Very early in his sermon, Kevin Miller says, "I have the hard job of telling you a hard truth." Indeed he does. The hard truth is that God is a God who judges us according to the way we've lived our lives. Our culture shrinks back in horror at such an idea, making Miller's sermon a hard job to pull off. I think you'll find that he manages just fine. Miller never once pulls any punches, but he certainly doesn't pick a fight. He strikes the right tension of grace and truth through his sermonjust like John the Baptist did with his own preaching.
At our house we are manic recyclers. I'd like to tell you it's only because I want to preserve this beautiful earth that God created, but I'm also financially motivated. Every blue recycling bin that I take to the curb is picked up for free, but every trashcan that I take to the curb costs me over $2. So every day you'll see me standing in my kitchen with the trash can on my left and the blue recycling bin on my right, sorting out what belongs in the garbage and what belongs in recycling. I look for every possible thing I can toss into the blue bin. Some things are obvious as to whether or not they go in recycling: a 2-liter Diet Coke bottle; a milk carton; the Chicago Tribune; the Crate & Barrel catalog. Other things I'm not sure about. What do you do, for example, with a yogurt container? Is that the right kind of plastic? If I'm not sure, all I have to do is flip it over to see if it's got a little triangle with a 5 inside it. If it's worthy of going in the big blue bin, I toss it in while saying, "Hope you become a park bench, little fella!" But no matter how hard I try some things are worthless: a used piece of dental floss all twisty and gross; a small amount of green beans covered in white mold that got shoved back in the fridge two weeks ago; a Kleenex that somebody blew their nose in. When I'm sorting the garbage and the recycling, I'm only looking for what's useful, and I'll throw away what's completely worthless.
God is a God who sorts.
I have the hard job of telling you a hard truth: God is a God who sortsonly he does it with human lives. Like me, God is looking for whatever he can keep, build on, use, and bless. He will go to great lengths to keep people, clean them up, and use them again. But there are some people whose lives he cannot work with at all. As far as God is concerned, these people aren't good for anything. When God is looking to pour out his Holy Spirit on people, these lives are not included. They're discarded. Spiritually speaking, they're taken out with the trash.
Maybe this understanding of God upsets you, because you think it's the most barbaric doctrine you've ever heard. Or maybe this upsets you because you believe it, and you aren't sure which way your life would be sorted by God. Or maybe you're concerned about people you love. However, this understanding of God is a clear and repeated teaching of the Bibleof both Judaism and Christianity. There are some lives that please God and other lives that are useless to him.
Consider the words of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:10: "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Some fig trees give you a lot of figs. These are the trees you fertilize and water and keep. There are other fig trees that are dead and shriveled. They just take up space, so your only option is to cut them down.
Now look at verses 11 and 12: "I baptize you with water for repentance, 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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Some people are like wheat, because they bless and feed others. Other people are like chaff. They look like wheat. They are the same color as wheat. They grow up along with the wheat. But they are useless husks. You can't feed your family with chaff. In fact, you can't use chaff in any way. You have to burn it.
God is a God who sorts human lives. He's looking forand hoping to findlives that are "keepers." It's not his will that anyone should live his or her life in such a way that they end up in the spiritual trashcan, but some will, because their lives offer absolutely nothing that God can use to create a new world. The question we must ask and answer, then, is this: "Is my life pleasing to God?"
Could there be anything more dangerous than to kid yourself into thinking that you're living in a way that pleases God, when in reality you're not even close? Does it worry you, as it does me, to know that some of the people who will end up in the spiritual trashcan are highly religious? Friends, you and I need to have absolute clarity on this, so I am going to do everything I can to help you see the kind of life that doesand does notplease God.
John the Baptist, a fiery prophet
The person I'll be turning to for answers to our central question is one of the Bible's most famous preachersJohn the Baptist (or Baptizer). John was Jesus' cousin (he was 6 months older than Jesus). Jesus called John "the greatest person who ever livedup till now." Jesus also called him a prophet. That's quite a compliment, because a prophet is someone who speaks for God and isn't afraid to say what God really thinks. When John showed up, there hadn't been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. Then one day, up out of the desert near the Dead Sea, walks this guy who's wearing a rough, black coat made out of camel hair. He has one simple but tough message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!"
