We are looking at Matthew chapter 3, the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry, his big launch event, the baptism. We are thinking this evening about real change. Our story from Matthew chapter 3 tells us that real change happens when you get real. Real change happens from a place of honesty. Did you notice, as this chapter was read, there are a whole bunch of people who are showing up to the Failures Convention? That's what the baptism is, at the Jordan River, it's the Failures Convention.
I can't imagine that such a convention will be very popular these days. If you put signs outside JPC, saying 'Losers Convention', 'come on, you must be a loser'… Well, that's kind of what church is. I don't know if you know this. But here we are 6.30pm Sunday. It's the Failures Convention. That's what you've shown up to. That's what the Christian life is. Because if you are a Christian, you are someone who is baptised. Church is the community of the baptised. A baptism you might know is just a word that means a washing. And the baptism here at the Jordan River is a ritual washing that points to an internal cleansing that you and I all need. We all need the kind of bath that Matthew chapter 3 talks about.
Do you know that about yourself? Do you know that you need cleansing? Do you know that you need a power shower on the inside? Wouldn't that be something? Wouldn't you long for a power shower on the inside? That's what these people come to have in Matthew 3.5-6:
"Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him [John the Baptist], and they were baptized by him [washed by him] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins."
Here are a bunch of people getting real. Because that's where real change begins. It begins with authenticity. It begins with openness. It begins with honesty.
We are very prone to being honest about the world that is out there. We are very prone to say, 'The world is not the way it should be. Dear dear.' The world out there is wrong and we point the finger. But of course, as the old saying goes, if you point the finger at somebody else, you've got three fingers point right back at you.
These people are getting real to the extent that they are saying, 'look, there is darkness out in the world, of course, there is darkness out in the world, but there is also darkness in here'. There is darkness in my heart. And somehow the darkness out there and the darkness in here are linked. Somehow the world is not the way it should be because I am not the way I should be. And they are taking responsibility for it. They come to John the Baptist, confessing their sins. They are saying, 'I'm unclean'.
Do you know that about yourself? Have you ever wanted a power shower on the inside? I've wanted that many many times.
A friend of mine counsels people for a living and once he was dealing with a guy who made some terrible decisions that had cost him his marriage, cost him his family, cost him his business. And this man said to my friend, "I just wish I could take my whole life and bundle it up in a big washing machine and put it on the hottest wash possible until all the grit and the grime is gone". Have you ever wanted that? These people want that. So they confess to being unclean.
They also confess to being unfruitful. Perhaps you noticed that language as it was being read in Matthew 3.8. John speaks of bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. And you think, 'what am I, a tree? Am I a tree that I should bear fruit?' Apparently. That's the way the Bible speaks about the human race. We are meant to be like trees. But we are fruitless trees. Or we are trees that produce bad fruit. And out it comes. So John says in Matthew 3.10, "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees".
It's almost like a riddle throughout the Old Testament. The idea of a fruitless vine. Israel, God's people were a fruitless vine. Again and again, the Old Testament prophets say, what's the point of a fruitless vine? If you have a vine that is not producing grapes, what's the point of it? You can't turn it into furniture. It's not good for anything except firewood. A fruitless vine is a useless thing. Fruitless people! We are disconnected from our life source. We are fruitless. And we are headed for the compost heap. This is the message of John the Baptist.
The human race is a lot like a Christmas tree. Think about a Christmas tree. November, there will be a woodsman who would go to the pine forest. What would he do? In the name of Christmas joy, this woodsman will chop down some poor pine trees that are flourishing and doing just fine. But in the name of Christmas joy, we are going to hack it to death, we are going to wrench it from its natural habitat, and we will bring it indoors. What will we do with this Christmas tree? We are going to dress it up, aren't we? Even though it's dead, even though it's perishing, we are going to put tinsel all over it and bling and baubles and all sorts of things. We are going to surround it with family, food and festivities. We are going to celebrate around this Christmas tree and yet the tree is dead and it's perishing. The needles will start to drop and you think, 'never mind, I'll just hoover those up'. And a bit of brown starts to show on the Christmas tree. You think, 'I'll just move the tinsel over it. No problem at all we'll just keep on celebrating'. More family, more food, more festivities. More perishing, more death. And at some point in January, you just chuck it down, don't you? The illustration here is that you chuck it onto the bonfire.
