For our primary Scripture passage today, we will be spending a little time with John the Baptist, a herald of the coming of Jesus on the scene in his public ministry. He is very different from the heavenly host that will sing on the night of Jesus’ birth, but in this time of Advent, this time of anticipating and remember the arrival of Jesus, we remember the preparations John encouraged the people to do because the kingdom of heaven was near. I am going to ask you to let go of any caricature of John that you may have. Form your picture of him and what he is saying from the text. As it says in our Advent devotional for December 11th, “John the Baptist embodies the spirit of Advent. This is a man whose lifework was to prepare the way for Jesus coming” by talking about him to the people. (Han-Luen Katzar Komline, “Witness to the Light,” Advent 2019, Christianity Today, pg 25) Our text today is Matthew 3:1-12.
Matthew 3:1-12 (The VOICE)
3:1 [In those days], a man called John began to travel, preach, and ritually wash people through baptism in the wilderness [desert] of Judea. John preached a stern but exciting message.
John: 2 Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near.
3 John’s proclamation fulfilled a promise made by the ancient prophet Isaiah, who had said, “There will be a voice calling from the desert, saying, Prepare the road for [God’s] journey; repair and straighten out every mile of our God’s highway.”
4 John wore wild clothes made from camel hair with a leather belt around his waist—the clothes of an outcast, a rebel. He ate locusts and wild honey.
5 People from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and indeed from all around the river Jordan came to John. 6 They confessed their sins, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan [River].
7 He told some Pharisees and Sadducees who came [to see] the ritual baptism,
John: You children of serpents! You brood of vipers! Did someone suggest you flee from the wrath that is upon us? 8-9 If you think that simply hopping in the Jordan will cleanse you, then you are sorely mistaken. Your life must bear the fruits of turning toward righteousness. Nor are you correct if you think that being descended from Abraham is enough to make you holy and right with God. Yes, the children of Abraham are God’s chosen children, but God can adopt as daughters and sons anyone He likes—He can turn these stones into sons if He likes.
10 Even now there is an ax poised at the root of every tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and tossed into the fire. 11 I ritually cleanse you through baptism as a mark of turning your life around. But someone is coming after me, someone whose sandals I am not fit to carry, someone who is more powerful than I. He will wash you not in water but in fire and with the Holy Spirit. 12 He carries a winnowing fork in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor; He will gather up the good wheat in His barn, and He will burn the chaff with a fire that cannot be put out.
It may seem strange to feature John the Baptist in a week where our theme is “loving joy,” but really it makes perfect sense. When you think of John, what comes to mind? An angry, half-crazed person on the street corner shouting with his sign, “Repent! The end is near!”? These days we ignore that kind of person, or at least I know that I do. When I see something like that I cringe inside because it represents a part of the church that repulses me. It was things like that which kept me away from the church for a long time. I never found that kind of presentation compelling. I thought the church was all like that. Boy, was I wrong. (Not that we can’t get into our snits, but that’s another story.) But that person, standing on the soap box, as sincere as I am sure they are, is emulating this caricature John the Baptist.
He was not that man on the street corner. He did not insert himself in the middle of the public square shouting at passersby. He left town. He went out to the wilderness, the desert, and people followed him out there, in droves. He was a rock star. That’s why the religious and political leaders found him so threatening, like with Jesus. Everyone was following him around, from the city in Jerusalem, from the countryside in Judea, and all around the Jordan River area.
This is not so very different from John Wesley, who would preach out in the countryside in England to thousands of people, or his friend George Whitfield who preached to even more. George actually asked John to take over his preaching circuit in England when he planned to come to the American colonies. Here in North America, George got even bigger crowds. People would travel a day away when word came the George Whitfield was in the area to preach.
Do any of you remember the Billy Graham specials on tv? Maybe you went to a gathering yourself. I remember before I was a Christian that I would always pass by the channel, but not before I saw thousands of people in the stands and stadiums to hear him speak. He didn’t wrestle any of them to be there. He didn’t pay them. They were drawn because they wanted to hear what he had to say.
When you think of John the Baptist, imagine a man who may look a little weird. His beard may be a little long and unkempt, but hey, here in Wallowa County we might see something like that on any given Tuesday.
Don’t think of him shouting and threatening everyone. Think of someone maybe even soft spoken who you find absolutely compelling and drawn to. You can’t help it. You need to do and hear what he has to say. You listen. You are all choked up because what he said makes you want to change. You know you’ve missed God’s mark. The next thing you know is you’re getting dunked in the water to symbolize your commitment to prepare your life for God to return.
In John the Baptist, we might sense a deep, loving joy he has for the people of God. He has to tell everyone. The time is coming. It’s time to get ready for the visit because the Kingdom of Heaven is near. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but it’s time to repent. It’s time to change your way of thinking. God is at work here. New life is coming. To be a part of it, you will have to change your normal way of doing things. There is going to be a purification process. It might not be comfortable, but the one who is coming is going to take everything back to basics.
John is like the good parent that doesn’t want anyone to miss out. So, he goes out to the desert in the wilderness at the Jordan River. Going to the Jordan River is like hitting the “reset button.” In the past God sent his people into the desert for testing and purification. Just as Jesus did after John baptized him. It was the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert or coming home after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Now, here was a chance to do it again.
