Matthew 3:1-12 (Common English Bible)
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, 2 “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” 3 He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”
4 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
5 People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. 6 As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 7 Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. 9 And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We think of the song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” as an upbeat positive song, or at least, I have always perceived it that way. Subsequent verses talk about all the toys and things that Santa will bring, but when I was looking at the verse we sung, it’s not that different than what John the Baptist is saying in our Scripture passage for today.
The song says, “You better watch out … He’s making a list and checking it twice; He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice … [He’s] coming to town.”
Meanwhile, John says, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” in verse 2. He continues in verse 11, “I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
The song goes on with, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”
Okay, John the Baptist’s language may be a little more intense with his mentioning of burning husks with a fire that can’t be put out. However, the message is similar. There’s someone very important who’s coming. You better quit doing wrong and be on your best behavior, or there will be consequences.
Like the Easter Bunny when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, we seem to have this competing image of Santa at Christmas. He’s everywhere. Part of that is the excellent marketing strategy of Coca-Cola over many decades. The way he’s dressed and everything works very well in the north and the colder latitudes. I’d say that we have a fair chance here of having a white Christmas, which has nothing to do with the theology of Christmas, but it’s part of our Christmas experience because it’s cold outside. Having a red suit with a furry collar and boots is very appropriate for keeping warm. He has a sleigh. A sleigh would do you no good at all in the Holy Land.
Santa is also a very good man. His whole life is dedicated to making and distributing things to children, things they want, and if you were in my house as a kid, also things they need. He inspires a giving attitude and generosity. These are all very good things. They are virtues that we associate … hopefully … with Christianity. Of course, there’s the part where he brings all of these presents on Christmas. There is also a sense of justice or fairness to it. If they’re naughty, they might get a bag of coal. A little something to think about, in the middle of winter, coal might be the most helpful gift of all if you can burn it to stay warm.
Now, let’s take a look at Jesus, the grown up Jesus that John the Baptist is talking about. The arrival of the Messiah was highly anticipated. The Jewish people were expecting him to bring things, too, a restoration. This restoration would take them from under the yoke of Roman oppression. The nation could be independent, and it would usher in a golden age like the time that they remembered under King David and King Solomon. They would be able to worship God without outside interference in a way that they rarely did if you look at the books of Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles in the Old Testament.
Jesus DID bring a restoration. He came to redeem us, not necessarily from the oppression of the Roman state or other worldly powers. It was more like rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He redeemed us from slavery to sin. He paid our debt to get us out of slavery. This is what allows for the restoration, a restoration of the human relationship with God. He brings in the possibility of new life with God, where his law will be written on our hearts. We will be his people, and he will be our God (Jeremiah 31:33). This was a special relationship with the Jewish people, but through Jesus, it was opened to all the peoples of the world.
But, John the Baptist tells us that we must do something first before that is open to us. We must “change our hearts and lives.” In more traditional language, we must “repent.” Something that Jesus himself will say in Matthew 4:17. On the surface, that doesn’t sound fun at all. It sounds much more like that bag of coal from Santa. The Greek word used here is metanoia, which literally means to have a new mind. In other words, transform your thinking. John the Baptist tells us something else, too. He says there will be evidence of this new mind, this new way of thinking. There will be fruit. What does that mean? Our behavior will change.
Like we talked about earlier this year, we cannot produce fruit through our own direct effort or will. A tree cannot decide the type of fruit, the size, or amount that it will produce. The fruit is a naturally occurring result of the right environment and conditions. The next thing we know … Wow! There’s a budding flower. It’s become this little growing thing, and now at harvest time, it has turned into this wonderfully ripe fruit.
This starts with repentance, changed hearts and lives, transformed thinking. There were plenty of people listening to John the Baptist and getting dunked into the Jordan River to symbolize this change, but there were some that he didn’t really believe. These were people that he thought didn’t believe that they needed a change in their lives. They were relying on their heritage. They didn’t need to do anything. They could rely on being children of Abraham. People who call themselves Christians can do a similar thing. They say, “I believe in Jesus. End of story. I don’t have to do anything.” In a manner of speaking, they are right. In fact, you cannot do anything to earn salvation. However, repentance, transformed thinking, will produce fruit, transformed behavior, a change in one’s way of living. This is what allows us to participate in the new life with God. That is fruit that will last.
But, like I said, repentance can sound a lot like that bag of coal of Santa’s that he brings when we’ve been bad, not as a reward. However, what it offers us is freedom, real freedom, freedom from all the things that capture us and ensnare us in the world. That attitude that says that “I can do what I want, when I want, with whomever I want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.” We look around in movies and tv, in advertisements, but they’re traps. The pleasures are short lived, and we find ourselves enslaved by them. Jesus offers us a different path. As we sang in our opening song, “On prisoners of darkness, the sun begins to rise, the dawning of forgiveness upon the sinner’s eyes, to guide the feet of pilgrims along the paths of peace; o bless our God and Savior with songs that never cease!” Because The Savior is coming to town.
Jesus is coming, and we need to prepare. There’s another favorite Christmas song that was never intended to be for Christmas, “Joy to the World.” We will be singing it in a few minutes. It was actually inspired by Psalm 98. It can be sung at any time, but we have come to associate it with Christmas. There is a line that captured my attention for this week. It says in the first verse, “Let every heart prepare him room.” How do we do that? We follow John the Baptist’s advice. We repent. We change our hearts and lives. When John is talking about changing our hearts. He’s not talking about our emotional center, like we might today. He’s talking about our whole person, everything about us. So, to prepare we change our hearts, which results in a changed way of living. It may look a lot like our very best ideas of Santa with thinking of others and generosity.
One of the ideas that comes up at this time of year is having the Spirit of Christmas, treating others well with kindness and generosity. We talk about keeping it up the whole year. Why don’t we do that? For one thing, it’s hard to keep up this level of intensity 12 months of the year, but what if you took out all the extra social obligations that the season can also bring?
A couple of months ago, I asked you to consider the question, “What would an extraordinary person do?” We talked about how if we consider ourselves Christians, we are called to be extraordinary. As we prepare for Jesus’ arrival this Advent, his coming, either his return, or remembering and celebrating the extraordinary circumstances of his birth, “let every heart prepare him room.”
Santa Claus is not coming to town. The Savior is, and the gifts he brings are extraordinary. Are you ready?
Hallelujah! And Amen!