Matthew 3:1-12 First in Advent, with a full baptism

In whom, or in what, do you place your faith?

Notes from sermon preached on 27th November 2011


John prepared the way for the Lord, which makes the connection with Advent. But the question I want to ask today as we come to baptise A and D  is, “In what or in whom do you place your faith?”

In today’s passage John the Baptist is preaching the message of the kingdom of God in the desert: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Many, 100’s, 1000’s of ordinary people responded, confessing their sins, they put their faith in God, and were baptised.  This is what D and A will be doing this morning.

In verse 7 we read that the Pharisees and Sadducees, two prominent and powerful sects at the time, came out of curiosity.  The Pharisees were a highly religious group, and the Sadducees, although they believed in God, had lots of arguments against religion.

The ordinary people hear the word of God, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” and that was enough for them to respond in simple faith.  But the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were educated and sophisticated people didn’t respond; they just went out of curiosity.  Jesus said in Luke 7:30 that in rejecting John’s baptism, they rejected God’s purposes for themselves.  However John was faithful and he explained the gospel more fully to them.  In John’s explanation we see some of the reasons rejected faith in Christ – they had their faith firmly established in other things, and this prevented them from responding.  May be these are some of the reasons which prevent us making a commitment to Christ as well.

Main Points

1.       They put their faith in their human ability and goodness vs7-8

We know this because John begins by exposing their sin: “you brood of vipers.”  The Pharisees and Sadducees regarded themselves as good people, clever people, moral people, but not sinners.  John tells them straight: they also are sinners.

This can be what we think as well – our salvation (solving the world’s problems) will eventually come from man’s ingenuity.  Yes, we know some people are bad – like pedophiles or drug dealers or murderers – people like that.  But on the whole human beings are good and moral.  But according to the Bible this is not true and we all have a big problem, which is called sin.

Let me illustrate.  A little white mouse fell in to a glass cage with a great big snake.  The snake was fast asleep, but the mouse immediately realised it had a huge problem.   This is like us, if only we would admit it.  Our sin may seem to be fast asleep, but sooner or later it will wake up and devour us if we let it.  The little mouse was terrified, but then it had a great idea.  He quickly set to work covering the snake with sawdust chippings until the snake was completely buried.  And with that the mouse thought he had solved the problem!  But of course this did not solve the problem.  Just then that the owner reached down saved the silly little mouse.

We work very hard at covering our sin and our sinful nature, but really its fools work.

My mother has an orchard, and the apples are usually very good.  But being very organic you sometimes get an apple which looks lovely on the outside, but rotten on the inside.   A little bug has burrowed in and ruined the apple on the inside.  This is like sin in our lives – we put a good show on the outside, but our inner life is rotten.  God is not fooled, he looks not on the outward appearance, but he looks on the heart, and sees it all.  We need the Holy Spirit to show us our sin.

We think, “Well, thank you God I’m not a murderer?”  But Jesus showed that the 6th commandment includes thoughts of murder, and hatred, and anger.  We think “Thank you God I’m not an adulterer?”  But Jesus showed that adultery includes thinking after another woman lustfully.  When we are faced with God’s standards of holiness our sin begins to be exposed, and then we are forced to admit we are sinners.

You can be an outwardly moral person, and addicted to pornography.  You can be highly successful in your work, yet be full of anger or addicted to drugs.

But we do everything we can to cover up.  Not only do we cover up, we try to make our bad sin look good – we are of course now we are in the 21st century!

Occult practice is called white magic;

Telling a lie is called a white lie;

Living in sin is called cohabiting;

Pornography is called adult entertainment;

Greed is called the profit motive;

Gluttony is called unhealthy living;

Lawlessness is called freedom, and so on.

I’m sure you can think of other examples. But God is not fooled.  If we put our faith in human nature, we will be disappointed, and it will prevent us responding to the gospel.  In baptism we acknowledge “I’m a sinner”, we confess our sins, and we putt our faith in Jesus Christ to save us.

