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Change Your Hearts & Lives

Matthew 3:1-12 CEB

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:

The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones.

The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives.

The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

December 3-4, 2016
Second Sunday of Advent
Matthew 3:1-12
“Change Your Hearts and Lives”

The second Sunday of Advent marks the time we get our yearly visit from John the Baptist. I never feel like I’m ready for John the Baptist…he reminds me of one of those relatives we try to avoid, but know we have to see at holiday time.
But no matter what Gospel we read, John is there introducing the story of Jesus. And each Advent we have to pass by John the Baptist and his fiery proclamation to get to Jesus. John has always seemed like the pit bull of the Gospel to me.

Even by today’s standards we would probably call John quite a character. He’s outspoken, has strong opinions, and he tells us what we should be doing and how we should be living our lives.

And John the Baptist is one of the few characters in the Bible that is described in such vivid detail that we really get an image in our minds as to what he must have been like.

The Bible tells us about John’s birth, his death and a little of his life in between.

Let me give us a bit of background before we hear his story again. John was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah and was conceived when Elizabeth was very old.
Elizabeth was a cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth and Mary were pregnant at the same time…one an elderly woman and the other a teenage girl. John was born a few months before his second cousin Jesus.
We also know that John suffered a horrific death as he was beheaded at the request of King Herod’s wife.

Everything about John the Baptist sets him apart: his way of life in the wilderness, his clothing and above all the sharpness of his message which people flocked to hear because it had been a long time, if ever, that they had heard anything like it.
His message was repentance…which means to change and turn back toward God. And the way John’s message comes off the pages of the Bible, it seems to match his lifestyle…it’s rough, direct and no nonsense.

(Matthew 3:1-12)

You have probably heard the words, “extreme makeover.” The phrase was most likely coined with the production of the television show Extreme Makeover that debuted 14 years ago. The show was based on plastic surgeons from Hollywood giving people a new look…making them over…making them new.

That particular show did not last long, but spinoffs of the show became popular with titles like Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition and Extreme Makeover Home Edition. Each one of those shows was about being made new through extreme transformation.

But the thing about being made new or transformation, or makeovers in a real way, is that we have to be ready for it.
We have to realize that things will change…not be as they used to be. We have to want the transformation to happen and we have to be motivated to maintain the makeover.

And so on this second Sunday of Advent we turn to John the Baptist. He was calling for extreme makeovers thousands of years before they were popular. He just had a bit different style than the designer makeovers of today.

But when we think about it, the goal of the Extreme Makeover television shows and the goal of John the Baptist might not be so far apart. Both want to help people have transformed lives. Both want to see change happen for the better.

When you cut through all the gruffness, the message of John the Baptist is pretty simple: “Change your hearts and lives.”

In Advent there is no getting past John the Baptist and his message of repentance. John’s calling was to “prepare the way for the Lord.” He is intended to be a forerunner to Jesus. So, to miss John’s message is to miss Jesus.
But in these few short weeks we have leading up to Christmas, we want to think more about angels, and clear starry nights, and little drummer boys, and babies, than we do about repentance and change.

We want to save repentance for the season of Lent. We would much rather have John the Baptist be one of the characters in the Scriptures we read during Lent than in the Scriptures leading up to Christmas. But, truth be told, change is never an easy sell because it is so often associated with feelings of guilt; of not doing enough, and not measuring up.
But, real change…real repentance means to turn toward God; and to turn in our behavior and in our thinking.
This kind of repentance and honest change in our lives has more faith in God and God’s transforming power to make things new, than in our own power to mess things up.

While John the Baptist preaches changing our hearts and lives, we need to remember that repentance is not a prerequisite for God to love us.
It is not the case that we first repent or change and then God loves us. Rather, it’s just the opposite. We can only change…we can only repent and turn toward God because of God’s loves.

In our passage from the Gospel of Matthew, John directs his words to the Jewish religious and political leaders of his time; the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Remember, the Pharisees were those folks who believed that they were experts in the Laws of God and believed that the literal keeping of those laws was almost as important as the laws themselves.

The Sadducees were another Jewish faction that opposed Jesus during his ministry and were at odds with the Pharisees because they believed that only the Law of Moses as outlined in the first five books of the Bible needed to be observed.

When John sees the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming for baptism he calls them “children of snakes.” In other words, a group of untrustworthy, slippery characters, who thought they were entitled because they were ancestors of Abraham.

Then, John says, “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.” These words insist that we take responsibility for our character and our conduct and live lives of integrity, where what we say we believe is evident in the way we live our lives each day.

In this Advent season, as we prepare once again for this baby that changes everything as God coming in Christ, what are those areas in our own lives that we need to change? In what ways do we need to be made new? In what way are we preparing the way of the Lord and making straight a path for God in our own lives and in the lives of others with our thinking and with our actions of justice, kindness, and love?

In his autobiography, the late South African leader, Nelson Mandela tells of his joy when, during his 27 years in prison for his opposition to apartheid, he was introduced to his new baby granddaughter.

He said, in her face he saw the future of his people. It was customary for the grandfather to name the babies in the family, so he chose her name. She would be called Zaziwe, which means Hope. She would be named for a hopeful future for his people.
Nelson Mandela so eloquently said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite” (Long Walk to Freedom).

Advent points us toward the source of love, the greatest of all gifts. During Advent as we turn toward God and prepare the way for Christ. And our yearly visit from John the Baptist helps remind us of that call upon our lives during Advent. So let’s not avoid John the Baptist like we do some relatives. John is offering us a wonderful Advent gift—the opportunity for an extreme makeover to change our hearts and lives with the help of Emmanuel…God with us.

This is the Good News of God this day.
Thanks be to God.