That kind of humanity is lifeless. It is perishing. It has no future. John speaks here in the most serious of terms. Here he speaks of this reality as fire. Sometimes Jesus speaks of it as an outer darkness. Sometimes he speaks of it as being shut out of the feast. Sometimes the Bible speaks of it like being lost at sea, abandoned to the surging waves. The Bible describes this reality in many different ways. But really it's perishing. It's disconnection from our life source. And the Bible says you don't want to get stuck in disconnection, do you? You don't want to continue perishing forever, do you? Because the Bible says we all go on forever. But will we go on in connection with our life source? Or will we go on in disconnection from our life source? That's the big question for all of us.
John lays it in front of us, this dreaded reality of judgement. But the world out there might be dark. Yes. The world out there might need setting to right. Yes. The world out there might need judgement. Yes. But so do you. I need judgement too. I deserve judgement. Are you aware that the darkness out there is mirrored in the darkness in here?
Let me give you two examples. One is a silly example. One is a very serious example.
The silly example is this. I was preaching at a church in Eastbourne where I live. It was not my usual church that I go to. The musicians in this church that I went to were very different from JPC musicians. They were keen. They tried hard. Perhaps too hard at times. And as the singing progressed, I was getting more and more uncomfortable with this discordant note. In particular, there was one male singer who was singing and I just thought I can't handle this. I tried my hand at telepathy. Do you ever do that? Have you ever tried to send a message to the guy at the PA desk? And my message went like this: turn him down! I meant this literally. For the love of God, turn him down! And it just got worse. Hymn after hymn. Song after song. Until after my sermon, I sat down and this singing just went on. So I turned around and looked at the PA desk guy. And he just shrugged. But there was something at the back of my head that just didn't sit right. And I just had this tremendous sense that I should have looked down at that point. And all of a sudden, as we were singing this hymn, I decided to look down at my lapel mic that was just there and my battery pack, it's on! And I realised this discordant voice was mine.
I was so worried about the cacophony out there. I was the one causing the cacophony. And isn't this what we are like? We look out into the world, we hear discordant voices, we say it's cacophonous! It's horrendous! Somebody should do something. Yes, it's you! Don't point the finger out there. Look down. Look within. Look at the heart and you'll see. The world out there needs putting right. Well, that's because you need putting right. I need putting right. That's the silly example.
The serious example is that I was in Poland a few years ago. A friend of mine said, let's go and visit Auschwitz. It was the most harrowing day I've ever spent, going through that horrendous death camp. I think the worst place was a room that was called the Exploitation of the Corpses. In this room, you couldn't take photographs because it contained human remains. Hair. The Nazis wanted to eke out every last penny from their victims so they would shave the heads of their victims, sell on the hair for a few pennies. This room was full of hair, spectacles, so many spectacles, so many shoes, so many briefcases, so much wanton evil. This sense of conveyor belt of evil. So efficient. So horrendous.
As I toured around this room there were two phrases that I kept wanting to say. In fact, these two phrases were so pressing on me I had to vocalise them. I had to whisper them under my breath. The first one was a mild swear word. I won't say what I really said. Thinking of the Nazi evil, I just kept on thinking, you b*. You b*. If you were there, and if you saw what they did, you'll be thinking exactly the same thing. You will point the finger at that evil.
And yet hot on the heels of that phrase, I kept on saying another phrase. Another phrase just kept on springing up from my heart unbidden. I couldn't stop it. I kept on saying, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. And you are thinking, why am I sorry? Why do I feel a connection to this evil? Why am I apologising for something that happened decades before I was even born? Why? You know there is a darkness out there and there is a darkness in here. You and I know that's linked, somehow. I can't tell you how. But there is a connection. And for all that we look out at a hellish world, you look within and you see a hellish heart. And John the Baptist just cries out, saying, 'get real!'
Will you get real? You don't want to get stuck in that darkness, do you? Won't you get real? Won't you come to the Failures Convention and put up your hand and say 'me too', 'I need a bath too', 'I need real change'? That's where it starts. Real change starts by getting real.
Then real change continues. When the God of change shows up. That's what happens in Matthew 3.13. So striking. With all that background in mind, with the fiery preaching of John the Baptist in mind, now read verse 13.
"Then Jesus came."
