When you were a child, you likely heard a fairy tale somewhere along the way of a prince, facing overwhelming obstacles, who finds and marries his true love—Cinderella is one of those fairy tales. And what happens at the end, when the prince marries his princess? “They lived happily ever after.”
That’s not exactly playing out right now in Britain, at least with one particular prince. Oh, he found and married his true love, against overwhelming odds. But they have found it very difficult to obey and live within the prescribed rules that govern the conduct of the Royal Family. Well, one of those rules is that if you’re a prince, you’re not supposed to marry a divorced, biracial American actress—and they’ve been victims of racism, for sure. But there are many other rules related to protocol, decorum, and privacy that these two ambitious young millennials in the 21st century are having a hard time following.
So last week, in an unprecedented move, they announced that they wanted out of the royal palace… at least halfway out. They said they are going to live half the time in North America, where they would—get this—actually support themselves… by earning a paycheck and working for a living! Not that Meghan Markle hadn’t already been doing that; she’s been a successful actress in Hollywood. But still…
What happens when we find that a set of rules—which can also be called “the law”—is too hard to follow?
In a way, that’s precisely what today’s scripture seeks to answer. It’s a relevant topic for this sermon series because it’s already January 12. You know what that means… chances are, you’ve already broken or cheated on at least one of your New Year’s Resolutions. Haven’t you? That dessert was impossible to pass up last night, so you failed on your resolution to avoid sweets. You were up late one night last week trying to solve a crisis at work, so you didn’t wake up early enough to have your “quiet time” one morning. Or you woke up early, got on Twitter—and you couldn’t believe what they were saying about this or that politician whom you love or loathe… and, well… you were running much too late to get on the elliptical. So you blew that resolution, too.
It happens… If you haven’t failed yet on your resolutions, give it time… you will. We human beings find if very difficult to keep resolutions, rules, or laws—even if they’re good for us. Today’s scripture says that following God’s law is like that, except it’s not merely hard but impossible; and the consequences for failing are infinitely worse.
In today’s scripture, John the Baptist’s ministry has become very popular. Look at verse 5:
Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
What John is doing is unprecedented in Judaism. It’s true that “ritual bathing” was something that Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism sometimes did—as a symbol of being cleansed from sin, but it was always self-administered. They would walk down into a bath and walk out.
But with John, this is the first time that baptism was done to you by someone else.
I think this is one way in which John’s baptism pointed to Jesus and symbolized an important truth: the kind of cleansing from sin that we really need isn’t something we can do for ourselves; we need Someone else to do it for us; because we are helpless to do it; we are helpless to save ourselves.
Listen, I know that as Methodists surrounded by Baptists in a Bible Belt town like ours, we can sometimes get a bit defensive about infant baptism. We’re surrounded by Christians who wonder why we don’t wait for someone to make a profession of faith before being baptized. “Only believers should be baptized!” they tell us. I was baptized as a teenager after I believed in Jesus, so I’ve been there. I grew up thinking the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics were wrong to baptize babies. But when Lisa and I joined a Methodist church in the mid-’90s, our pastor, Mike Cash, put it like this: “We are helpless and can do nothing to save ourselves, or earn the forgiveness or saving grace that God gives us; it’s all God’s doing. We are completely dependent upon God. And what symbolizes this complete helplessness or dependence on God like a baby being baptized? A baby is helpless; a baby can do nothing to earn God’s favor.”
Having said that, let me hasten to add that the thing that baptism signifies isn’t made complete—it isn’t finished—untilthat child later grows up and believes in Jesus as their Savior and Lord for themselves. We Methodists don’t believe that baptism saves us apart from genuine Christian faith! So that’s in part why—if we’re being good Methodists—we need to spend a lot of time teaching our children who Jesus is and what his gospel is all about. And of course, Josh, our youth pastor and children’s director, would be the first to tell you that the most important teaching—the most important evangelism—goes on—not on Sunday morning or Sunday or Wednesday night at church, but in the home. By parents! But the church does have formal training known as confirmation, after which our young people should be prepared to accept Christ for themselves—if they haven’t already.
But that brings me to my next point: If you have your Bibles—and you should—look with me at verse 7:
But when he [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
What was John’s problem with Pharisees and Sadducees? If the point of his ministry, after all, was to have sinners come to him, to confess their sins and repent, why shouldn’t John have welcomed them? Well, he was a prophet. And I think, like Jesus after him, he discerned what was in their hearts. For example, Pharisees taught that if people wanted to reallybe accepted by God, not only do they have to follow all of the laws in the Old Testament, but here are all these extra commands and requirements they have to follow. In other words, the Pharisees were saying to their fellow Jews something like this: “Following God’s law is really hard. You have to try really hard and follow our example! We’re doing it, after all, which means you can do it, too! Just be like us!”
This attitude prompts Jesus, later in the gospels, to tell a parable about the Pharisees, which many of you have heard—the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Remember? Two men go to the temple, one a supposedly righteous Pharisee and the other a very unrighteous tax collector. The Pharisee prays, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like other men”—including all these awful sinners he sees around him. And he proceeds to tell God exactly why he’s not like them. You can hear the pride in the man’s prayer. Meanwhile, the tax collector knows he’s one of these awful sinners and begs for mercy.
And which of these two men, according to Jesus, receives forgiveness for their sins? The tax collector. Why? Because he knows that he isn’t worthy. He knows he isn’t righteous; he’s a sinner. He has nothing to show for himself. He knows that he’s broken God’s law in a million different ways—and if obeying God’s law is what it takes to be saved, he’s lost. So all he can do is beg God for mercy and depend on God’s unmerited grace.
