Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 11:1-7) sounded pretty fabulous, didn’t it, if not mind-blowing! That’s what we all want the world to be like; but we can’t have peace just on its own, without justice and truth. Which is why John the Baptist was sent ahead of the King – to “prepare the way for the Lord.” Now the Jews had been God’s people for centuries; they’d been waiting for the Messiah for most of that time, looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God. And they assumed that since they were already God’s special people, they would automatically be considered as ‘righteous’ and included in His Kingdom.
John came to tell them, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” (verse 2) In other words, the Kingdom was imminent, and they’d better get themselves ready. And he didn’t mean a quick wash-and-brush-up turn-over-a new-leaf so that they’d look nice and respectable for a short time. Imagine you’re working in a school or hospital, and the Queen is coming on a royal visit. You’ve got to make the place look nice for the Queen, but if time and money are a bit short, what you might do is just give the walls around the entrance a fresh coat of paint, hide the rubbish bins in a corner round the back, and put out a row of flowerpots along the VIP’s route so that it all looks good for the Queen and for the cameras – but if the camera was to take a peek behind the scenes, the reality would be very different. That’s what making a New Year resolution is like: it makes a difference to a small area of your life for a few days (or a few weeks, if you’re really determined), but it doesn’t change who you fundamentally are.
That approach won’t do for the King of kings, because He isn’t coming just for a brief ‘official visit’ – He wants to take up residence. And He judges the heart, remember, not by appearances (Isaiah 11:3,4)! This was the message that John was trying to get through to the Jews of that time: even though they called themselves God’s people (and were circumcised to prove it), they were basically unfit to be His people because they were sinful – they all had attitudes and behaviour which weren’t compatible with God’s Law. And so when they came up against the absolute justice and truth of the King, they would be shown up for what they were – guilty of wrongdoing, and unworthy of being in the wonderful new kingdom. As when the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, and He said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7) – and there wasn’t a single volunteer, because we are all sinners. We all have a fundamental problem, which is that God (who made us) is our rightful King and we have rebelled against Him. Basically, we don’t want God to be in control of our lives; and I think it’s fair to say that most if not all of us would say that the only person I want to be in charge of my life is me. That doesn’t mean we’re all terribly wicked; we do have some standards. But when we’re being measured against the absolute standard of God’s righteousness, we fall a long way short. As Anglicans say in the Confession, we have all done stuff that we shouldn’t have done, and not done stuff that we should have done. And what is the consequence of being found guilty? “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (verse 10)
That’s a very solemn warning, because none of us produces good fruit all the time. None of us stands a chance on our own merits – but when Jesus did come it wasn’t to condemn us but to save us… the Judge came to undergo a judicial execution (on a cross) instead of us, in order to save us from His own judgement. And He’s now offering us what you might call an ‘out-of-court settlement’. We have a choice, and John the Baptist lays it out: “After me comes One who is more powerful than I, who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (verses 11,12)
So we have a choice between two kinds of fire! We can give up trying to run our own lives, we can surrender to Jesus, and He will baptise us with His Holy Spirit – that’s like a controlled flame, a fire that purifies, that transforms us from the inside out and makes us truly holy. But the alternative is a fire like a bonfire, the unstoppable fire of His judgement, the fire that destroys.
Now some people may not like either of these two options. Maybe, like King Ahaz, you don’t want to throw your lot in with the King of kings; you’d rather carry on doing your own thing and living life the way you want to. Going God’s way means submitting to the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, and He isn’t described as ‘fire’ for nothing: He brings enormous blessing, but it also means your life will be changed in many ways, as He deals with your sins. It might mean (for example) changing the way you think about another person, giving up some activity you like to indulge in, or taking on a responsibility that you’ve been trying to avoid. Change can be painful, even when it’s a change for the better. Change can be scary… but what’s the alternative?