Prepare The Way

We see that John the Baptist’s recognition of his own role was clear:

I baptize you with water for repentance, but after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

With this big but John acknowledged that his ministry pointed forward to the work of Jesus. John the Baptist’s message was even more compelling than the sight of him. He spoke very forcefully: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” That proclamation served as a wake-up call among devout Jewish folks that the arrival of their promised Deliverer was at hand. A call to repentance in anticipation of his arrival was an invitation for people to take an honest look in the mirror before God. John was preparing the way by helping people remove the obstacles in their hearts.

What does repent mean? It’s a word that ignites passion. In my early days as a pastor, our congregation purchased a booth at our local County Fair. For the ten days of the annual fair we would meet many of our neighbors, reach out in friendship, and increase our visibility in the community. Unfortunately, another local church had leased the booth directly across from us. These folks built their booth around a large neon-lighted electronic game—passersby were asked to answer various questions and most of them on moral issues. Their ‘incorrect’ answers would set off a siren, flashing red lights and a lighted sign that read in huge letters, ‘HELL!’ The church folks running the booth would then accost the people who had played their game, pushing religious literature with pictures of flames surrounding the words ‘Turn or Burn!’ into their faces. “You’re going to hell!” they’d warn. The way that word hell rolled off their tongues sounded as if it had two syllables. The victims would turn to walk away, only to have a chastening commentary shouted after them as they went. As you might imagine, the folks across the way greatly decreased traffic to our church’s booth. The last thing anyone wanted to do was stop and converse with more church folks. After observing this, I went to speak with the preacher of that church about his tactics. “Brother,” he said, “We’re calling people to repentance!” While I agreed that was important, I suggested that his manner of doing it was actually chasing people away.He narrowed his eyes and curled his lip. He proposed that I should take his test. He argued,“The gospel is a rock of offense, Sir!” In an instant, I had gone from Brother to Sir.

When we look at the picture of John the Baptist’s ministry that Matthew paints, I think it is important to note that he was both gracious and confrontational—gracious to those who came genuinely, and confrontational with those who came dishonestly. It was about their hearts, not their answers to a list of questions. It wasn’t even their behavior or lifestyle that were at issue. We’re told that people came from all over the area, confessing their sins, to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. The sincere were welcomed. The insincere were confronted: But when {John} saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming … he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers!’ 

John looked at those who were the most outwardly religious folks and called them hypocrites. He challenged these moral people to demonstrate fruit in keeping with repentance. This wasn’t about cleaning up their act—their act was pretty clean. He called upon them to have a change of heart, and one that could be observed. Keep in mind that this all happened as people were coming forward to the water to be baptized. These religious folks were coming, ready to enter the water. They said, ‘We’re here.’ And John essentially said, ‘No, you’re not. See it the way God sees it. Call it what God calls it. Then come down in this water with all the other notorious sinners out here. As long as you’re so confident that you’re on the right path, you’ve no place in this pond.