This is why Jesus says elsewhere that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter God’s kingdom before the Pharisees… Why? Because they know that the only way they’ll enter is through grace, not through their own righteousness!
But getting back to the parable, let me ask you: objectively speaking, was the Pharisee more righteous than the tax collector? Sure… why not? He tithed. He prayed. He read the Bible. He went to church often. He gave money to help the poor. He made an honest living… The tax collector did none of these otherwise good things. So let’s say that we could chart the relative righteousness of the two men on that wall there: The tax collector would be at the bottom of the wall. He was, by all measures, a bad dude. The Pharisee, meanwhile, would be near the top. That’s good! Except, where do you think Jesus would be? How would the righteousness of Jesus compare? Remember, Jesus kept the law perfectly his entire life—perfectly righteous in every way.
Yeah, the righteousness of Jesus would be a little farther up the wall… it would be—just spitballing it—about as high as… the moon!
Do you see the point? Jesus is the absolute standard against which the Bible says we need to compare ourselves. Relative righteousness doesn’t count! It doesn’t matter if [name] is more righteous than I am. We are both sufficiently sinful, apart from God’s grace, to go to hell! Have you heard that the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is admitting that you are helpless over alcohol. In fact, they begin their meetings saying, “I’m fill-in-the-blank, and I’m an alcoholic.” We can learn something from them! What if we came to church and greeted one another like that: “I’m Brent, and I’m practically as big a sinner as you are!” Turn to your neighbor and say that: “I’m fill-in-the-blank, and I’m practically as big a sinner as you are!”
What a relief to know that—to know that, apart from God’s grace, we’re all in the exact same boat!
The problem is, some of us don’t know it! You know how Americans often get surveyed about their religious belief. And a large majority of American identify as Christians—like 75 percent. And then when they’re asked how a person gets into heaven, what do the vast majority of those 75 percent say? “By being a good person”!
Being a good person? Is that John the Baptist’s message? Who can possibly be a good enough person to be saved? And if you think that “being good enough” will get you into heaven, you’ll never get in!
See, this is John’s point. This is how John is fulfilling his mission to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, the world’s Savior: by convincing the world that they really need a Savior!
How desperately we still need John’s message! One time, a fellow pastor said—about yours truly—“All you ever talk about is sin, sin, sin!” Can you believe it? The nerve… Wait a second, this pastor had a point… I do talk about sin a lot! Why do I do this? Because… before we’re ready and able to receive Jesus as our Savior, we need to understand why we need one in the first place! And that’s because of sin. Understanding why we need a Savior is the first half the gospel! That’s why John the Baptist had to come to prepare the way! Before we can hear the Good News, we need to hear the Bad News! We first need to let ourselves be condemned by John the Baptist, to be condemned by the Old Testament, to be condemned by the Ten Commandments, to be condemned by God’s law, until we’re convinced—finally—as the Bible says, that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”!
And that’s the ultimate purpose of God’s law: As Paul writes, “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.” Romans 3:20.
This is why one theologian said, “What stands between us and God is not so much our sins as our damnable good works!” Or as another pastor said, “God requires nothing of us to be saved. The problem is, we don’t come to God with nothing. We come to God with something… “Look at me, God. Here’s why you should let me have eternal life… because I’ve been so good!” Yet I fear that some of you are prepared to tell God that when you meet him in Final Judgment. If so, please repent! Repent of your false security that your good works will save you… or your church attendance… or the fact that you grew up in a Christian home… or that you were baptized as a baby… or that you went through confirmation class when you were 12… or that you walked down an aisle and prayed a “sinner’s prayer” one time, before you went on to live a life just as you pleased. None of those things by themselves will save you. So heed John the Baptist’s message and repent!
And once you do, you can hear this good news in verse 9: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.’”
Wait… you say, “How is that good news?” Because God is able to transform stones into his children who love him and have eternal life. Which means, if he can do that with stones, guess what? He can do that with one particular stone named Brent White. And he has done it. And he can do that with you, too! But John’s right… it’s going to take a miracle! And fortunately, that’s precisely what God did through his Son Jesus.
See, you might be wondering, why does Jesus need to be baptized? John himself wondered about that. John understood that baptism was a sign of repentance, a sign of God’s judgment against sin, and a sign of the washing away of sin. Jesus didn’t need that kind of baptism because he was without sin. John needed that kind of cleansing from sin, not Jesus. It was as if John were saying to Jesus, in so many words, “You should be standing where I am, and I should be standing where you are! What are you doing in my place, Jesus? And what am I doing in yours? I need my sins washed away!” And Jesus says, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus is really saying, “I am here as your substitute, John. My main mission is to live a life of perfect obedience to the Father in your place, to fulfill all righteousness on your behalf—to obey the law in a way that you and the rest of sinful humanity never could. I’m taking your place, John; that’s why I’m submitting to your baptism. I’m substituting for you now as a sign of what I’ll do for you later: when I substitute for you on the cross.
“See, everything you’re preaching is true, John: the axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire; the wheat will be separated from the chaff and the chaff will be burned—when Final Judgment comes. But I’m going to become that bad tree, and I’m going to become that chaff, and I’m going to suffer that hell for you… and for everyone who turns to me in faith. Because I love you that much!” “I’ve come to die in your place, John, so that you can stand in mine. I’ve come to take the curse you deserve so you can have the blessing.”I’ve come to take your sin upon myself so that you can have my righteousness as a gift.”
And what is the result of this substitution? Something really amazing. What the Father says of his Son Jesus he can now say of everyone who believes in the name of Jesus: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” He can now say, “[Name], you are my beloved son [daughter] with whom I am well pleased.”
 Romans 3:20 NLT