Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Here we are in the second week of Advent, and just as happens every year, John the Baptist comes on the scene. John and his prophetic words are this week’s theme: From last week’s words from Jesus himself about his second coming we move backwards chronologically to the prophet’s proclamation. And like last week’s reading this story is also eschatological in nature. We are reminded again that the first Christians understood Jesus’ birth as the triggering event of the end times.
And yet, John seems a little out of place, doesn’t he? He doesn’t really seem like a very Christmassy guy, and his words hardly evoke Christmas sentiment. Imagine a Christmas card from John the Baptist: On the front a nice winter scene. Inside, this: “The fire of the Holy Spirit / That should be your desire. / To follow and obey him, / For the Gospel, be a crier. / So if Jesus comes back this year, / May you not be found a viper. / May you be gathered into the barn / And not tossed into the…fire. / Merry Christmas!”[i]
No, John the Baptist does not seem to be proclaiming the season’s greetings. But he is certainly a key gospel figure. He arrives early on in all four gospel accounts. And all of the gospel’s use the appearance of John to hearken back to the prophet Isaiah, so that we understand that the one John speaks of is the long-awaited Messiah who triggers the chain of events leading to the apocalypse. To be extra sure we get the point, Matthew’s clothes John the Baptist in “camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist,” a direct reference to the garb worn by the prophet Elijah at his first appearance. Elijah was expected to return to earth before the second coming: The next to last verse of the Old Testament, at the end of the book of Micah, reads, “Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
One commentator, William Herzog, explores what Matthew is trying to communicate here. Herzog says, “Note that the description of John as Elijah follows directly the quote from Isaiah. John will not be a prophet with connections to the centers of power (as Isaiah had been) but will live on the periphery. His food will be the food of the poor (locusts with whatever honey he can find), and his clothing will be the clothing of the poor, the common camel’s hair smock of the Bedouins.”[ii]
So Matthew’s John comes fully drawn, and every detail seems to have significance. As I look further into this passage, what intrigues me next is the description of the crowd coming to John. We read, “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan.” [v. 5] Two things to note here: first we are clearly meant to understand that John was drawing large crowds of faithful Jews to him; there is probably some hyperbole here, but still, this is not just another inconsequential prophet; he commands attention.
And second, it is notable that these people come from the cities—the seats of power—out to the wilderness. Herzog also notes, “As a general rule, if people wanted to get something or get something done, they would travel to a center city. The margins came to the center, not the reverse.”[iii]
What do you suppose all these people were looking for? What would have made them go out of their way to seek out this prophet and his harsh words? Well, I’m guessing they were seekers. They were looking for something better than what they had. John proclaims the coming of an empire profoundly different from the Roman Empire and the kingdom of Herod Antipas.[iv] And even though John had harsh words, they flock to him because they seem to know he has something they seek.
And they come to the wilderness because it is central to the identity of Israel. “Wilderness evokes memories of the joyous yet troubled history of Israel. God led the people out of bondage into the wilderness, yet they feared that God had brought them there to die. They sinned and rebelled against God in the wilderness, yet also learned to trust and obey God there.”[v]
The wilderness is where the Torah was first given to the people, where they first understood their own redemption by God; but this interaction with God in the wilderness also brings judgment. So it makes the perfect stage for Matthew’s call from John for repentance, which they once again find need of at this moment in their history.
And make no mistake, John brings a tough message—not really the one we were looking for as we anticipate Christmas. John practically spits at the Pharisees and Saducees as he says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Just when we want to bathe ourselves in holiday wonder—when we want to focus on the gift of Christ—we are called to examine ourselves and consider whether we “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Repentance can be a loaded term for us. For some it may dredge up old feelings of guilt and unworthiness, perhaps planted in us by churches and theologies of our youth. We may even fear the day of judgment; we may fear that we will be cut down and thrown into the fire, as John warns. And we may wonder if we can really be sure of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
But I think John’s message to us is more complex, and more helpful. John reminds us that repentance is not so much about our standards of moral worthiness, as it is about God’s desire to realign us into Christ’s image.[vi] Above all John is proclaiming the coming of the promised Messiah, and the glorious beginning of the end. John invites us to come out of the wilderness into the grace of God as manifested in his son, Jesus Christ.
Could we learn to raise our voices as John calls out to the crowds? Could we become a voice crying out in the wildernesses we encounter? This kind of proclamation doesn’t feel very Episcopalian, does it? We are hardly the boisterous, yelling types. But I think Christ expects us to speak out. What could that look like? Well, it might be about speaking out when we witness prejudice or bullying. It might be daring to speak for one whose voice has been shunned in our government or society. It might be raising our voices to government officials about injustices and demanding that as a state or nation we respect the dignity of every human being. I think that proclaiming the word of God in the way of John is not just about calling for individual repentance as the Church has usually proclaimed it; it is also about calling for equity and justice for all, in the name of our Christ who loves every one of us.
As I turn back to today’s gospel, one more point jumps out at me: John promises that Christ will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. This image is every bit as powerful as the vipers and axes and winnowing forks that John invokes in the name of repentance. I think we have become accustomed to the image of Holy Spirit represented as a flame. (for me that comes from the top-notch marketing efforts of the United Methodist Church when they created their cross and flame logo in 1968.) We’re so used to it that we don’t realize what a powerful symbol it is. John explains that this new kind of baptism represents a radical shift: “It is much more than a symbol of our own efforts to live according to God’s will… [it represents] God’s act of fully claiming us for new life in Christ.”[vii]
So John calls Israel, and the church today, to a new radical trust that Christ is working to purify us and the world around us that we might be a dwelling place fit for himself. And that is a message that resonates for me.
What would you need to change in your life in order to become a dwelling place fit for Christ? When I think about this question, I don’t think so much about becoming worthy, as about opening up a space for Christ—letting go of the things that so often control me, like greed and envy and self-centeredness, to create room for the love of Christ to take up residence in me instead. To empty myself that I might be filled with Christ.
And what might need to change in order for our church to become a dwelling place fit for Christ? I find that question a lot harder. I’m awfully comfortable with St. Paul’s just the way it is. But as I look around, I realize that there is so much more we can do and become. We aren’t really called to be comfortable, are we? We are called to do our part in being Christ for the world. I recently had a conversation with Jean Rousseau about our church’s mission statement and its creation. He told me about a long and lively conversation, which ended when Bill Graulty quickly and succinctly summed up the thoughts of the group with what became, almost without alteration, St. Paul’s mission statement:
- We believe in regular worship, the sacraments, and teaching the Word of God through scripture, preaching, education, and relationship.
- We encourage giving ourselves and our treasures as witness to God’s love.
- We welcome all people into our Christian family.
It’s not bad. But do we own it today? Is it what we are called to at this time? Is it too comfortable? In 2020 we will undergo a process to examine who we are what we fell called to in the third decade of the 21st century. I think this exercise is vital as we consider how we can be a dwelling place more fit for Christ. More to come!
For now, let us remember that the season of Advent is not just about preparation for the coming of Christ 2,000 years ago; it is also about preparing ourselves for Christ to come into each of us right now. Christ calls us out of the wilderness of our own selves and asks us to open up space for him. This Advent and Christmas may Christ come to dwell in each of us, and in our church. May we find the courage to speak the words that the world needs, and that our very souls crave. And may we be filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit, that we might be filled with the light and warmth of God’s love. Amen.
[i] Turner, Larry. https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/84071/christmas-by-larry-turner?ref=TextIllustrationSerps, accessed 12/07/19.
[ii] Herzog II, William R. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 47.
[v] Burgess, John L. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (op cit.), p. 46.