I suppose that you, like me, will have learnt a lot of things from your Mother. My Mother taught me about religion: “You better pray that comes out of the carpet!” She taught me logic: “Because I said so, that’s why!” But the thing that I most remember today is that she taught me patience: “You wait until your father gets home!”
The implication in this last one is that if we have done something wrong, then we would await our Fathers homecoming with trepidation.
But I trust that there were also many occasions when you awaited your father’s homecoming with great anticipation and joy. Perhaps it was the time when he was bringing you a gift because you had been particularly good, or it was your birthday.
Advent is the season when we anticipate the coming of Christ. As we lead up to Christmas, the birthday of our Lord, we are anticipating the celebration of Jesus’ birth - his coming to dwell among us in the form of a man. But of course, there is more to Advent than just that.
During Advent we are also renewing our anticipation that Jesus will come again. This is the time when Jesus Christ will come to judge the world. That means that he will judge each one of us. For some of us, the anticipation of Jesus’ second coming may bring with it a sense of trepidation. Particularly those who do not know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour may feel this. But for Christians, the anticipation of Jesus’ second coming should produce a sense of joy and a hope for the future.
So, we may await Jesus’ coming and subsequent judgement with either fear or joy.
In the Gospel passage for today, we read that crowds were coming to John to be baptised. (Jesus, at this time had not yet commenced his public ministry.) John is preparing the way for Jesus’ coming. You can just imagine John standing waist deep in the Jordan River with multitudes of people from the nearby towns and villages streaming down to the river bank to seek to be baptised by him.
At first glance, we might think what a wonderfully successful ministry John was having. Hundreds were being baptised. But it is not numbers of people that turn up that is important - it is what is in the heart that is important. You see, John knew that for many of them, particularly the religious leaders, their motivation was all wrong!
They had heard about the coming of the awaited Messiah who had been prophesied in the Scriptures, probably from John’s preaching – ‘repent for the kingdom of heaven is near’ (Matt 3:2).
‘Repent’ means to reject and turn away from those things that God would see as sinful. But many of the crowd, particularly the religious leaders had not done this. The indication is that they were seeking baptism because of fear of the future, and a desire to avoid the punishment that they knew the coming judgement would bring.
Rather than being motivated by fear, John tells them that they should be motivated by a desire to be transformed, to become a better person.
It appears that John could find no evidence of repentance – no evidence of reformed lives – they were still dishonest, greedy, cheating the system, and oppressing the poor and the weak. In his response to the tax collector, the soldier and the crowd, John said that they should be charitable, sharing the necessities of life, their food and clothing with those less fortunate then themselves.
As well as lacking the evidence of the fruit in keeping with repentance, many of the Jews coming to John were relying for their salvation on their ancestry. The Jews saw themselves as being God’s people because they were descended from Abraham; but, many of them had not actually turned to God. And we know that many ultimately rejected Jesus. They were sadly deluded, because the Gospel reading indicates that Jesus is not impressed with credentials alone.
Similarly, today there are some who rely on having a Christian ancestry alone, without turning to Jesus Christ and accepting him as Lord and Saviour. Some rely only upon an assertion that they had godly parents, or that they live in a so-called ‘Christian country’. Or maybe some people are relying on the fact that their ancestor built the church or has his or her name on a plaque on the wall. But, our passage is telling us that if Jesus does not find fruit in keeping with true repentance, then those people have good reason to fear the coming of the judgement of Jesus.
When God says to us, “why should I let you in to heaven?” the answer is not, ‘because of who my ancestors were’! Rather, the answer is ‘because of what Jesus has done for me by being born as a little helpless baby and dying on the cross so that my sins can be forgiven. When we accept Jesus as our Saviour and our Lord we receive the benefits of the victory over sin and death that He achieved.
We become heirs, together with Jesus, of all that God has to offer us. We become God’s child; and along with all other Christians, we become God’s people. And, in Galatians 3:7 and Romans 4:16, we are told that in salvation all Christians become heirs of Abraham.
And so, when John said to the Jews that were coming to be baptised, ‘do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father” - for I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham’(v.8), he was pointing out that ancestry alone does not provide salvation; and he was prophesying that through Jesus, God would enable even non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles, to receive salvation, and thereby, in a sense, to become ancestors of Abraham.
This inheritance, John says, is available to those who truly repent, the evidence of which may be found in the way that the person subsequently lives their life. Those who have truly repented and accepted Jesus as their Saviour and Lord, are freed from the fear of Jesus’ judgement and may await his coming with joy.
John further explained that, whereas he was baptising the people with water, Jesus would ‘baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (v.16)
The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, and through the Holy Spirit we receive new life. We cease being ‘self-centred’ and we become ‘Jesus-centred’. Our old selfish nature ceases to have the same control over us that it previously had. Instead, the Holy Spirit begins to exercise influence over us from within and gradually refines the Christian’s character.
Biblical scholars differ over whether the reference to baptising with ‘fire’ in verse 16 refers to the fire burning up the chaff, ie those who have not repented and accepted Jesus; or, whether it is a prophecy of the Holy Spirit coming on believers in the form of tongues of fire that occurred on the day of Pentecost. Regardless, we know that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to refine our characters – to refine us. The prophet Malachi predicted the coming of God’s messenger in terms of refining fire (Mal 3:1-3) and this picture is picked up in the New Testament.
The encouraging news is that we do not have to change ourselves through our own efforts alone. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to transform our character. I don’t know about you, but I find it rather difficult (or should I say, impossible) to change my character through my own efforts. Praise God that the Holy Spirit can achieve what I cannot.
The Holy Spirit strengthens us for that daily repentance that is required – that continual turning away from sin. As he does this, over time, the Holy Spirit refines our character so that the fruit of the Holy Spirit that is listed in Galatians 5:22-23 becomes more and more evident in our lives.
These are the characteristics that should define our life as we await the second coming of Christ - ‘… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’
So those who have truly repented and accepted Jesus into their life need not fear Jesus’ coming judgement, as did the unrepentant religious leaders during John the Baptist’s time. Instead, they can rejoice in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit gives new life, and strengthens and refines the Christian’s character – to help us to bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Those who have truly repented, whose lives have been transformed and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, can look forward to the coming of Christ with joy and hope for the future.
This is why the prophet Zephaniah, some 600 years before Jesus was even born, after prophesying the inescapable judgement of God on the nations, was able to write as we read in our first reading,
‘Shout for joy, … rejoice and exult with all your heart, …! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, ... The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear … no more.’ (Zeph 3:14-17)