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A sermon on Matthew 11:1-15 by Richard Keith on Sunday 3 September 2023

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s hard to look into the future. It’s hard to predict what life will be like in 5, 10 or 15 years’ time. We don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.

Looking back is much easier. We can see where we’ve been. We can see where we’ve come from. The events that seemed so random at the time now make more sense because they’ve helped bring us to where we are today.

It’s hard to look into the future. Unless, perhaps, you are a prophet from God. Now you may not be a prophet. And I know I’m not a prophet. But John the Baptist was. He had a message for the people of Israel that their time of waiting was almost over. Their exile was going to end soon. The kingdom of God was coming and they had to be ready. So from the banks of the Jordan river John preached his message,

Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.

And the people came out to him to confess their sins and to be baptised by him.

But the call to repent requires more than just confessing and getting wet. It involves a complete change of heart and mind, resulting in different values and goals, leading to an alteration in choices and behaviour. To repent is to change the habits of a lifetime to align them with the will of God whose kingdom was coming. A whole way of life needs to turn around 180 degrees.

That’s why John didn’t trust the motives of the Pharisees and Sadducees. John knew that people in power don’t really want to change. They only give the appearance of change when they need to keep the support of those beneath them.

His message for them was as blunt and uncompromising as his clothes of camel hair and his diet of locusts.

You brood of vipers! You snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

This was the future that John could clearly see. A time of wrath was coming. A time of judgment. A time when human souls would be weighed in the balance. A time when those who were found not to be worthy would be excluded from the blessings of the kingdom.

Because people are like trees. Some are healthy and some are sick and diseased and ready to fall. And when they fall they damage everything around them. People are like that because when they go wrong, they don’t just hurt themselves, but they hurt others as well.

But God is an expert tree surgeon and his chain saw is sharp and full of fuel and is ready to cut down the unproductive trees. God will exclude from his kingdom the people who show by their choices and actions that they have not brought their heart and minds in line with his will. They will not experience his life of blessing, but the curse of eternal death.

Again John looked forward into the near future and declared his prophetic word from God.

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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

John knew Messiah was coming. Someone more powerful and more worthy of glory and honour than John. John was just a servant, getting everything and everyone ready for his coming. But Messiah would be lord and master. And he would wield the winnowing fork of the judgment of God to sift the hearts of human beings.

Like the axe, the winnowing fork is a symbol of judgment. People winnow after they have harvested and threshed the grain, cutting the stalks and then beating the little grains of wheat out of the heads. And then it is picked up with a fork and thrown into the air and the wind blows away the chaff, fit only for fodder at best, and the heavier grain falls back to the ground. It is a sifting, a sorting. A letting go of everything that is useless and unneeded, and a gathering and collecting of what is precious.

People are like grain and chaff. The wicked will be let go and the righteous will be gathered in. Those who repent and survive the fire of the Holy Spirit will be included in the kingdom. But those who refuse to repent, who do not change, will burn in eternal fire.

And then Messiah came. John knew it because he saw the Spirit descend on him from heaven. It was Jesus. And soon it was Jesus rather than John telling the people to be ready.

The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.

By this time John was in prison. He had spoken out against King Herod’s adultery. Herod had forced his brother Philip to divorce his wife and had married her for himself. Unfortunately, kings don’t like news of their adulteries spread around and popular opponents like prophets are dangerous. So Herod arrested John and put him in prison. But John didn’t care. He had faith that Messiah would bring the future that John had foreseen.

Although as news about Jesus filtered back to John’s prison, there seemed to be a lot less axes cutting down trees and forks winnowing grain than he had expected and a lot more partying. Jesus was eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, while John was starving in his cell. It troubled John enough to give him second thoughts about his whole life and work. Everything he had done, everything he had sacrificed was to get the people ready for Messiah. But had he got them ready for the right man?

Conditions in prison must have been generous enough for him to send a question to Jesus through his disciples.

Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?

It’s a heart wrenching question from a man who had given his all with such certainty, only to be tested by doubts in his prison cell.

It can be hard for us who have been Christians for a long time to understand John’s doubts. With the benefit of hindsight we can read the predictions of the Old Testament and look at the life of Jesus and marvel at how closely they match. And with the eyes of faith it is so easy to see Jesus on every page of the Bible.