2.       They put their faith in their inherited religion v9

“And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

Now, A, your father is a good Christian man, a man of faith, and that’s a real blessing to you.  But you cannot say, “I have Abraham as my father!”   [A’s father is called Abraham and was present in the congregation.]

D, I know you have a mother who has prayed for you most of her life.  But it’s not her prayers that can save you.  We cannot trust our inherited religion.   Having a Christian family is a great blessing, but we cannot rely on the faith of our family for salvation.

Imagine the Pharisees and Sadducees looking on, and thinking, “We don’t need to repent, we were born Jews, Abraham is our father.  We’re okay.”  But they were not okay because inherited religion cannot save us for our sins.  Even baptism can’t save us.

Ezekiel was an Old Testament preacher, and once God spoke to him about his countrymen, who were very religious [in Ezekiel 33:31-32.]

“My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice.  With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain.”

The people came to Ezekiel’s church, but it was just an outward display of respectable religion.  But respectable religion won’t save us and it does not fool God, since He sees the true motives of our hearts. In the next verse we see what the people really thought,

“Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.”

Ezekiel was an accomplished musician, and the people came, and thought, “That’s nice.”  Sometimes people come to church and hear the nice music, and think, “That’s nice.”  But they never take to heart or believe God’s word to them.   A and D are being baptised today, not because it’s the family thing to do, or because it’s respectable religion, but because they are putting God’s word into practice in their lives.  They have already placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and they know personal forgiveness and new life.

3.       They put their faith in the systems of this world v10

 “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.”

John has shown the Pharisees and Sadducees that faith in human nature is misplaced faith; that faith in inherited religion is a misplaced faith.  Now he shows the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were very much part of the establishment, that faith in the religio-political structures of their day is a misplaced faith.

It’s a misplaced faith because the axe of God’s judgment is already at the root of the tree.   John is referring here to the fall and eventual total destruction of Jerusalem.  Although this didn’t happen immediately, John saw clearly that God’s axe was already at work.

This is especially relevant for us.  There is a lot of insecurity around because people have placed their faith in the stock market, or in the banks, or the government, or in the euro, or the environment.   But one by one these trees are being chopped down.  Of course governments and banks etc should be a blessing to us, but we were never supposed to invest our whole lives into them; to put our security in them; to trust our whole future well-being into their hands.  That is something reserved only for God: we should give our lives to him.  The axe is already at the root of these false securities, and this is part of God’s mercy that we might come to faith in the Messiah and true king who can save us.

John saw clearly in his day that the writing was on the wall, just, as I have to say, the writing is on the wall in our own culture.  John saw that the only hope  an urgent repentance and change of heart.  The same is true for us today.

This is what we are saying in baptism.  It is an expression of a heart repentance and turning to the Lord where we place our lives in his hands.

Conclusion (v13)

The Pharisees and Sadducees rejected God’s purposes for themselves.  They put their faith in human nature, in religion and tradition, in worldly politics.  Now John shows where we should place our faith.

 “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.  He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

John spoke of Jesus.  His name means, “He saves.”  He is the one who has come to seek and to save that which was lost.  John recognised him as the Lamb of God who would die for the sin of the whole world.

Christian baptism – actually more than a baptism of repentance – since we are baptised into Jesus’ death and resurrection – it is Jesus who baptises us, immerses us, into his life, with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

John was a very powerful and influential man, but Jesus is more powerful.  In fact God the Father has given Jesus all power and authority in heaven and on earth.  He is Lord, over all the systems of this world, and, as we sing, “soon and very soon” his kingdom is coming!  Jesus is coming!

Baptism is a declaration that “Jesus is Lord!”  In this sense it is a political statement.  And it’s an exhortation for us all to put our trust in the true Lord and the true King.

“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.”

This verse is a warning to all of us.  One day there will be a final judgment.  Will we be ready?  Have we put our faith in the right place?  “It is appointed man to die once, and then the judgment.”  Human nature cannot save us on that day, because we are hopeless sinners.  Religion cannot save us.  The structures of this world are incapable of saving us.  So why do we put our faith in these things?    We desperately need a Saviour, and his name is Jesus.  Let’s put our faith in Him.


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