaiting a Messiah to come and rescue them from Roman domination. They wanted God to put the promise back in the Promised Land. Rabbis reminded them that the great prophet Isaiah had spoken of a messenger who would appear in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming (Isa. 40:3).

And, one of the last prophets of the Old Testament period had predicted that just before the Messiah came to usher in the world-changing “Day of the Lord,” Elijah the prophet would reappear on the earth to get people ready. A tradition recorded in 2 Kings 2 held that Elijah did not die a normal death, but was transported from the earth by a whirlwind that was escorted by a fiery chariot. Five hundred years later, the prophet Malachi was inspired by a vision and made a promise:

“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes, He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6).

If you were hoping to see Elijah one day, how would you recognize him? Anyone who studied the scriptures or listened to the rabbis knew that Elijah had lived in the wilderness, eating what the land provided and wearing nothing more than a piece of rough cloth woven from animal hair about his waist, cinched up with a piece of leather (2 Kgs. 1:8).

Elijah’s appearance was so distinctive that no one who had seen him would fail to recognize him again. King Ahaziah of Israel once fell through the lattice of his upstairs porch in Samaria and injured himself. He sent messengers to inquire of the god Baal-Zebub in his behalf, but Elijah intercepted the messengers. He said, “Go tell that worthless king: ‘Is there no god in Israel, so that you have to consult Baal-Zebub? You’re a dead man.’”

When Ahaziah heard this, he asked the messenger, “What did this man look like who told you this?” The messenger replied, “All he had on was a waistcloth made from hair and leather belt to hold it up.” The king said, “That’s Elijah!” (2 Kgs. 1:1-8).

Nine hundred years later, John showed up looking like a wild man. He dressed in camel’s hair, lived in the desert, and offended just about everybody he met. He lived off the land, getting his protein from dried locusts and his carbohydrates from wild honey (v. 4). When people looked at him, they thought “That’s Elijah!”

John the preacher(vv. 2, 7-10)

John not only looked like Elijah; he sounded like him. Elijah had called for the leaders of Israel to repent of their idolatry and return to the Lord before it was too late. When John started preaching to anyone in shouting distance, this was his message: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near” (v. 2).

The word “repent,” in biblical language, means to turn around. It means to change our minds and change our ways. It means to turn away from selfishness and idolatry so we can turn toward God and experience forgiveness and right living. We demonstrate the reality of repentance through the positive changes in the way we live and relate to others, what Jesus meant by the challenge to “bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” (v. 8).

John’s fervent message was com-pelled by his belief that the kingdom of heaven had come near, that God was close by and doing something new. When the gospel writers talked about the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God,” they were referring to the rule or reign of God. They were certain that God rules whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not. They also believed people can choose whether to live obediently and trustfully as God’s subjects.

John’s preaching took on a special urgency because the Messiah was coming, and would soon be revealed. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” he said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11).

Through Jesus Christ, God was about to show the world just what the kingdom was all about – what it truly meant to know God and to be known, to love God and to experience God’s love. The coming of Christ would also set in motion a process of judgment. To those who accepted him, Jesus would become a stepping-stone to the kingdom. To those who rejected him, Jesus would become a stumbling block they couldn’t get past.

Unlike much of today’s feel-good preaching, John majored on judgment, with language that was as shocking and colorful as his appearance. He used strong words and striking images to declare the coming danger, directing his harshest criticism toward those who considered themselves to be the most religious. John called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and urged them to repent. He warned of approaching destruction if they did not produce some proof of repentance (vv. 7-12).

Note John’s graphic imagery: he pictured the most “righteous” people around as a den of snakes, squirming away from imminent danger. He spoke of God raising up faithful children from river rocks. He pictured a whistling ax slicing into the roots of impressive but unfruitful trees, clearing them out so truly repentant persons might take their place. He called to mind a farmer’s winnowing fork throwing threshed grain into the air to separate it from useless chaff.

Why would people from Hebron to Nazareth come trotting out into the desert to hear a sermon like that? Because they were curious? Because they were afraid? Or because they knew it was time for a change?

The ax and the winnowing fork in particular were images of change: of clearing out the old and bringing in the new. They were also images of danger and of hope. While they threatened destruction to those who rejected the message, they also promised the possibility of grace and a future to those who were ready for it.

John called for people to repent, and that’s essentially what “repent” means: it means to change, to turn away from the crooked road that leads to destruction, and turn toward the path of life.

Some people don’t like change. Herod Antipas didn’t like change, and his wife Herodias liked it even less, and so they took John’s head off and served it up on a platter (Matthew 14). They were happy with the status quo. They did not want anyone threatening their security or their self-image. But multitudes of others came out to hear John preach because they were looking for change, and John dared to speak of what change requires.

Many people resist change: the prospect of changing jobs, houses, schools, or churches can cause all sorts of alarms to go off in our heads – and the hardest change to make is precisely the one that takes place right there – in our heads. The hardest change to make is a change in our self-image, a change in the way we think, a change in our personal behavior, a change in our lifestyle. Any good psychologist can tell you that change is hard.

People cannot begin to change unless they first believe in the possibility of change. This was John’s message. Everything about John, from his strange appearance to his shocking sermons, was different. That difference in John symbolized the truth that we can also be different.

John the Baptist(v. 6)

John had a very special way of demonstrating that change to people: he baptized them. John’s baptism was no quiet ceremony in an elevated sanctum where quiet organ music played in the background. It had little resemblance to the carefully orchestrated lustrations by which Jewish proselytes or Essene devotees baptized themselves.

This was something radical, some-thing with an edge. This was Weird John standing waist-deep in the Jordan River, taking repentant sinners by the scruff of the neck and dousing them in the muddy water as an unforgettable reminder that, through repentance, their lives had changed forever.

Could your life benefit from some changes? What changes do you need most? NFJ

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for December 4, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Matthew 3:1-12



Parent Prep

“I am sorry.” Maybe three hardest words that we have to say. Not because we haven’t done anything wrong, but because we are told that we don’t have to take blame for our mistakes. We are given reasons or excuses as to why we acted a certain way, and don’t feel like we have to say we are sorry. Our students also have difficulty in saying their sorry because they don’t want to let others down. They don’t want to shame their family and friends. They might hide what they have done so that their reputation isn’t harmed. But we have to offer grace. We have to offer grace to all of those around us, because how we respond to others is how our students and youth will know we will respond to them. For our students to repent, they must first say they are sorry. Be open and full of grace as they come to you with their pain.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“Powerful Preaching on the New York Subway” posted by The Health Watchman via www.youtube.com

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Matthew 3:1-12