Groundwork for the Soul: Sermon Study Guide #1 - Prepare

READ Matthew 3:1-12

This series of sermon studies is designed to help you walk through the season of Lent. This season of examination and repentance provides us a yearly opportunity to do groundwork for our souls. We begin the journey of Lent in the wilderness with John the Baptist. Interestingly, all 4 gospel writers thought we needed a preparation from John before meeting Jesus. This is how Jesus is meant to be encountered – by first going through John’s 4-step orientation. 


The prophet Isaiah (quoted in v3) wrote that the wilderness will be the place to look for God’s great coming into the world to lead people to His full and final restoration. It will be like a second exodus journey through the desert into the promised land of new creation. John’s ministry shows us that we must trek to the wilderness in order to be prepared to meet Jesus and to know Him more deeply. Why the wilderness? Two things happen in the wilderness that are precursors to spiritual insight and growth – 1) We are stripped of our comfort. When we are too comfortable & cozy, we tend to drift into spiritual compromise. We have to go from our normal routines to see this. 2) We are shaken out of our complacency. The Jordan river was the site of Israel’s original entrance into the land. Baptism – at the time – was practiced only for Gentile converts to Judaism. John’s message is, “We are starting all over!”. The one who will be prepared to encounter Jesus is the person who is not ashamed to start at the beginning - again and again.


In the wilderness moments of our lives, we are ready to hear John’s message, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”. To understand what John is saying, we need to make sure our understanding of the word “repent” is correct. “Repent” means to change your mind. The Hebrew equivalent is translated “turn”, “come back”. “Repent!” is not God saying to us “You are bad. Be good or else!”; it’s God saying, “You are lost, come home! You’re going the wrong way, turn around!”. John is calling for us to ask, “Where am I headed in the wrong direction?” “What do I need to turn away from in my life in order to turn toward God?”

John’s call to repentance was not a cause, when you feel like it message. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. He’s saying that, in Jesus, God’s restorative and transformative kingdom has come. The time for repentance is now. We often have false sense of urgency about matters of secondary importance and a lack of urgency about matters of primary importance. John’s message is meant restore a proper sense of urgency to our spiritual lives.


In v7-10 John sees religious leaders/professionals coming out and he has some very challenging things to say them. It turns out the people who thought they were closest to God and the most prepared to meet Him were the farthest from God and least prepared. Why? They were the wrong measures to assess their faith. John provides us with three ways to test the genuineness of our faith:

1.      Fruitfulness (v8) – Just as fruit is the natural byproduct of a healthy tree, spiritual fruit is the natural result of true repentance. Is my faith producing more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control in my life? If not, we need to re-examine where our faith lies.

2.      Presumption – In v9 John calls out the religious leaders for their presumption. They presumed they were spiritually superior because of the ethnic heritage &  their leadership positions. We need to learn to repent – not just of our sin – but of our goodness; our self-righteous presumption that leads us to think we were better than others.

3.      Leadership – In calling them these leaders a “brood of vipers”, John is referencing a common belief that viper babies killed their mothers. It was quite an insult. John was saying they were not only in need of repentance, they were a danger to others. Leaders with no spiritual fruit, filled with the pride of presumption can do great spiritual harm to others. True leaders are lead repenters – the first to say “I was wrong. I’m sorry”.


It’s important to remember the reason why John is taking us through these steps of preparation is to prepare us to meet Jesus; to lead us to Him. He says in v11, “Ultimately I can’t change you, only he can, I can’t transform you, only He can.” John comes with a baptism of repentance (preparation); Jesus comes with a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire (transformation). How does Jesus’ fire baptism cleanse us without consuming us?  The answer is that Jesus underwent his own baptism (Mark 10:39) at the cross. The fire of Jesus’ passion against our sin is not directed at us by at refining us and removing sin and brokenness from us. This is why in our wilderness seasons, in our times of repentance and confession, we can always trust He is not condemning us but refining us to be more like Him.


1.      What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.      The season of Lent is what we might call a “chosen wilderness” – a time to fast or forgo comforts in order to hone our spiritual readiness and receptiveness. How do you know when you’ve become to spiritually comfortable and complacent? What causes you to drift into these? How have wilderness seasons helped you come to know Jesus more deeply?

3.      Do you have a hard time with the word, “repent”? How does it help to know it is God calling us to “turn around”? Martin Luther’s 1st Theses (of the 95 that began the Protestant Reformation) was – “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, he wanted the whole life of believers to be a life of repentance.” Do you agree? What does this look like for you?

4.      Which of the 3 assessments above is most challenging to you? Why? How might you respond in this area in repentance? 

5.      Is there an place in your life where you sense God is currently refining you? Are you struggling to remember God’s refining purposes are good? Share with the group (or a friend if you are reading this on your own) and pray for faith and perseverance.