What did John mean by his declaration? Let me offer a story to help you understand. When I was in middle school, whenever the teacher had to leave the room, I'd start running around, wrestling, and throwing Dennis Baker's gym bag over the hanging light fixtures. We knew full well the teacher didn't want us doing any of this, but we didn't care. We always had a sentry. One kid would stand by the door and look down the hall. As soon as he saw the teacher coming, he'd yell, "Teacher's coming!" When we heard that, we'd all run to our desks and sit there straight and smiling as if we'd been conjugating verbs the whole time. When John the Baptist cries out about the kingdom of God, he is yelling: "God's coming!" Everyone who heard him said, "I don't want to end up in the office to try to explain all of this to God, so I better get back to what I'm supposed to be doing."
One reason John got people's attention was that he lived in the desert, a tough area where nobody wanted to live. It made sense for John to call the desert home, though. Six or seven hundred years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had said: Someone will come who will be a prophetic voice. He'll come out of the desert, and he'll prepare the people for God.
The second reason John got the people's attention was that he was poor. Most poor people ate fish, figs, and barley bread. But John was so poor that he ate locusts as his source of protein. He dried them and added some wild field honey to sweeten them enough to get them down. John was like someone who grew up in a tough housing project, eating nothing but Ramen noodles. John's appearance spoke volumes: "I am not sold out to this culture. I'm nobody's pawn. Being poor means I have nothing to lose, so I can tell you the truth, straight up."
Finally, John got the attention of the people, because he dressed exactly like the ancient prophet Elijah. Every Jew knew that before the Day of the Lord came, a prophet like Elijah would show up who dressed like him and talked like him. This was so the people would know that the Day of the Lord had come and that they needed to "get ready."
Once John had their attention, what did he say? According to our text, he told the people two things they could do to live a life that pleased God.
The kind of life that pleases God starts with true, broken confession.
The first thing John said to the people was, "Be honest about your junk. Confess your sins. Tell the truth about the messed-up places in your life." John even asked them to confess and be baptized. This would not be easy for the people. The confession and baptism were public acts. They had to wade down into the muddy Jordan River with people standing around, listening in on what they were saying: "My anger is out of control;" "I stole this;" "I did that." But John was trying to make a point. Back then, pretty much the only person who got baptized was the occasional pagan who wanted to convert and become a Jew. John goes to all the Jewsthe religious insidersand says, "Guess what? You need to be baptized, too! You need a conversion just as much as the wildest pagan!"
Because of his ministry, John became a phenomenon. The crowds grew and it wasn't long before some of the people who started coming were the most respected religious people in the country. Verse 7: "But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'"
It was shocking for John to criticize these people. It was like criticizing a nun or ranting at a Salvation Army officer. Why did John go off on them? Part of the reason is that there were big crowds gathering. As Jesus says at one point in his own ministry, the Pharisees have a weakness for public spirituality. They enjoy being known for their good lives. They'd rather be known for being good than to really face God in their brokenness.
We're all like Pharisees sometimes, right? We'd like people to think we're decent folk. It's hard to let them know our real junk. It's hard to expose what's going on. As a priest, one of the most sacred opportunities I have is hearing someone's confession. Only once, though, have I ever had a person make two confessions in one day. A woman once came to me on the afternoon of Good Friday to make her confession. She had carefully written out what she wanted to confess, and her confession was almost to the point of being too efficient. We talked and prayed together, and she left. That night, after the Good Friday service, she stopped me and said, "Can we talk?" I said, "Sure." We sat down in the seats, and she said, "I know I came to you today for a confession, but I didn't confess what I really need to confess." She then confessed what was really going on.
