Have you ever watched the movie, Plains, Trains, and Automobiles? One of my favorite parts is when they are driving in that green rental station wagon in the middle of the night. John Candy falls asleep and crosses over the median. It wakes him up and he and Steve Martin look around and it looks like they’re going just fine. After a moment a car comes along side them, only they’re really on the other side of the grassy median. Steve looks at them and they’re yelling something at him only he can’t hear them. John and Steve look at them, wave thank you and drive on, but the people are persistent. John and Steve look over at them and John makes a gesture like they’re drinking and they both sit back and look ahead again. Steve sits back and thinks about it. He looks over at them again, this time noticing the words they are mouthing and then it dawns on him. He hears their words in his head – they are going the wrong way! He looks at John Candy and yells at him “We’re going the wrong way!” But it’s too late and they run into 2 semi-trucks and squeeze right between them.
Nobody likes to be told they are going the wrong way, especially when they don’t think they are heading the wrong way at all. In this life you can be physically going the wrong way, and it is possible to be spiritually going the wrong way.
How would you know if you were one of them, if you were going the wrong way? How could you tell? Have you ever tried to tell someone they were going the wrong way? How hard was that?
Imagine if God sent you to go tell an entire nation they were going the wrong way spiritually. This was the mission of John the Baptist. The Lord sent John the Baptist to all the country around the Jordan in Israel to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
You’ve heard before that to repent means to stop going one way, turn around, and go the correct way. But repentance is not just a physical matter. It involves a change in your mind and in your heart. God sent John the Baptist to the nation of Israel to preach this message of repentance because the people needed to change their hearts and minds. They were heading the wrong way spiritually. Notice this, John called them “a brood of vipers” because they were beautiful and colorful on the outside. Snake skin belts, snake skin boots are very beautiful, right? But on the inside they were full of deadly poison, which the Bible often equates with pride, insolence, and arrogance. And being full of deadly poison, they were, of course, spiritually dead in God’s eyes. John also accused them of trying to “flee the wrath of God,” because they were living their lives as if there would never be a judgment. They were all definitely heading the wrong way in God’s eyes and needed to turn from their spiritually arrogant and apathetic ways, and turn back to God.
Could this also describe many people of our day as well?
If so, could John’s message still hold relevance and meaning for our lives today? Last week I talked about repentance for the non-believer and how repentance prepared the way for salvation. But for the already disciple of Jesus, John’s message still holds relevance for us because John clearly instructs us that for the believer, repentance prepares the way to bear spiritual fruit.
Repentance prepares the way to bear spiritual fruit:
- Jesus told his disciples one day, John 15:16, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit,” You see, as Christians, it is God’s design that we bear fruit in our lives, that is, spiritual fruit, such as “love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control,” (Galatians 5:22). Of this fruit Jesus told his disciples: Luke 6:44, “For every tree is known by its own fruit.”
- Repentance prepares the way for us to bear this spiritual fruit. But just as the tree works to bear it’s fruit, so we must work to bear spiritual fruit through the process of repentance. This means an ongoing struggle, informed by the Law of God, (The 10 Commandments) whereby we become aware, resist sin and turn from it. But this daily struggle against sin involves spiritual work on our part. It is not easy. It is not just handed to us. You can’t take a pill to get rid of it. Paul writes about this daily struggle in, Hebrews 12:3-4, “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. 4 You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” Can you say that you have struggled against sin to point of shedding your own blood?
- We need to cultivate a good spiritual work ethic.
- For example: Once and a while I have that argument with a certain someone in my household who doesn’t want to load or unload the dishwasher. I tell her, “Just do what you’re told.” When a certain someone asks me why she needs to do the dishes, I tell her, “I had to work when I was a child, so guess what, so do you.” Besides we both know it’s because my wife and I are trying to build a good work ethic within her, and in order to build a work ethic within someone, they must, of course, work. It is the same in our spiritual lives as well. We need to cultivate a spiritual work ethic: The process by which we do the spiritual work of daily repentance in turning away from sin.
- How necessary is this spiritual work in our lives? I think John’s warning is very clear: Verse 9, “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The saddest thing in the Kingdom of Heaven is to see a believer who confesses to be a disciple of Jesus, but has never done the necessary spiritual work in following him. They are like fruitless, dead, trees.
- This is the heart of John’s message to Israel, and to us today: Luke 3:8, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” Abraham is the father of faith. To claim Abraham as your father is to claim to have faith. But in this case, John is saying the people claim to have faith, but they have no deeds that show it.
- I think James can shed some light on this subject: James 2:18-23, But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe–and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God.”
Last summer my wife and I went camping on our way down to Florida and back. We have a small pop-up camper and we very much enjoy camping. I’m always amazed at the sheer awesomeness of those 60′ motor homes I see at the campsites. They have very convenience you can think of inside of them. They are so convenient, in fact, that people no longer have to contend or struggle with the elements. On our trip one of those big homes was next to us and I talked with the couple who owned it. They showed me around inside. It had a satellite dish, a gaming station and a sunken tub. They told me they bought the camper to get out and see the world, but when they pulled up to a new spot, it was no different than when we left home. They still sat in front of the TV and ate popcorn, slept-in, and played cards. They have this beautiful camper to see the world, but really, nothing changed for them inside their lives. Oh they drive to new places, but they just continued to carry along their old habits and ways.
How many people’s lives are like that? It’s big. It’s beautiful. It might even be shiny and filled with wonderful things, but on the inside their is nothing, because nothing has changed in their spiritual lives. There are many spiritual people, even Christians, like that. They say they believe in God, but nothing has really changed for them on the inside. Jesus has never made a difference in their lives, and they are no different today than the day they began to follow Jesus, or became spiritual. Perhaps like those people so long ago, they never thought they needed to hear the message of repentance.
John’s call is a call to change. As we go through this journey of faith, as we travel down the spiritual road of life, John calls us to do the hard work of repentance, daily turning to God, daily turning to Christ, daily doing the hard work of change in our lives. And as we do so, we are changed from the inside out. Let me ask you a question. Over the spiritual years of your life, has anything changed? We should always be examining our lives to see which side of the highway we’re traveling, and when we see we are heading the wrong way, the good news is that we all have the equal opportunity to turn back to God and seek forgiveness. He promises that when we turn away from sin in repentance, he turns to us, and helps us get back on the right track of life.