Imagine John the Baptist is preaching to you. Repent, he says! Stop living however you please and embrace God’s true way of life! Turn from your selfishness and your sins, which will destroy you, and turn to God, who loves you and wants to save you! Change your mind about the ways and wiles of the world, and open your heart to the kingdom of heaven! Can you answer, “Sir, I have repented and confessed my sins”? Can you say, “I have been baptized as a sign of my repentance”? Can you say, “I now bear good fruit for my God”?
Friends, John told all to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Some did. They changed their minds and confessed that they were living in rebellion to the King and the good laws He had made. As they changed their minds, they changed their ways and strove to live by His Word. Others did not repent, or only pretended to. John was particularly hard on the pretenders. He said that unless they produced fruit “in keeping with repentance,” they would not escape “the wrath to come.” Jesus would sort them out. In the end, “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Imagine you’ve been given a very specific job to do — but it’s hard, very hard. You know your assignment. The Boss has been clear about what He wants you to do, and He’s given you all the tools you need to get the job done. He’s a good Boss. He never fails to reward His workers in the end. But doing this job for Him requires you to turn your back on nearly everything that people value. Your pay? Negligible. Working conditions? Abominable. Critics and challenges? Innumerable. Surely you’re tempted to look for a shortcut, for some way to do the job without sacrificing so much of yourself. Surely John was tempted.
Friends, to do the job he was called to do, John couldn’t shortcut God’s plan or obey halfway. He had to leave his way of life behind, go to the wilderness, and learn to depend on the Lord of Life. He had to call men and women to repent and bear fruit worthy of repentance, even though it was guaranteed to offend. When people flocked to him, he had to be ever-willing to point them not to himself and his ministry, but to the King and His coming kingdom. To be the Baptist, John had to go out, cry out, and prepare the Lord’s way at great cost to himself. He did, and so became the mighty man God created him to be.
Why art thou troubled, Herod? what vain fear
Thy blood-revolving breast to rage doth move?
Heaven’s King, who doffs Himself weak flesh to wear,
Comes not to rule in wrath, but serve in love;
Nor would He this thy feared crown from thee tear,
But give thee a better with Himself above.
Poor jealousy! why should He wish to prey
Upon thy crown, who gives His own away?
Make to thy reason, man, and mock thy doubts;
Look how below thy fears their causes are;
Thou art a soldier, Herod; send thy scouts,
See how He’s furnished for so feared a war.
What armour does He wear? a few thin clouts.
His trumpets? tender cries. His men to dare
So much? rude shepherds. What His steeds? alas,
Poor beasts! a slow ox and a simple ass.
excerpt from “SOSPETTO D’HERODE” in Steps to the temple (1646)
Imagine you’ve worked all your life to climb the ladder of success and come out on top. You’ve carefully crafted your connections, learned the rules of the game, and made sacrifice after sacrifice to get what you want. While many did little to add value, you built, and built, and built. Surely after years of success, you’ve earned the right to be the boss. So, when you hear that Management insists on putting someone new above you, you want to know: why should you submit to Him? As far as you’re concerned, He’ll only get in your way.
Friends, Herod was determined to be king. He continually cultivated contacts in Rome so that the power of the world would make him “King of the Jews.” Once king, he built aqueducts and amphitheaters, palaces and fortresses, cities and ports. He rebuilt the Temple of Jerusalem and built pagan temples elsewhere. He also murdered anyone he perceived as a threat to his rule, including one of his wives and three of his sons. Christ was a threat too. When Herod heard that God’s own anointed “King of the Jews” had been born, he made his choice. He would murder the Messiah rather than submit his kingship to Him.
Imagine you have wealth that most in the world can only dream of. You’ve been given education so ample that you make your living not by the sweat of your brow, but by the knowledge and expertise you possess. While many struggle and others starve, you and your friends are a favored group; you are people of position and high standing. So, when news breaks that the “King of the Jews” has been born, why should you change your life to seek Him?
Yet that’s exactly what the men called magi decided to do. These wealthy, learned, comfortable men resolved to leave their lives behind so they could find and worship the Christ. Friends, to seek Him from a distant land was not a painless proposition. They had to leave their homes, families, and jobs. They had to organize a large, expensive caravan and risk a dangerous, months-long journey on trade routes rife with bandits. They had to meet with a treacherous King Herod. The magi not only decided to do all this, but they did it with joy. They joyfully found the Christ, bowed down, and gave their treasures to Him.