Jesus is the one person you cannot ignore.
Many people think he can be ignored. Many people try to ignore him. But he is the one person you cannot ignore forever, and if you’re in your right mind you wouldn’t want to ignore him.
Matthew has told us enough of Jesus’ childhood to introduce him to us. We’re about to meet the adult Jesus. But before Jesus takes the stage, God sends one last Old Testament prophet to announce his arrival. John comes on: “Ladies and Gentlemen, would you please all welcome…”
And what John says about Jesus tells us why you cannot ignore him, wouldn’t want to ignore him. He tells us two things that Jesus comes to bring.
Firstly, Jesus comes to bring God’s judgement. God’s judgement.
John warned the people of what he called, “wrath to come”. Wrath is one of those funny religious words that were not always quite clear what it means. It simply means anger. The anger of God is coming, says John.
That’s something that people tend to get edgy about. We don’t like the idea of an angry God. In part, that’s because we imagine that if we say God is angry, we’re saying he’s like us when we get angry. And when we get angry, it’s rarely a good thing. It’s usually a bit of dented pride mixed in with some tiredness or lack of perspective. When we fly off the handle, we almost always regret it later.
But that is not what God’s anger is like. The Bible says that God is good and loving, and he’s made a good world. And when we reject him, spoil the world he’s made, or hurt the people he’s made, he cannot just stand by and say it doesn’t matter. We wouldn’t want him to. We wouldn’t want him to say that 6 million Jews don’t matter. We wouldn’t want God not to care about our next door neighbour who’s been burgled.
Instead, God has a consistent, settle, fair hatred of everything that is not good and perfect. That is what his anger is like. His wrath.
And John warns people that this anger is coming. But he’s more precise than that. He says that Jesus is the one who will bring God’s judgement. So look at verse 12. He’s talking about Jesus. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Jesus is coming, and he’s going to separate people into wheat and chaff. The useful grain that you can bake with; the useless husk that goes on the bonfire.
Now, the picture Jesus uses to describe the other side of Jesus’ judgement for those who end up on the wrong side is unquenchable fire. We mustn’t press that picture too hard. It is a picture. But what John is communicating is quite clear. You wouldn’t want that to be your future.
John wants that Jesus comes to bring God’s judgement. And so we need to be ready.
This week’s news has been dominated by the awful story of the cruise liner, the Costa Concordia, that wrecked off the Italian coast at the end of the week before. It’s amazing that nearly everyone got off safely. It’s tragic that a few did not. But one of the chilling details that came out a few days ago was that many of the crew on board were telling passengers that there was nothing wrong, they should just go to their cabins and stay calm. There’s nothing the matter.
Well we may not like the idea of Jesus bringing God’s judgement. But John won’t be caught telling us to go back to our cabins, and there’s nothing to worry about. Jesus is the one person you can’t ignore, even if you try to for a while.
But the other thing that John says Jesus will bring tells you why you wouldn’t want to ignore him either.
Jesus will bring God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit.
In verse 11, John tells us that Jesus is stronger than he is. And that’s because Jesus won’t just make people wet on the outside; he’ll pour his Spirit into their inside.
I baptise you wish water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.
In the Old Testament, God gave his people laws to obey. They were good laws, but the people couldn’t keep them. So the Old Testament prophets looked forward to a day when God would put his Spirit in us, to change us from the inside. And John says that after centuries of waiting for God to do that, finally Jesus is the one who will. He will bring God’s Spirit.
Those of us with children know all about homework. And there’s the world of difference between telling a child to do their maths homework, and having the time to sit down with them and help them to do it. There’s the world of difference between God telling us how to live, and him sitting down with us to help us to do it. But even if you have got the time, there are still times when you wish you could magically help your child to get it. Not just help them, but give them the ability to do the maths.
Jesus brings God’s Spirit. Which means God doesn’t just tell us what to do. And he doesn’t just sit down and help us do it. He changes us at the very core of our being. He gives us the ability to do it.
Which is why you wouldn’t want to ignore Jesus. He’s not only the coming judge. He’s the one who came to make us new people, so that we’re ready to meet him as our judge.
Well, if we’re not going to ignore Jesus, what’s the alternative? How will we respond?
To get that clear, John highlights two mistakes we might make as we don’t ignore Jesus but respond to him.
Thinking that how we live does not matter
The first mistake to avoid is thinking that how we live does not matter. How we live does not matter.
John was hugely popular with the crowds. So much so that the Jerusalem authorities send a delegation to inspect what he’s up to. The Pharisees and the Sadducees turn up for a spot check. John is subject to an OSFTED.
They have no interest in changing their own lives. And that draws out of John some very harsh words. Verse 7: You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? In other words, what are you doing in this crowd? You’re in the wrong place! He goes on: Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
One effect that John’s teaching has on us is to shake us from our complacency. If we would follow Jesus, he calls us to repent. That is: To change the direction of our lives. To stop living for ourselves, and to start living for him.
And John’s point is that repentance bears fruit. Like the apples that grow on an apple tree, if you put down roots for your life in Jesus, things change that people can see. Your work, family, leisure and money all start to look different as your priorities change.
When I was at University, one of my friends found a poster that he put on his wall. It had a cartoon sketch of a judge. And the caption read: “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you.”
So one mistake that some of us need to be warned of is thinking that how we live does not matter.
Thinking that how we live is all that matters
But the other mistake John tells us about has the opposite effect. Others of us will find John reassuring us in our anxiety. He wants us to avoid the mistake of thinking that how we live is all that matters. How we live is all that matters.
It would be easy to think that Jesus will return as judge, and then the bad people will be punished and the good people will be rewarded. How we live is all that matters. And then we realise that Jesus promises to bring God’s Spirit, to change us from within, so that we are better people. With a bit of luck, God’s Spirit will make us good enough. We’re certainly more likely to pass muster with his help. But still: How we live is all that matters. It’s just that Jesus gives us some help with how we live.
Think about that enough, and you’ll get very worried. You wouldn’t sleep at night. How we live is all that matters, so am I good enough? Or am I not quite there yet?
John doesn’t want us to make that mistake. There are two ways he shows us that it’s a mistake. One is his picture of trees. If an apple tree in your garden starts producing pears, the answer is not to get some sticky tape, and stick some apples on. The fruit might show that there’s a problem, but the problem is with the root. None of us our perfect. But what we need is not a bit of a pep up. We need Jesus to give us heart surgery. And if he’s done that, then we’re on his side, and we’re ready to meet him.
The other way John shows that this is a mistake is by telling us that Jesus came to baptise us with the Holy Spirit. He came to pour his Spirit into us. That is something he does to us. It’s not something we do to ourselves.
So John wants to warn some of us who are complacent. How we live does matter. And he wants to reassure others of us who are anxious. How we live, is not all that matters.
The one you can’t ignore.
He’s not a take him or leave him kind of person.
You can’t leave him forever. He will return as judge.
Wonderfully, he also came to bring God’s Spirit. And that is something he want to do for each and every one of us, and that means big changes for our lives.