The Christian celebration of Christmas brings essential truths into clearer view. The central fact of the incarnation of the Son of God looms before us as the dividing line of all human history and the fulfillment of God’s promises. Priests and prophets and kings had long awaited the coming of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. At Christmas we declare what the angelic host announced to shepherds on a Bethlehem night: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” [Luke 2:14].
There is no more important message than this — the greatest good news the world has ever heard. Arrayed before us today is the December 2016 graduating class of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They are ready to take their place in that long line of faithful ministry and preaching that reaches back to the apostles and continues throughout the centuries until this day. They are called by God to the Christian ministry and to serve the cause of Christ, to preach the good news of the Gospel, to shepherd the church of God.
An outsider looking in on this event today would recognize its basic form and its intentional formality. Something of consequence is happening here — and it shows. But the outsider would almost surely fail to understand what makes this graduating class of Christian ministers so different from other graduating classes at other institutions. It is a distinction we dare not miss.
My text is from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3, verses 1-12:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 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. But when he 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? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 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. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This text comes early in the Gospel of Matthew, but it is not a scene likely to show up on a Christmas card. Those cards, often innocent, sometimes beautiful, frequently sentimental, are likely to depict shepherds, wise men, and a manger scene. John the Baptist rarely shows up.
The reason for that is fairly straightforward. Just look at the description of John in this passage. He wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and honey. That is all shocking enough, but the real reason that John the Baptist is so often left out of Christmas is his message. His message straightforwardly demanded repentance, unconditional repentance. Can you imagine designing such a Christmas card, with the envelope addressed, “Dear Brood of Vipers?”
But this was John’s message. The book of the words of Isaiah the prophet foretold his message and his role: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” [Isaiah 40:3]
John declared that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and called sinners to repentance. John was so careful to distinguish his role and his message from that of the Christ, whose arrival he announced and whose way he made straight. I baptize you with water, John clarified, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He who is coming after me is mightier than I, John acknowledged. His sandals I am not worthy to carry.
He directly addressed the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them out as a brood of vipers and warning them that even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Judgment is at hand. Do not presume to say to yourselves . . . . John understood their hearts and their future rejection of the Son of God and Son of Man and he warned that the unfruitful tree will be thrown to the fire.
Then we read this sentence that concludes the passage: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The Christian ministry is a terrible profession, but it is the greatest calling on earth. Professions are decent, respectable, recognized, esteemed, regulated, and rationalized. The secular world does not hate the ministry as a profession. The minister as religious professional is not much of a threat. Professionals act professionally. They do not make waves; they make friends. They know just what to say in order to stay out of trouble, and staying out of trouble is a central goal. That is bad enough coming from the secular culture. The greater scandal by far are the churches, denominations, and church members who cheerfully domesticate the preacher and the preachers who are so willingly domesticated.
The gospel ministry is a calling, and the true minister answers a call. The true minister never settles for being recognized as a mere professional.
John the Baptist told the crowds who came to hear his preaching in the wilderness of Judea that Christ was coming with his winnowing fork in his hand. That picture might not come readily to our imaginations, but it would have been immediately known to John’s audience. At the time of the harvest a winnowing fork would be used to toss the stalks and heads of grain into the air, usually in the face of a breeze. The wheat would fall to the ground to be collected, but the chaff would blow away to be collected and burned. The Lord of the harvest will collect his grain into the barn, but the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.
The judgment is so clear, as is the grace. The Messiah will judge the nations and every single soul. He will separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff. The coming judgment is horrifying. There is no allowance for annihilation here. We are warned of an unquenchable fire.
None of this language is applicable to a profession, nor would any decent professional be associated with it. This is all too scandalous. But John the Baptist preached it with conviction and passion. For preaching it, he paid with his head.
We are not to look to John the Baptist as the model of Christian ministry, as if we can just pick him up from the gospels and show up in the pulpit wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and honey. John came before the Christ to prepare the way. We come after Christ to preach his gospel. With John we declare that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, for it surely is.
In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 7, verses 14-28 we hear Jesus speak of John the Baptizer:
When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Among those born of women, none is greater than John, yet the one who is least in the kingdom is greater than he? How can this be? Such is the kingdom. The preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ has a message infinitely greater even than the message of John and the honor of an even greater calling. We have the privilege of preaching the good news of salvation in the name of Jesus Christ. We tell of his birth in Bethlehem. We proclaim that the Word has become flesh and dwelled among us. We preach Christ crucified as our substitute for our sins and raised from the dead for our justification. We openly promise that salvation comes to any sinner who believes and repents.
But that promise both saves and condemns. The faithful preacher is like the winnowing fork in the Lord’s harvest. True gospel preaching leads to wheat collected into the barn, but also leads to chaff collected for the burning. This does not fit the expectation of a religious professional, but it is the glory of the true minister’s calling.
We are facing difficult days with unprecedented challenges. There will be no place to hide. This graduating class of Christ’s ministers will take the gospel to the ends of the earth and will likely serve long after so many of us are gone from the earth. There is such promise in them, and we have such pride and hope in them. There are few sights so glorious as this — a congregation of ministers at the very brink of deployment or rightly deployed in gospel service. This defies the wisdom of the world and reveals God’s good pleasure.
Ministers of Christ: Never settle for the comfortable but false existence of the religious professional. Preach the Word, proclaim the Gospel, herald the truth that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Be humble, take courage, be not afraid. You go with the prayers and the hopes of this faculty who have taught you, this congregation who has loved you, and Christians far beyond this place.
Remember this: His winnowing fork is in his hand — and so are you.
This is the commencement address preached by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Alumni Chapel, Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday, December 2, 2016. To watch the service live go to www.sbts.edu/live. The service begins at 10:00AM, EST.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.