The perfect pure Son of God came. You know the name of Jesus means 'Saviour'. Then the Saviour from heaven came, from Galilee where he grew up, to the Jordan to John, to… that's interesting. You see how the verse finishes? He came to the Jordon to John, to… how should that verse end? If you've been following the verse along, you would think, the verse ends, 'Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to judge all those nasty sinners', right? Isn't that what you are expecting. It's kind of what John has been expecting. He's saying the judge is coming. The judge is coming! Then verse 13 says, the judge comes, and he comes to the Jordan, to… not to judge them.
Or how else could that verse go on? Perhaps it should say Jesus came to the Jordan to John to baptise everyone else. Wouldn't that be nice? That would be a lovely little scene, wouldn't it? I can kind of imagine the scene, Jesus holding them in his arms, washing them and saying 'there there. Let me give you a bath. You say you are unclean, let me wash you'. Wouldn't that be a lovely scene? It's not what this says. Do you see how shocking this is? Verse 13 is so shocking.
"Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him."
Do you see why this is a shocking verse? You are almost thinking this shouldn't be in here. This has been mistranslated. Jesus takes a bath? Alongside all the other filthy sinners? Really? You know what this is? This is a public relations disaster for Team Jesus, isn't it? If you are in the marketing department of Team Jesus, you'd be going ballistic at this point, 'Jesus, no! The optics are bad!' This looks really bad. Because what does it look like? He has just joined the queue with all the other sinners at the Failures Convention and he dives into the water alongside all the other messy people. What does that look like? It looks like he is a sinner. But he doesn't care. He dives in the water anyway. Isn't that stunning? I'm always stunned by that. Especially because, here is Jesus, he's perfect, he's pure. He doesn't mind being mistaken for a sinner. He is not trying to fool people. It's not about a front with him. He's perfect, he's pure. He doesn't mind if people think he's a sinner.
Wow. I am a sinner and I do whatever I can not to appear like one. My entire life, even though I'm a total dreadful filthy sinner and I spend my whole time trying to appear righteous before people. Jesus the person who is actually righteous, he doesn't care. He joins with the filthy failures at the Losers Convention. Don't you just love Jesus? If you know who he is. He is the Prince of Heaven. As we will see in Matthew 3.16-17, he is the one filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, he is the one who is the beloved of the Father, the Son of the Emperor of the Cosmos, the Lord Most High. He comes to planet earth and he joins the Failures Convention. He cuts to the front of the queue and he gets baptised too.
What's he doing? It's about solidarity, isn't it? What he's doing is like a footballer starting the new season. Imagine a new footballer who gets brought in to your team that is heading for relegation. Imagine the new player enters into your team, this incredible teenager from South America. You paid squillions of pounds for him. What do you do at that point? As the new player enters the team, they put on the kit of the new team, don't they? They have the big press conference, and the photo call, they shake hands with the manager and they wear the kit and they are basically saying 'from now on, everything I do, I do for you. Every goal I score from now on, I score for your team. Every victory is now your victory. Because I'm one with you. Because I'm your champion.'
What do we see here? It's the baptism. Here comes the Prince of Heaven. And we are a member of Team Earth, and we are definitely heading for relegation. It's what Matthew 3.1-12 is about. Definitely heading for relegation. But here comes this 'wunderkind' who comes into our team. The baptism is like the press conference. It's like he's shaking hands with the manager up in heaven and he is joining us in our predicament. As our champion, to be one with us, and do it for us. It's beautiful really.
Back in Isaiah, 700 years earlier, it was predicted when the Messiah came, he would be numbered alongside the transgressors. That's what the verse says in Isaiah 53.12. he would be numbered among the transgressors, counted alongside all the other failures like you and me. He'd be the champion who wears the colours of Team Earth and to do it for us. So here is Jesus, joining us at the Failures Convention. John doesn't quite get it yet. Verses 14 to 15,
"John would have prevented him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?' But Jesus answered him, 'Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.' Then he consented."
John said what you and I would say, 'Jesus we shouldn't wash you, you need to wash us'. Essentially, Jesus answers him, 'you know what, I'm going to join you in your failure so you can join me in my family.' That's the story of the Bible in a sentence. Do you know the Bible in a sentence? The Son of God says, 'I join you in your failure so you can join me in my family'. It's what Matthew's Gospel is all about. Jesus, our champion, joins us in our failure, wears the colours of Team Earth. And then if you read on in Matthew's Gospel, he starts to take on all the enemies that get the better of you in life. You know why you fail to change? You know why you make every New Year's resolution and it lasts about fifteen days. Do you know why? We are no good at change.
