The Proclamation of John the Baptist
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[a]3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Are you even impatient for something? As a kid, I can remember the tough waiting for Christmas…and, I have to admit, it wasn’t waiting for Jesus to appear, but more so the toys under the tree. Which, I know, is supposed to symbolize the gift of Jesus to humanity…but, not much in my thought patterns at age 6 or 7.
But, even today, I can get impatient. I want to move things, to get them done yesterday. I also want things to get done with others. I love it when projects move forward and there is buy-in from others and a sense of unity, collaboration, and teamwork.
Yet, I’ve come to realize over the years, that takes time and patience to move forward. Which is a good thing. And, waiting can produce character and other benefits.
Now, waiting doesn’t mean not finishing or moving something along. There are markers, goals, and lists that can be checked off in moving towards the development of an idea or project.
Our passage in Matthew finds John, the cousin of Jesus, waiting for the appearance of the Messiah, of the Son of Man. John was looking forward to the day that Jesus would make his presence known as the promised one. Really, before John was even on the scene, doing his thing of proclaiming Kingdom come and baptizing, the whole of Israel was hoping for the Messiah, their savior to come on to the scene and what the Messiah would do.
Hundreds of years before, in the book of Isaiah, this was said:
11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
This passage goes on to say that this Messiah would have good news for the poor, the oppressed, and would give release to those held in bondage, in captivity.
John comes along and begins his ministry. John practiced what he preaches. He wasn’t afraid. He wore clothes made of camel hair, which was unusual and probably not a fashionable thing to wear, for any period of history. He also ate locusts. That sounds kind of gross, but in Levitical law, that was an accepted thing to eat, they were plentiful apparently and high in protein and nutrients…yet, still, not something that was common.
It’s as if John was making a statement, I will live a simple life in order to make my message heard and simple as possible: Repent, have a change of heart and mind from the way you’ve always thought and lived. Be baptized to symbolize that the old way of living is dead, be raised into new life in the way that God intended…living simply in love with others, serving all, especially those on the margins. John also did his ministry outside of the temple, outside of institutional norms and processes.
And, the people came in droves to hear him and be baptized. It’s as if they knew that they needed change. Yes, they had hopes for a Messiah, they knew that John was pointing them towards someone to come…yet, they were also ready for a change. A change that would include everyone, that would be personal yet connectional to community.
Even the Pharisees and Sadducees came to hear John and to even be baptized. John has some harsh words for them, calling them a brood of vipers. Which, in that context meant that they were like serpents, feeling the flame of fire and trying to get away from it. As I’ve said before, God’s love extends to all, even those on top of a religious and political system that oppresses folks and isn’t good for them.
Now, God does call those systems into question…and God does separate the wheat from the chaff as the author goes on to say. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the wicked folks will burn and the righteous folks live. It means that actions done out of selfishness, need for control, anxiety…actions born of out of sin, out of missing the mark that God intends, will pass away, be consumed, forgotten. But, righteous actions, actions done out of loving others, honoring one another, listening and not being condescending, but lifting others up. Actions of inclusion and genuine friendship, those will produce good fruit and multiply and lead to real life.
The religious leaders of that time felt like they had a birthright to live as they chose because of their identity as Children of Abraham, as descendents…and that God promised to bless Abraham’s descendents. But, John is saying that’s not the case because they’ve forgotten the most important thing…it’s not about what you inherit, it’s what you do with the giver of the inheritance, how well you love.
God’s wrath, or God’s desire for things to be in right relationship can bring an ax to cut down an unhealthy tree, in order for something new to grow. And, yes, there will always be something new, and good, and bearing fruit to grow.
Friends, hear this clearly, John is reminding us that Jesus is coming, that this Jesus will show us how to love and will love us no matter what. This Jesus is worth the wait, and while we are waiting, it’s a good thing to prepare by confessing our vulnerabilities and the ways that we have missed the mark of God’s loving intentions…and to prepare our hearts and minds to be receptive to God’s voice through Jesus in our lives.
Something in us may need to die in order for us to hear God’s voice. That also applies to us as a community. God’s voice is rising up in us, what do we need to clear out of the way to hear what God is saying to us? We cannot rest in our identity as a particular church or even as Christians, we have to ask ourselves what does it mean to receive Jesus into lives personally, and into our collective lives together as a church.
As we do that, may we be reminded that this Jesus gives us courage and voice to ask the hard questions, first with ourselves, then with each other. This Jesus, in his life and even now, because we are his body, reminds us that we are bound together in him and that he is speaking deeply in and through us through the power of God’s Spirit, God is present with us! And, that Jesus is always worth waiting for…and life abundant in Jesus can be had, even in the waiting…may we slow down, hear the voice of God through Jesus, and in the process, find our own voice in a world of so much noise.