Message from heaven is repentance
If you were to hear a message from heaven, what would you expect it to say? Would it say, "Love!" or "Go to church!" or "You're doing great!" or "Behave"?
A lot of people have different opinions of the message our society needs, but the message God sent through John the Baptist to prepare the hearts of the people for the Heavenly Kingdom was, "Repent!" This message, recorded in Matthew 3:2, was the first public announcement God had made in 400 years. God's people had drifted away from him into a legalistic religiosity, and John the Baptist's purpose was to prepare their hearts for a powerful kingdom - a spiritual kingdom. Don't think less of this kingdom because it cannot be sensed with our eyes or felt by our hands; this kingdom impacts our world in a very dramatic way and is the only kingdom that is universal and eternal, and this kingdom affects the globe in a historically dramatic way that has been unparalleled and unmatched by any human throne or legislature. The targets of John's message were professionally religious, yet could not experience a spiritual kingdom because their hearts were focused on outward religious routines and exercises. John's baptism and message was one of repentance - an inner, spiritual change in each heart; a change that relinquishes control to God as father.
True, complete repentance is a three-fold action, reflected by three different Greek words and the relation of the three aspects of personhood: intellect, emotions and will. Beginning with intellect, repentance means a knowledge of sin; an understanding that each one of us does wrong and deserves punishment; a concession that we have broken God's laws and have failed to maintain a righteousness equal to his righteousness. This understanding of sin should lead us to the emotional aspect of repentance - grief, concern, pain, regret. If two of my sons were to get into a 'scuffle', and I were to force them to apologize (an all-too-frequent occurrence), they could acknowledge wrongdoing intellectually, but anyone could see that true regret and grief would be absent. True repentance involves acknowledgement of sin and grief over sin, and coupled together, these ought to bring a change of will in our decision-making: a determination to turn from sin and turn to God - biblically speaking, this is the composition of 'conversion' - a retrofit of taking self off the throne of our hearts and allowing God the reign of his kingdom through our lives.
Parts of Christianity today have taken on similar attributes to the legalistic religiosity of Jesus' day: as long as one 'belongs' to the Christian religion, or observes Christian disciplines to some extent, they can wear the Christian label. But John's message of the Heavenly Kingdom rings through the centuries: repentance remains first step in seeking the Heavenly Kingdom. Church, giving, baptism, prayers, and disciplines are important components to one's walk with God, but cannot serve as shortcuts through God's expectations for the citizens of his kingdom; each individual needs a thorough repentance, turning from sin and self and turning toward God in faith of his son's death on the cross for our sins.