I think about that moment often. The first confession was carefully written out; the second was raw and messy. The first time, she confessed her sin; the second time, she confessed the sin underneath the sin. The second time saw her exposing her heart, acknowledging her real condition before God. John the Baptist would say, "God is looking for that second kind of confession. If you're going to be ready when God shows up, you have to confess your sin. If you're going to live a life that pleases God, you have to confess your sin. You have to live as much as you can in a condition of heart that knows you're a broken person."
You need God. You must never lose the profound sense that, "Deep down, I need God, because without him, I'm a train wreck." That kind of broken humility is attractive to God. It's also a gift to other people. When I was once really down and struggling, I came to our church for prayer. The woman who prayed for me was a bit of a prophetlike John the Baptist. She looked me in the eye and said, "Kevin, in order for God to use you more, he needs to enlarge your soul." That's a nice, prophetic way of saying, "You need to grow, Kevin. You need to open your heart and become more compassionate, more broken. That's when God will use you." I knew what God was telling me through her. I have this huge need to be perfectto check everything off the list and have my life together. I would love it if people saw my life and thought I was great. That's pride, and when it gets mixed with spirituality, things are out of whack. I'm gradually learning, with the help of a spiritual director, that it's better not to try to be a superstar Christian and just be a little child. The people who truly confess their sins and know their brokennessthose people whose souls are getting larger and aren't shriveled with religious pridemay be messed up, but they are irresistible to God. They will be ready when God comes.
The kind of life that pleases God continues with actions that prove you're serious about changing your life.
As good as it is to humbly and honestly confess your sins, it's not all that you need to do to live a life that pleases God. There's one more thing you need to do to get ready for a God who sorts. Look at verse 7: "But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.'" John is saying: You may be the most religious people in the entire country, but try to imagine how little I really care about all of that. What I want to see are actions that prove you really want to live a different kind of life.
The Pharisees and Sadducees tithed and prayedjust what kind of actions did John want? John's other sermons that are recorded in the Bible give us a hint. He says, "If you own two coats, give one to someone who doesn't have any." In other words, "Be generous." To those who have positions in which they can extort moneytax collectors and soldiersJohn goes on to say, "Don't collect more money than you have to." Elsewhere, John confronts Herod, the political ruler who's the most powerful person in his world. John says: Your second wife? You shouldn't be married to her. You shouldn't have had an affair with your brother's wife and then married her. That's wrong. John was stressing sexual faithfulness.
Do you see the kind of actions John is looking for? John is not primarily concerned about your religiosity. He wants you to sacrifice what you could get, so that other people benefit. If you want to prove you've truly repented, you'll do actions that help others instead of taking advantage of them. Thatand only thatwill prove that you're really serious about getting ready for God. If you've really repented, people will be able to tell.
Our pastoral musician, John Fawcett, is fighting cancer. It's been a difficult battle for him. I recently read this entry from his wife's blog:
At this very moment, six men from Church of the Resurrection are helping around the house. They are cleaning out the garage, hanging bikes, taking down the summer patio furniture, putting up the Christmas tree, etc. Thank you, Lord, for your mercy that is new every morning. Thank you for the Body of Christ that is literally surrounding us and lifting us up.
John the Baptist would like that kind of behavior. He would call that "fruit worthy of repentance." Please don't kid yourself that you can do without these kinds of sacrificial actionsthe ones that can be hardjust because you don't have time for them. Please don't kid yourself that you can somehow make it through life without confessing your sins. You know deep down that you need God. John the Baptist said all that he said, wore what he wore, and ate what he ate, because he had one goal: get people ready for the God who sorts. He knew that someone was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
If you live a broken life, honestly confessing your junk and then living a life of meaningful service out of gratitude for God's mercy, then Christ will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. He will flood your life with the Spirit of God, saturating every pore with the presence, power, and activity of God himself. If you are a highly religious person who is blind to your own rigidity and lack of love, then Jesus will baptize you with fire. He will overwhelm your life with the hot, burning fire of God's rejection and judgment.
Repent! The God who sorts is coming. The ax is in his hands, ready to cut down the dead treesbut it hasn't cut yet. The winnowing fork is in his hands, ready to clear his threshing floorbut he hasn't done that yet. There's not much time, but there is enough time to repent. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,