But we forget how much Jesus confused the people of his time and turned their expectations upside down. He wasn’t the warrior king they thought they needed. He wasn’t the rule keeping holy man the Pharisees wanted. And we wasn’t the axe wielding judge that John was expecting. Jesus was different. He was, well, he was who he was.

He was the man who touched the leper. Who spoke with women. Who taught women and welcomed them as his disciples. Whose closest friends were fishermen. Who spoke in the wild open places and talked in riddles. Who healed on the Sabbath day of rest. Who let a sinful woman touch him. Who dared to forgive sins and turn over tables and claim that God was his Father like he was special. Who made the best wine that anyone had ever tasted. And who carried his cross.

With the benefit of hindsight, with the eyes of faith, it seems so obvious that Jesus was Lord. But in his own day he defied description and confused expectations. John’s question makes perfect sense. “Are you the one who was to come? Or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus answered John’s question with his typical, you work it out for yourself kind of answer.

Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.

It’s an invitation for John to see in Jesus’ works the signs of the kingdom, hinting at the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies like Isaiah chapter 35.

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.

John was expecting Messiah to come with power. But he had been expecting the power of axes and fire. It’s a gentle rebuke that John was actually disappointed that the power of the Holy Spirit came instead with healing and helping and teaching and learning and blessing and restoration. That after preaching a message of repentance to sinners John was actually disappointed when sinners repented and found life and joy in the presence of the Son of God. That after exposing the hypocrisy of the powerful, John was actually disappointed when Jesus welcomed the powerless and set them free from the powers that oppressed them.

John was, in fact, in danger of being like the church hypocrites today who are rather glad when God forgives them, but rather annoyed when God also offers his forgiveness to those less deserving of it.

Jesus’ answer was a rebuke to John. But also a reminder. A reminder that Messiah’s job is to make people’s lives better, not worse. That’s why they call it the gospel. Good news. Glad tidings. It’s not meant to make you sad but happy. It’s not meant to make you feel guilty and ashamed but to set you free from your guilt and shame. It is life and joy and peace and hope. For the kingdom when it comes in all its fullness when Jesus returns to bring us home, it won’t cause tears but will wipe them away.

It’s a reminder that the church is the community of Jesus. In this fellowship, we preach the gospel and we live the gospel. It puts a song in our hearts and a spring in our steps. Here we find forgiveness and hope and love and acceptance. Not in a way that turns a blind eye to our sin, but in a way that helps us to confront our sin and to rid it from our lives. Because this is the place that we can stop pretending that we’re so good and got things so together, and we can find our true selves in a life of following Jesus and be our true selves.

Jesus said,

Blessed is the man, blessed is the person who does not fall away on account of me.

Here we see that there is a judgment. There is a sifting of hearts. Here we see the winnowing fork of the Messiah at work. It is like the judgment upon the Pharisees who could not deny that Jesus drove out demons, but said that he did it by the power of Satan. It is like the judgment upon the rich young man who was told to sell all his things and follow Jesus and went away sad. It is judgment upon Judas who lived with Jesus for three years and sold him for a month’s wages. It is the judgment upon Pilate who admitted that Jesus had done nothing wrong but condemned him to death to please the crowd.

It’s a judgment, but it is self-administered. Jesus did not condemn them, but they condemned themselves when they saw what Jesus offered and rejected it. It’s a judgment that looks less like cutting down sick trees and more like the rich young man who walked away sad because he loved his money. It’s a judgment that looks less like winnowing grain and more like sowing grain on all kinds of soil but only growing on one kind.

If judgment is practically self-administered, then so is the blessing. Jesus said, Blessed is the person who does not fall away on account of me. And that message is as true today as the day Jesus said it. The gospel isn’t about us. It’s message is not about the fulfilment of all our hopes and dreams. It’s not about receiving the touch of God’s blessing on our lives and our work and our family and our friends and his judgment and curse upon our enemies. The gospel is about Jesus who did the things he did and said the things he said and calls us to take up our cross and follow him. And we can go to him and he will welcome us and change and renew us with his holy spirit and fire. Or we can walk away sad.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And looking back over my life, there are some things, if I could, I’d go back in time and do differently. But one thing I’ve never regretted is finding Jesus and finding my true self in him.