I was speaking with a friend a while back about someone who was making a mess of things. My friend said That guy will never change. He is a hopeless case!
This is a day of little faith and few convictions. Out of frustration and disappointment, people are inclined to say, You just can’t change human nature. Perhaps you’ve found yourself saying or thinking the same thing about certain people. You know the line: A leopard can’t change its spots. A person will always be that way, no matter what!
We might even think it about ourselves. I can never change. That’s the way I am; It‘s the way I will always be. Then we sigh, shrug our shoulders, and say, I guess you just can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
I have found this kind of thinking can cause discouragement and even despair in us.
I’m a drunk; I’ll always be a drunk.
I’m a terrible spouse. I’ll always be a terrible spouse; there’s no hope for this marriage.
I’m a bad, self-centered person. I just give up. You can’t change human nature.
If you believe this, a popular preacher from a long time ago by the name of John would beg to differ with you. In our story from Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist came on the scene in the wilderness of Judea out by the Jordan River. Crowds of people from Jerusalem, Judea, and the region about the Jordan River flocked out into the wilderness to hear this guy – even be baptized by him in the Jordan River confessing their sins. Why was John so popular? What was the attraction?
Was it his looks? He was a rather strange looking person, we’re told. He wore camel hair and a leather belt and reminded people of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.
Perhaps his interesting diet struck people as odd. He only ate locusts and wild honey – kind of a Euell Gibbons of his day.
It could be his style, his tone, his plain talk, his urgency. He was very direct and challenging to people. He didn’t mince words.
While some of those attributes played into the picture for the people, it seemed there was more. It was his message. He sounded like a prophet speaking for God. “Repent,” he said, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This meant the same as the kingdom of God, but Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience who revered the name of God, and he didn’t want to offend them.
“The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” God is up to something big. Get ready! Repent now! Now is the time to change your direction, and turn to God. Surrender yourself to His leadership.
John’s talk was a bit sobering. He spoke of the wrath to come and an ax being laid to the tree. His words seemed to ally shake people up. John’s message sounded fresh and is different from what people had heard for a long time. His words rang with the authority of God.
He reminded them of an Old Testament prophetic voice of God, which had been silenced for years – and the people were ready for it. It was like an alarm going off, and people were awakened by his message.
What was particularly thrilling about John’s message was the description of the person who was coming. The center of John’s message is this:
“He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. I baptize you with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Someone is coming who is mightier and greater than I, John says. It sounds like the Messiah from God whom the people of God had been hoping for.
He will change your life, John says. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John is describing the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life when they received Christ. You see, you can’t change human nature. You can’t change yourself. But God can and will through His Son, Jesus Christ. When you trust in Him, He breathes His Spirit in you, and you become a new creation with new power, a new identity, a new purpose, and a new outlook – just like He did with the disciples.
Just think of what an unpromising lot of people those disciples were when they walked with Jesus. They bickered. They were self-centered. They were jealous of one another. They were fearful, faithless, and had so many outrageous flaws. Peter spoke before he thought. James and John were obnoxious men called “sons of thunder” seeking power.
Yet after the Spirit drenched them on Pentecost, cowardice gave way to courage. Unbelief became a flaming faith and conviction nothing could shake. Jealousy was swallowed up in brotherly love. Self-interest was killed and became a ministry to others. Suddenly on Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, these men became new people on fire – loving, courageous, and faith-filled – who led 3,000 people to Jesus Christ that first Pentecost. They were changed men from that day forward. Therein lies our hope.
How does this change happen in us? John tells us the answer in today’s text. Jesus also told us using the same word – Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand. The people recognized their sins and confessed them. I am guilty before you, O God. I need your cleansing, your forgiveness – a new start with you. This is the first step of repentance. They turned from their old way of thinking – I can fix myself. I just have to get my act together before I can have a relationship with God. No.
John gives us something new. Salvation is a gift from God. We need to simply turn to Jesus Christ. Turn from the old way of thinking to the new way of thinking. As you come under Christ’s rule, you find He has wonderful plans for your life. He wants to give you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control as characteristics in your life. He wants to give you salvation now and forever.
How does this take place? John says as we repent and come to Christ, it happens through the working of the Holy Spirit. The fire of the Holy Spirit burns away the chaff within us.
Peter Marshall, a great preacher of the past, said,
“We have not seen Jesus as the disciples did. We’ve never heard the sound of His voice, seen the sunlight dance on His hair, or traced His footprints in the sands of Palestine. But we have the same opportunity to be changed because the same Holy Spirit is available to us today. He leads us into all truth, convicts us of sin, and is our helper and guide. He can change us.”
By the way, repentance is not a onetime act; it is a daily turning. Martin Luther called it, “A daily drowning of the old self, which has been leading us astray most of our lives.”
Here is our good news: don’t despair! If you want to be different, you can! You, too, can be changed for the better. Anyone can be changed through a relationship with Jesus Christ whose birthday we are about to celebrate this Christmas.
The change I have been describing is happening in all kinds of life today. I want to share with you a true yet wild and amazing story I came across recently in a book entitled, Handcuffs and Broken Chains. It’s an autobiography about a man named Cody Huff who lived in Las Vegas.
Cody was an addict and a dealer. He spent eight years in prison and was homeless. He had been abused as a child and was a very broken, hopeless cause.
But that all began to change when Cody happened to visit a church shelter in 2002 where he had been told he could get a shower and a meal. As he was waiting for his number to be called to go in to get these things, a little elderly woman walked up to him and asked him his name. He told her, and she said, “Cody, it looks like you could use a hug.” He declined the offer saying, “You don’t want to hug me. I really stink!” it had been quite some time you see since he had gotten clean.
“You don’t smell,” she said as she put her arms around him and whispered in his ear, “Jesus loves you.” It was the first time in a year that someone touched him, and that message – Jesus loves you – began to melt the ice around his heart.
While he was having his meal, someone gave him a gift – a Bible. He took it with him and began to explore it. Before long, he couldn’t put it down. He was getting changed. He didn’t want to do the same old thing anymore. He was getting freed from his old life. Cody soon surrendered his life to Jesus Christ and things were never the same after that. He got himself sobered up and off drugs with Christ’s help.
Today he is not only clean and free from the drugs that had held him captive to age 51, but Cody is also an ordained pastor running a ministry for the homeless. This ministry has changed a lot of lives – not only in Las Vegas but around the country.
This Jesus Christ, whom John is pointing to, is amazing. He can and will change one’s life. He changed Cody’s life. This Holy Spirit, whom Jesus brought into this world, can change your life as well as you surrender yourself to His care and His direction.
Christ has been changing the lives of millions and millions of people of all kinds for more than two thousand years.
The Good News is this: You are not stuck with yourself. Jesus Christ can change anyone. He came to this earth and died in your place on a cross to pay for your sins. Then He rose from the grave to give you a new life, a life much better than anything this world has to offer you. Repent! Turn to Jesus Christ.
May the words of this old Gospel hymn be yours today and every day. The words go like this:
♬Have Thine Own Way, Lord;
Have thine own way.
Thou art the potter;
I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after thy will,
while I am waiting, yielded and still.♪
Friends, if you have not yet come to Christ, do so today. Trust Him with your life. Bring Him your brokenness and your weaknesses. Trust yourself to His care. In God’s love, He will make you according to the pattern for which you were designed. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, He will make you according to the pattern for which you were designed in God’s love. And it will be good – for your good and the glory of God. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer