Read Matthew 3:1-2.
Matthew begins to introduce Jesus’ ministry through the prophet John the Baptizer.  The first thing Matthew tells us about John was his message.  “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near,” he proclaimed.  This was John’s primary point: get your hearts ready because God is doing something new.  
The new thing God was doing included the coming of Jesus, who would bring the Kingdom of God close to the people.  He would bring it so close that they were invited to enter into a new life in His Kingdom.  The caveat for entrance into God’s Kingdom, however, is that we are changed.  While it is true that God loves us and will meet us where we are, to embrace new life with Him does require transformation.
So how is it that we experience this transformation?  This change takes place in us when we trust in Him by faith, or when we turn from a self-centered life to a life centered on Jesus.  We make this move because we now see what we are without Him.  In Ephesians 2, Paul says that a life without Jesus follows the “ways of the world” by seeking the “cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts”.  This is like drinking salt water and hoping it will quench your thirst.  The world simply cannot bear the weight of our great need for love, significance, and security.  Paul describes the spiritual state of our souls in such a state as being dead.  
Hope breaks through the bleak picture of the human heart because of “God’s great love for us.  God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions.”  God has the power to bring life to that which was dead.  Paul continues, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith.”  In other words, we do not deserve this precious gift of new life, but God gifts it to us when we come to Him by faith–when we put our whole trust in Him to redeem us.  We trust Him so completely that we are willing to separate from our old self and old ways to embrace a new life with Him.  
This is what John means by repentance.  Repentance is a change of heart and life.  This is a transformation of what we value, of our character, and what we love.  When we turn to God, there is a renovation of the heart.  Sin no longer has power over us.  Yes, we still have to contend with it, but we can have victory over our sin through God’s grace at work within us.  We are freed for a new way of seeing, loving, and serving God and others.  
Once we have turned to Jesus in faith, we continue to turn to Him.  The Christian life begins when we put our trust in Him.  It continues to flourish as we look to Him and seek to grow in Him.  This life expands as we pursue a greater relationship with Him whereby His love, values, and character begin to shape who we are.  It is as we walk with Him in such ways that we continue to experience joy in Christ.
Praying Together:
“Jesus, I turn to You for life.  Apart from You, I am a mess.  I am in need of Your grace.  You alone have the power to lead me to the life that is truly life.  I trust You so completely that I am willing to separate from the things that are not of You.  I want more of You.  Continue to grow my love for You and transform my heart and mind.  Amen.”
Read Matthew 3:3-6.
John was quite the character.  The eccentric diet and wardrobe carried a certain allure.  People left their homes to go out to the desert and see John.  I find this part amazing.  I’ve been out in that desert.  Believe me, there isn’t much out there worth seeing, yet the people were compelled to go there to visit John.  
I have to believe that what drew them to John was more than simply to see or hear from an odd figure.  I think what led them out there was the possibility of experiencing God anew.  Matthew tells us that the crowds by and large already believed in God, yet somehow they were spiritually stuck.  They believed in Him, but they were far from experiencing His presence and power in their lives.  
If you’ve walked with Jesus for any time, chances are you have experienced the same.  You believed and even did the right things, like going to church and praying.  Still there was something missing.  You thought that surely there had to be more to it than what you were experiencing.  We’ve all been there.  
We, just like the people who traveled to the desert to see John, are looking for a spiritual breakthrough.  We want a fresh experience of God’s grace and renewing power in our lives.  While we cannot create such an experience ourselves as it is a gift of God, this passage gives us some insight into what we can do to put ourselves in a position to receive such a blessing.  
Take note of what the people did when they came to John.  Verse 6 says, “Confessing their sins, they were baptized in the Jordan River.”  The people confessed their sins before God and likely before one another.  Confession seems simple, but it can be such a difficult thing for us to do.  It means being honest with God, with yourself, and with others about your brokenness.  There is a reason we often avoid confessing our sins.  It is painful.  We often choose to live with an intentional ignorance of our sin rather than face it.  
However, it appears here that their sin was what was keeping the people from experiencing the freedom and blessing they desired from God.   So the people confessed their sin and recommitted themselves to Him through baptism.  Given that they kept coming to John, it’s a fair assumption that they did experience God’s grace and power afresh in their lives.  
I wonder what sin you need to bring before God.  I wonder if there is any sin that needs to be confessed to someone in your life.  I realize that this is scary, but remember that everyone struggles with sin.  
For help with repenting and confessing your sin, turn to Psalm 51.  Make this psalm your prayer.    
Sending Prayer:
“Lord, You are faithful to forgive.  Jesus brought the Kingdom near so that we would experience freedom and new life through Him, so I bring my sin and my brokenness to You.  I will be honest with You about my sin because I trust that You love me as You say You do.  I know that You will free me from the toxicity of my sin and help me experience You anew.  Amen.”  