John was re-enacting what happened when the Israelites came through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. John was helping the people remember God’s promises of salvation, rescue, liberty, and a new start. The people were longing for this. The people had returned to the land, but now God would return home to them too.
The people streaming out to hear John talk about God seems very similar to the image that we got last week from Isaiah where all the nations were streaming to God’s Temple to learn the ways of God. All the nations may not have been arriving yet, but the people of Israel were, and that’s a start.
John was passionate about helping the people prepare, and he was encouraging to the people who went to him. However, he was suspicious of the religious leaders who came out. Here’s where John’s strongest language appears. They came to see him and what he was doing, but according to what Jesus said in Luke 7:30, they did not come confessing their sins and to be baptized. John was rather harsh with those he suspected had come to spy on him or thought that they were in no need of repentance. In other words, they came to mock and hold in contempt the ones who came eagerly and in earnest. John called them out for their hypocrisy, “brood of vipers!”
And why would they need repentance? Why would they think that they needed to change their way of thinking about themselves or of God? The need for salvation is meaningless if we don’t think that we have anything from which we have to be saved. That was the problem for both the Pharisees and the Sadducees though for different reasons. We in our comfortable lives are at risk of having those attitudes as well.
Neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees thought they were in need of repentance or salvation. The Pharisees thought that through their behavior, their scrupulous following of what they thought was important in the Mosaic Law and the oral tradition, and their ancestry through Abraham they already achieved salvation. They were set. The Sadducees believed that they should serve God without any anticipation of reward or punishment, and that the soul ends with their earthly life. They had no consideration of an eternity therefore “salvation” to them was irrelevant. Perhaps that is why John didn’t think that their appearance at the Jordan River came from an authentic desire to learn, repent, or be baptized.
John’s perspective was a little different. He believed that God was a God of justice. As the world is full of injustice … would you agree?… If there is a God, he must care about that. If God cares, God must do something about it. John was announcing that God was ready to do something right then, so everyone needed to prepare. Everyone has some crooked areas that need straightening out. If anyone thinks that they don’t, they need to look again, even the Pharisees who thought that they had everything figured out. In many ways, they were right. Jesus will say later in the narrative to do what the Pharisees say but not what they do. (Mt 23:3) They were missing the mark through their pride. In one of Jesus’ parables, he talks about the two men praying in the Temple. Part of the Pharisee’s prayer is thanking God that he was not like the tax collector. (Luke 18:9-14) Do we pray, “At least I’m not a Pharisee”?
Can we make room for John today? We can agree that he does not make a good holiday party guest. You notice that there aren’t very many pop culture references to him during the holiday season. To tell you the truth, the actual Saint Nicholas probably had a lot more in common with John the Baptist than the Jolly Old Elf that adorns our modern Christmas decorations.
As we see the wickedness and evil in the world, do we desire Christ to appear on the scene? Are we ready? Do we want to prepare? You may think that your house is pretty clean and well kept, but if you hear that the king is coming to your house, you might have some more cleaning and straightening to do. I know that I would.
During what we think of as a festive time of year, are we the ones making compromises with our faith by allowing all of these secular influences on the holiday season to affect the spiritual significance of Advent and Christmas. Do the parties become more important than the stated reason for them? Does is block out the call Christ-like behavior and deep reflection on the meaning of Christ’s arrival in the world? Or, does it inspire us to be generous and extend hospitality to neighbor and the outcast? Are we going through the motions, or do we choose our actions by what Jesus would have us do?
Here in this Sanctuary we have some symbols of the season that are here to remind us of some things. Over the coming weeks we will have more. We have symbols about the continuation of life in the midst of death, symbols of light coming out of the darkness, symbols of the sacrifice that real people made to do the will of God and celebrate the birth of Christ.
We have symbols of the joy we have because of Christ’s inaugural arrival. We have the remembering of the vulnerability of Jesus at his birth and the pronouncements of what he came here to do. The bravery of a young woman and her husband to go against convention. These are all good. They help us to remember and tell our story of who we are in Jesus Christ. But, we have to be mindful that the symbols we use to help us worship don’t become the things we actually worship. When they become more important than what they were intended to support, it is a problem. That is the reason why the most extreme of the reformers did not think that there should be any decorative elements at all, no stained glass, no banners, no sculpture, no paintings. They said don’t even go there because it is a trap. It is all too great a risk.
Is it is trap that we have fallen into? It is definitely one our culture has succumbed to. Bigger parties, more presents, bigger light displays, the lushest decorations. For what? To honor the birth of Jesus? I very much doubt that. What would John the Baptist say to all of that? I don’t think that he would call us all a “brood of vipers,” but in the spirit of loving joy he might invite us down for a good wash.
The God of love who came to Israel in Jesus will one day usher in God’s kingdom in glory, bringing justice and joy to the whole world. How can we get ready for that day? Where do the roads in our lives need straightening out? What fires do we have to light to burn the garbage that is blocking the way? What landscape work do we have to do, cutting down dead trees and taking care of the weeds? What do we have to turn around in our own hearts so that we can meet our loving God with joy?