God always gives me just what I need, just when I need it. This week’s lessons have been powerful ones that went straight to the core of my heart. Matthew 3:1-12 put John the Baptist in my path. I could not escape his simple message to change my life because God’s kingdom is here. Four years ago, I learned it was possible to walk in God’s Kingdom now. I wish I could say I have been walking in His kingdom since then, but I’m afraid I’ve tried to walk in His kingdom with one foot in my own. Here John the Baptist’s message.
While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”
John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:
Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.
When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.
“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” (The Message, Eugene Peterson)
Each time I read the story of John the Baptist, I’m struck by his humility. He had folks flocking to him, but he continued to point to the true Messiah and kept his perspective. He heard God’s voice and continues to make the way smooth and straight for us. He says, “It is your life that must change, not your skin!” Appearances are easy to change, and it’s very easy to put on a happy face when your heart is breaking. The repentance John calls for goes much deeper than the surface; it goes all the way to the heart and allows God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done in our lives.
In “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” Barbara Brown Taylor says,
“As scary as John was, it was a pretty great offer. No wonder people walked days to get to him. No wonder they stood around even after their turns were over, just to hear him say it again and again. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them. We hear guilt where they heard pardon, and at least part of the problem, I think, is our resistance to the whole notion of repentance.
The way most of us were taught it, repentance means owning up to how rotten you are. It means saying out loud, if only in the auditorium of your own soul, that you are a selfish, sinful, deeply defective human being who grieves the heart of God and that you are very, very sorry about it. It means dumping all your pride on the ground and stamping on it, since pride—as in ego, arrogance, vainglory—is the root of so much evil.
Only what if it isn’t? What if pride isn’t the problem at all, but its very opposite? What if the main thing most of us need to repent of is not our arrogance but our utter despair—that things will never change for us, that we will never change, that no matter what we say or do we are stuck forever in the mess we have made of our lives, or the mess someone else has made of them, but in any case that there is no hope for us, no beginning again, no chance of new life—? Now that is a problem.
I cannot tell you how many people I know who are all but dead with despair. It doesn’t happen just one way; it happens all kinds of ways. A little girl is abused by her grandfather and forty years later, although he is long dead and gone, his hands are still on her. She has not married. She will not let anyone get close. She is still keeping her forty-year-old promise never to let anyone hurt her like that again.”
I can relate to being dead with despair, but the message of John the Baptist reached deeply into my heart and touched my despair. I’ve had the Bible used to create the feeling she describes and have had my pride dumped on the ground and stomped more times than I can count. Today, I saw the verses in Matthew differently with the help of the Holy Spirit. I see hope and pardon instead of guilt and grief. John’s message was the same as Christ’s. There is hope and a cure for the utter despair in which I find myself.
Like the green shoot in Isaiah, verse ten describes a green and blossoming changed life. Deadwood goes into the fire where it belongs and clears the way for a new life, a kingdom life, a life worth living forever. My heart has been dead with despair for decades, and I still struggle when it comes to love. Letting others in causes deeper hurt and despair each time I open my heart. God made it crystal clear to me today that I am baptized into a changed life. He has the cure for despair, and John the Baptist’s message is as relevant today as it was when he first began crying out in the wilderness. Despair is a dark wilderness, but Christ’s Light offers hope at the end of the tunnel.