Read Matthew 3:7-8.
John was not bashful.  As the people came to him in the desert to hear him and be baptized, the religious leaders took note.  They made their own journey to see John, although it was likely curiosity more than genuineness of spirit that brought them there.
John doesn’t mince words when he sees them.  He calls them a “brood of vipers”.  If you want to understand what John means by that, think of Indiana Jones when he falls into the pit of snakes.  John accuses the religious leaders of preying upon the people rather than serving them.  
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” he tells them.  It’s worth the effort to understand what John is saying here.  Repentance is when we turn to God and thus experience a change of heart and life.  We reject our current way of life and seek to exchange it for a life with Him.  It is God’s presence and grace that works in us to change us.  
This transformation is from the inside out; the change begins in our hearts and minds.  We begin to see differently.  The loves of our heart change, perhaps from our own desires to desiring God Himself.  This influences our values, what we believe, and ultimately our character, or who we are.  Thus, the change on the inside spurs change in our daily living.  
This is what John means by fruit.  Since we have turned to God and have begun the process of being changed, what we do begins to change along with it.  We are slowly, by God’s grace, becoming someone new under His presence and care.  This is the aim of the life with Christ.  We want to go beyond just receiving the gift of salvation.  We want to experience the power of His grace working in us.  We call this ongoing work sanctification.  We are growing in likeness to Jesus, which sounds intimidating, but it means that we begin to love what He loves, think as He thinks, and see others as He does.
I wonder how your life is being changed by God’s grace working in you.  While some change can happen quickly, other changes take time.  I wonder how we can know that our lives are producing fruit that point to God’s ongoing work within us.    
Sending Prayer:
“God, I am grateful that You have changed me.  I can look at my life and see evidence of Your work in me.  I also struggle to see at times how I am being changed as it comes much more slowly than I would like.  I give myself once again to Your care.  I am the clay, and You are the Potter.  Shape me.  Take my thoughts, my heart, and all that I am and form it to look more like You.  Amen.”
Read Matthew 3:9-10.
This passage makes me think of a song I learned at VBS.  “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham.  I am one of them and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord,” it went.  I’m not sure that has much to do with this passage, but it gives you some insight into the inner workings of my mind.  
The religious leaders felt a sense of confidence given their tie to Abraham.  Abraham was the father of God’s covenant with His people.  They felt that their link to Abraham made them secure.  John said not so fast.  John challenges them because although they claimed a relationship to Abraham, they did not live out Abraham’s faithfulness.  Their lives did not match their claim.  John warns them that is a recipe for disaster.  
John’s words of warning create a sense of urgency for the religious leaders.  He is essentially saying, “God is doing something new, and He’s doing it now.  Don’t miss it!”  These are hard words of warning, and they serve a great purpose.  The intent of John’s hard words is to make their hearts soft.  There is a saying that goes, “Hard words create soft hearts, and soft words create hard hearts.”  There is a lot of truth there.  In the case of the religious leaders, they were oblivious to the idea that they were not being faithful.  Soft words of assurance would only add to their unawareness.  They needed to be confronted so that their eyes might be opened.  Without this, there was little chance that they would see what the Lord wanted them to see.  
We see God employ hard and honest words through His prophets as well as His own interactions with His people.  Jesus often uses hard words.  While some people have an aversion to these passages, we must see the purpose they serve, which is to produce repentance.  It is to get the people to turn from their current path and to realign themselves with God.  The goal is to inspire change, which means that the motivation behind it is merciful.  
It’s important for us to understand this.  The reason is that often when we read scripture, we like to receive the blessings as intended for us and the hard words as something intended for someone else.  We stand in danger of missing some valuable truths if we do this.  We must read every word with the same question in mind: what is God saying to me through this word?  In this passage, we must ask ourselves, am I walking with Jesus and in line with His will?  
Sometimes we need the hard words to break up our hard hearts and spiritual insensitivity so that we can experience the true blessing of walking with Jesus.  
Sending Prayer:
“Jesus, there is grace in Your every word.  Open my eyes that I may hear what You are saying to me.  If I am indifferent to You or my heart is hard in any way, you have my permission to break it up.  I want a soft, pliable heart that is ready to move with You and do Your will.  Amen.”
FRIDAY, 1/13
Read Matthew 3:11-12.
Several years ago, one of my friends got a new puppy.  It was a German short-haired pointer.  In an effort to show her off, he took her out to the backyard so we could see her point to the birds in the field.  
John the Baptizer was a pointer.  His entire ministry, as successful as it was, was simply to point the people beyond himself.  When the time was right, he wanted them to be ready to see Jesus so that they might receive Him.  
John gives us some insight into Jesus’ ministry here.  While John baptized with water, a sign of God’s cleansing power, Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  This is worth a closer look.