In chapter 4, Jesus takes on temptation, the temptation that always gets the better of you. By the end of Matthew 4, Jesus actually scores a winner over temptation. And you think, 'oh, this is interesting. This new player who has joined our team. He looks like he might be the one.' He takes on the devil in that opening clash and he gets the winner. And you think maybe he is the one.
Then Jesus takes on sickness and sickness always gets the better of you. But Jesus gets the better of it. And you think, 'this new player, I think he might be the one'. And he takes on the chaotic forces of nature and he says to a storm, 'quiet, be still' and the storm is quiet and you think, 'oh wow, this is really interesting'. And he takes on evil, pure evil and he drives demons out of people. He is even bigger than evil forces. You see Jesus goes throughout Matthew's Gospel and he takes on our enemies in our name, on our behalf, as our champion. And it takes him all the way to the cross. You know what's happening on the cross? He takes on even our sin, even our filth, even our judgement, even the fire John just has been preaching about. He takes them all on himself on Good Friday on that cross.
This is how much he wants to enter into your failure. He enters into the hell of the cross for you. Maybe if we were there on Good Friday we would have thought, all is lost. The champion is dead. On Easter Sunday what happens? The champion rises up again and he scores the winner even over the final enemy, death. And that thing footballers do, when they score, they run to their home supporters and they tap their badge. They are saying, 'it's for you. It's for you!' That's who Jesus is. He scores the winner over sin, death and hell. He rises up again and he says, 'it's for you. It's for you. I have entered into your darkness, now have my life. I have entered into your failure, now have my family.'
I keep on talking about this family. What do I mean by 'the family'? Matthew 3.16-17:
"And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'"
That's the family. That's the family you and I were made for. This is the family that both predated and produced the universe. There has always been a Father loving his Son, Jesus, in the joy of the Holy Spirit. There has always been this Niagara Falls of blessing, of life, of love. Jesus comes to planet earth. He's the one who is in that Niagara Falls of blessing. You belong there too. You belong in this flow of love. You belong in this family of love. That's why when David's mother said those words, "you are a hopeless case, you are a hopeless case", do you know why such words pierce to the heart? Because you are meant to hear a parental verdict on your life that is so very different. You are meant to hear the eternal Father from heaven say, 'you are my son, you are my daughter, who I love, with you I am well pleased'. You are made to hear that verdict.
You think, how do I get that verdict? I thought you said I was dark, I thought you said I was filthy, I thought you said I was a failure. Yes, you are and so am I. But do you want to come home? Do you want to come home to this family love? Do you want to hear a very different verdict on your life?
Everything in your life has been aimed at getting this verdict. Every performance, every achievement, all the grades you are trying to get, all the money you are trying to earn, all the pride and the praise you are trying to get for yourself. You know what you are trying to get? You are trying to get the ultimate verdict on your life to say, 'you are loved, you are great, I'm well pleased with you'. Your whole life is driven by that drum to hear that verdict. But if you don't hear the Father in heaven giving you that verdict, you are going to kill yourself trying to get it on your own terms. Don't kill yourself trying to get it on your own terms. Come home.
It should be obvious how you get this verdict. You know how you get this verdict on your life? You know how to get real change? First of all, you get real and you say, 'I'm going to confess my sins, I'm going to say to God and the world, there is darkness out there but there is a heck of a lot of darkness in here. I'm sorry'. That's step one.
And step two you say, 'Jesus, I want you'. And if you belong to Jesus, you get his Father as your Father, you get his Spirit as your Spirit, you get his future as his future. So do you want Jesus? Let's bow our heads and let me lead us in a prayer.
Maybe you just want to call out to Jesus now and say 'Jesus I want you. I'm sorry for my darkness, I'm sorry for my sin. Thank you for your cross. Come into my life.' You might want to call out to Jesus now.
Father, there is darkness in our heart, in our lives and we are sorry. But we praise you for Jesus, your champion, your son, our strong elder brother. We thank you that he lived his life for us. We thank you that he died our death for us. We thank you that he did it all, for us. Help us to walk with Jesus through this life and into your eternity. Amen.