John the Baptist had a way of communication that was not exactly the best way to win friends and influence people (Matthew 3:1-12). Considering that John lived in seclusion, dressed weird, and ate different food, it isn’t a stretch to see how people might dismiss him as a kook and move on. But there is no evidence that people viewed John that way. Instead, he had an influential and effective ministry. Maybe that is because John did not seek his own gain, wasn’t trying to build a big following, but understood that he was to point to the coming Christ. John believed judgment was coming, and he put all his efforts into getting people to realize the wrath of God was real and it was coming soon.
The kingdom of God cannot be entered into by forcefully pushing the door in; God’s kingdom is entered through the humility of confession and repentance. Only through admitting that we are going in a bad direction, and turning around to a new way, can we be in God’s kingdom. There is no way to get to the Christmas manger without going through John the Baptist and his message of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” John strikes me as being like a little yippee ankle-biter dog, the kind that constantly nipped at me whenever I delivered a package to a certain home back when I had a job as a delivery driver. John is always there growling for our repentance. All we want to do this time of year is sing Christmas Carols, but John tells us something must happen before we can do that, and that something is to repent.
This message to repent of our misguided ways and make a level path for the Lord Jesus to come into our lives is not very popular in our culture, even many times in church culture. But we just cannot avoid this repentance thing because there is no good news without first stating what the bad news is. Apart from God’s kingdom we are stuck in unhealthy life patterns. We might be stuck in a destructive habit of life because we think we need it to keep going; we may be stuck rehearsing all the past dumb decisions we made, and we cannot move forward; or, we might get stuck in an unhealthy relationship and see no way to move. If we are stuck long enough we blandly accept this as the new normal, and go about our daily lives with a “meh” kind of attitude, not too low, not too high, but just “meh.”
All this sticky stuff, these patterns, behaviors, activities and habits trap us and keep us stuck. We become so used to “meh” that we actually become cut off from the source that would get us un-stuck.
The reason people did not dismiss John as some creepy clown is that he offered them something better than their sticky situations. Seeing what we really are and what we are really like is actually really hopeful. It is hopeful because God will not leave us stuck, but will turn us into free people, delivered from the stickiness, to live fully for the coming King. God never gives up on us, so we do not need to settle for a “meh” existence. Do we believe in God’s grace and goodness more than our stickiness? How we answer that question will tell us a lot about whether we will become un-stuck or not.
We might be afraid of looking squarely at our sins, habits, memories, and emotions that keep us on the flypaper of death. We may feel overwhelmed and think there is hope for other people, but not me. Or, we might think that everyone else has a problem except me; if they would just be like me, then everything would be better. But John pointed to Jesus and said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In other words, Jesus will make things happen. Jesus will shake things up, unsticking people, and clearly show others how utterly stuck they really are in their narrow thinking.
The season of Advent means that the time of the Lord’s coming is near. Therefore, preparation for that event (Christmas) is of primary importance. The best way of preparing for Christmas is to repent and believe that the kingdom of God is near (as opposed to far away). God has come near to us in the person of Jesus, and it is Jesus that makes all the difference. We must not, like the Pharisees and Sadducees (the religious leaders of the day) rely on doing certain things, or being a certain kind of person; we must not rely on being a church member or having enough money as the measure of what it means to be in the kingdom.
Let’s be honest: it is painful to admit we are stuck, and that our relationship with God or our church is nothing more than a shoulder shrugging “meh.” It is painful to confess our idols and admit we depend on them, and maybe even like them more than Jesus.
In the Bible there are only two ways to deal with being stuck in sin: we can either justify it, or we can confess it. Denying, minimizing, or excusing sin leads to separation from God. Confession leads to connecting with God. John’s message is for people to get ready because Jesus is coming! Through the grace of repentance and faith there is hope – the hope of stopping all the petty games we play to hide our sin and hide the fact we are really super-glued to our idols. Our hope is in being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, that is, to be cleansed from our impurities and prepared and ready for God to be with us in the person of Jesus.
John’s message was quite clear that God unsticks us for a reason: so we can bear good fruit that is in keeping with repentance. There is to be a consistency between what we profess and how we live. Religious observance is not the way into the kingdom – if it was, God’s kingdom would be full of Pharisees and Sadducees. Confession without genuine change is not repentance – it is just confession.
The fruit that comes from the Holy Spirit is mostly a fruit of being with God. Just as a child picks up traits more or less simply by continually being in the presence of a parent, so the Christian develops tenderheartedness, compassion, humility, forgiveness, joy, peace, patience, self-control and hope through dwelling in the presence of God. And this means, to a very large extent, living in a community of believers who want more than anything else in the world to know God and be with him.
The God who came to his people in Jesus will one day unveil his kingdom in all its glory. We need to get ready for that day. There are roads that need straightening; fires that need to be lit in order to burn away the rubbish and brush in the path; dead trees that need to be cut down; in short, there are people who need to repent because the kingdom of God is near.
We must clear the road so that Jesus has a way into our hearts. I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan when George Bush was president. He was coming to town, and his motorcade was scheduled to come on the street behind where we lived. I wanted to have a good look, so I stood as close to the road as I could. But about twenty minutes before the motorcade was to come by, a State Trooper came along and told me to get back. I did. But then I came closer. Another set of police came through five minutes later and told me I need to get back. But I ignored them and got closer. Another five minutes went by and a Secret Service guy came by and let me know in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t clear back I would end up in a place I didn’t want to be. The motorcade came by and I never saw President Bush, just the limo he was in.
We need to be as serious about making the road clear for Jesus to come to us as our government is about clearing the way for passing presidents. If you have been living a milquetoast deadpan “meh” kind of life, this is the day to clear the way for Jesus. Now is the time to change your mind about how you are going about your life and to prepare for Christ’s coming. And it begins with admitting you are stuck, and asking God to unstick you – and you need to really want to be unstuck. The kingdom of God belongs to those who prepare the way and produce good fruit in keeping with repentance. Even so, come Lord Jesus.