The Holy Spirit, to whom few up to this point were given access, would be granted to those who come to Jesus.  They would receive the gift of God’s very own presence in their lives.  This is an unprecedented level of connection to God that we had not known before.  Think about the significance of this.  In the past, God had always been outside of the people, an unseen external force.  In Jesus, God came to us in human flesh.  In the Holy Spirit, God entered into us.  We could experience God like never before.  
The Holy Spirit would also bring power for living a new life.  The word “power” often accompanies teachings on the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit empowers us to live for Christ.  The Spirit also reveals Jesus to us and reminds us of His teachings.  
As for fire, it goes beyond John’s baptism of water.  While water cleanses, fire purifies.  A metallurgist uses intense fire to burn the impurities out of metals.  As a result, the metals exist in a different state than when they went into the fire.  The cleansing power of Jesus would make us truly clean.  In addition, Jesus’ purifying makes us righteous so that when God looks at us, He no longer sees our sin but rather the image of His Son upon us.  
I want you to consider the ministry of Jesus and what it means for your life.  The gift of the Holy Spirit and the purification of our lives free us for a different kind of life.  
Sending Prayer:
“Lord, I celebrate Your ministry and all that You have done for me.  I am thankful for the gift of the Holy Spirit and pray that You continue to show me how to walk in the fullness of the Spirit.  I am grateful for Your having cleansed me from sin and made me into an altogether new creation.  Help me to fully embrace this new life and to give to others out of it.  Amen.”
Read Matthew 3:13-15.
Put yourself in John the Baptizer’s shoes for a moment and imagine Jesus coming to you to be baptized.  John knew he wasn’t worthy to tie the guy’s sandals, yet here Jesus is asking for John to baptize Him.  While John expresses his unworthiness to baptize Jesus, he does so because that is what he was called to do.   
The baptism of John the Baptist was one of repentance.  People came forward to seek forgiveness for their sins so that their hearts would be ready to receive this new thing that God was doing through the One to whom John pointed.  Jesus was that very One.  So it surprised John when Jesus came forward to be baptized by him.  This was the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world; why was He seeking baptism from me?  Jesus answered, “Let it be so for now; it is proper for us to do this now to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus’ death would fulfill the righteousness the Law pointed toward.  He would meet that righteousness that we could not, and He would graciously share His righteousness with anyone who would come to Him.  
Baptism is a symbol of the death of an old life in order to embrace a new life.  The going down into the waters symbolizes the action of being laid down in a grave.  Coming up out of the waters is likened to being raised up unto a new life.  Fast forward to the end of Matthew’s gospel, and we find the story of Jesus’ being laid in a tomb only to be raised to new life.   His baptism is a foreshadowing of this reality to come.  
Jesus’ willingness to be baptized by John not only pointed to the purpose of His coming, but it also showed His commitment to fulfilling His Father’s will of laying down His life for the world.  Jesus’ actions were a way of saying to His Father, “Let Your will be done in Me.”    
In light of Jesus’ commitment to His Father’s will, it is fitting for us to consider our own commitment to God’s will.  I wonder if you are eager to do God’s will, or you have some reservations.  I wonder how you might give yourself again to God’s desire for your life.
Sending Prayer:
“Jesus, You gave us the great example of committing Yourself to God.  I follow You by entrusting my life to God.  I want to do God’s will in my life as You did.  I am willing to die to my desires that are not Yours and am open to love what You love.  Let Your will be done in me.  Amen.”
SUNDAY, 1/15
Read Matthew 3:16-17.
By His baptism, Jesus showed His commitment to His Father.  Directly following Jesus’ baptism, the Father shows His approval of His Son by doing two things: the Holy Spirit descends on Him and God shares words of blessing over His Son.  It was not that Jesus did not have the Spirit or His Father’s blessing, but that these were affirmed at this pivotal moment that would launch His ministry.  
When prophets or priests began their ministry, they would be consecrated for the work to which they were committing themselves.  This act was symbolic of their being set apart for God’s work.  Jesus’ baptism acts much like His consecration.  
The story of Jesus’ baptism is also our story.  We too have died to a life without God in order to embrace a glorious life with Him.  We too have the Holy Spirit and the Father’s words of “this is My child whom I love, in [him or her] I am well pleased” whispered over us.  As those who have been so blessed by Jesus, we are called to lay our lives down for others.  We take the call to be  servants to the world on behalf of and to the glory of God.  We are set apart for this task.  We carry this call to our workplaces, homes, classrooms, and everywhere we go.  This is the most blessed life into which Jesus has invited us.  May each of us enjoy its fullness.
Sending Prayer:
“Father, it brings me joy to consider Your speaking these words over my life.  I have at times in my life feared displeasing You.  I trust that through Jesus, I am received as Your child, dearly loved.  In light of Your love, it is a pleasure to serve You.  I give You my life.  Work through me to bless the world in Your name.  Amen.”