THE CHANGE-AGENT: Matthew 3:1-12
By Ted Schroder,
December 4, 2016
John the Baptist burst onto the scene calling for change. His key word was "Repent," which means change -- turn your life around from living apart from God and turn to living according to the will of God for your life. He said, "God is coming, prepare for his arrival by changing your ways." He confronted the authority figures - the political and religious elite -- with their need to change or else they would face the music. God was coming to either save them or pass judgment on them. He dramatically enacted a sacrament of change: water baptism where those who wanted to change were ceremonially cleansed of their sins.
But how much can a person change? When you pray for people to change, you believe that God can do what seems to be impossible. Nevertheless, patterns of attitude and behavior are so ingrained that change seems to be unlikely. The tree that does not produce good fruit is more likely to be cut down and thrown into the fire than produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Jeremiah prophesied of the people in his day, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil" (Jeremiah 13:23). It would seem that evil, or negligence, or indifference to God cannot be removed in one's own strength.
The predominant message of the Bible is a call to change back to God and to change into the people we were created and redeemed to be. Jesus came preaching the same message. He must have believed that change was possible. He told Nicodemus, another member of the religious elite, a man of the Pharisees, a member of the ruling council, "You must be born again." You must change. Jesus said, "You cannot enter the kingdom of God unless you are born of water and the Spirit." The water of baptism -- the sacrament of repentance, and the baptism of the Spirit. This is also what John the Baptist was saying: "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
We cannot change in our own strength. Self-help programs can only do so much. Deep change has to call upon the power of the Spirit of Christ. There has to be a work in the heart and mind for the will to be able to change behavior. That work is the result of the Holy Spirit who is available to all who humble themselves and call upon the help of the Lord. Deep change requires the admission that we are powerless of ourselves to help ourselves; that we are not free in and of ourselves to change. All of us are creatures of our nature and nurture, our history, our family of origin, our experiences. We come to this point in our lives formed by various powerful influences. We are moulded by responses and decisions we have made over the years. Change will be painful and difficult. That is why it requires a willingness to change and a desire to seek the help of the powerful Spirit that Jesus brings to us.
"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:17,18).
As we focus our attention on Christ and his will for our lives we will be transformed into his image, restored to our true selves. We will be enabled to fulfill our true destiny as children of God and produce the good fruit of the Spirit we were designed to bear. This happens little by little throughout the whole of life so that change comes incrementally. These changes are imparted to us by the Spirit as we follow Christ. You "have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Colossians 3:10). Our lives are meant to grow in maturity so that we attain to "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).
Nicodemus changed. He spoke up for Jesus in the council. He and Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus down from the Cross and royally embalmed him thus identifying himself with the followers of Jesus. History is full of characters who have been changed by their association with Jesus. As a person surrenders to the power of the Spirit they are changed. The first disciples were changed from being fishermen and tax collectors and sceptics to becoming courageous missionaries. St. Augustine began his life as a libertine and an academic. He prayed: "Give me chastity and continency, but do not give it yet" before he was willing to be changed. He became one of the prolific communicators of the Gospel when the Roman Empire was falling apart. John Newton was a slave-trader before he became a Christian, preacher and a hymn-writer who penned Amazing Grace: "I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see."
People change as they follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit. This does not mean that their personalities change, or that they lose their individuality. They are still the person they always were yet enhanced, matured, strengthened. They produce fruit in keeping with repentance -- the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
There are many, many people who need to change. They are angry at the world and their circumstances. They are rebellious against God. They are unloving and unkind, cruel and irresponsible. They need to flee from the coming wrath of God. They are on the broad road that leads to destruction. How can you change the self-destructive behavior of other people? You can't, in your own strength. They need the power of the Spirit. Pray for them that they will repent. Believe that God can change them. God is "able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20). Love them but don't enable them. Be courageous. Take the risk to say something to them rather than avoid speaking the truth in love. Sometimes it takes tough love to confront bad behavior. John the Baptist certainly confronted the powerful of his day. However, you have to weigh the cost of such confrontation -- he was imprisoned and executed by King Herod. Confrontation may result in the breakup of a marriage, the ending of a relationship, loss of a job and financial consequences. But Jesus calls us to be bold and courageous in our witness.
What do you do when other people want to change you? They may want you to fit into their conception of your role, or conform to their agenda, or simply to support them and follow their lead. There are power struggles in families, in marriages, in friendships in organizations and in the work place. They may tell you what to believe and how you should behave according to their interpretation of the Bible or their moral, political or cultural convictions. That is when you need to have a clear conception of yourself, your faith, your gifts, your shortcomings, and your calling. If you are walking in the Spirit, you experience a freedom to be what Christ calls you to be. "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18). Watch out for false teachers. There are many around. Read your Bible daily. Pray without ceasing. Rely upon the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God.
The only change you need is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. That will come gradually as you seek to be filled with the Spirit and follow His Word. Deep change comes as you humble yourself under the mighty hand of God. Pray for change in your own life and in the lives of others. Pray that you will be a change-agent.
The Rev. Ted Schroder is pastor of Amelia chapel on Amelia Island, Florida
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