Meditation on Matthew 3:1–12
For Second Sunday in Advent
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton
Dec. 8, 2019
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 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 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 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.”
I had a little bit of difficulty working on my message yesterday. I think you should know the obstacles I face when I am preparing to share with you the Word of the Lord. You see, my cat, Melvyn, was really annoyed with me. I wrote this just after he glared at me from behind my computer, yowled, and took a bite out of the cover of my Bible commentary!
You might be surprised that his visual impairment didn’t keep him from trying to close the lid of my laptop. Then, he unplugged it with his paw, and gave it a shove. It came off my lap desk, and almost dropped to the floor. Then, after I repositioned it and restored the plug, he climbed into my lap, and lay down on top of my open Bible, making it very hard to read or type.
He had been trying to get my attention all day. Because the day before—on Friday—even when I was home, I was distracted, working at my computer or on the phone. Beginning Saturday morning, around 6:30, he had to make up for lost attention time. He jumped on our bed, walked across my body and onto the nightstand beside me, where there are ALL sorts of things he likes to knock off. My glasses. My watch. My phone. Books. Pens. A lamp. A cup of tea. If knocking things on the floor fails to gain my response, he thumps my glass water bottle with his head or pokes the lampshade with his nose. Bang! Bang! Bang!
Yesterday, what got my attention, finally, was when he stood on top of me, got up real close to my face, purred ferociously, and started licking my eyelids and cheek.
What it comes down to is this. Melvyn isn’t happy with my lifestyle. It doesn’t suit him. He wants me to change. He’s never going to stop trying to get my attention, and demanding an audience. He’s never going to stop pestering me when he has something important for me to do. Like feed him breakfast or give him a snack.
John the Baptist demands our attention, today, on this Second Sunday of Advent, and every day, if our heart is open to his message of change—in ourselves, our lives, the Church of Jesus Christ, the world.
We’ve heard this passage every Advent, so many times, it’s tempting to kind of skim it or snooze through it. Camel hair. Locusts. Honey. Vipers, unquenchable fire and all that. Why, he’s like the opening act and not the group that you paid good money for tickets to see. We want to hear about the baby born in Bethlehem and sing “Joy to the World.” Open our presents, eat Christmas dinner, hang out with family and friends. Maybe watch a football game. O-H! I-O!
In these weeks and days before Christmas, we don’t feel much like entering into a real or imagined wilderness space, where we are called to examine our hearts, the fruit of our lives, and confess our sins. Who here feels like confessing sins?
We only half listen when John cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” But the word for “repent” is the Greek metanoia. This doesn’t just mean turn away from your sin or turn back to God. It literally means take on a new mind set! Make a U-turn! Change course. John is telling his world and ours that participating in the kingdom of God is going to require more than just showing up at the Jordan. It is about being prepared to let go of what we used to be, and become someone new. Paul says to the Galatians in 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
But John says, himself, that he isn’t the important one. Not me, he says. The one coming after me. Now that’s the one to pay attention to! “I am not worthy to carry his sandals!” he says. “I baptize you with water for repentance. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and FIRE.”
Yet, John’s cries are heard by the people of his time, as if he is a rockstar! When John baptizes, everyone in the region along the Jordan River, the big city folks of Jerusalem, and all of Judea are coming out to the wilderness. And they didn’t even have cell phones, a Jordan River Website with live streaming camera feed, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat to let them know where and when! And the interesting thing is, to me, that he hasn’t come to reform a religious institution. He doesn’t show up in a synagogue or the temple, wearing Sabbath-best clothes. He’s outside! Far from the Holy City. Dirty and disheveled. Blunt and bold. Wearing a hairy mantle like the prophet Elijah, lifted up to a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire in the sky.
John’s wilderness isn’t a bad place, not like the wilderness experience of the Israelites who had escaped slavery in Egypt only to be lost and wandering for 40 years. John’s wilderness is a safe space for people to leave their everyday problems, worries, fears, dangers, and distractions, and prepare their hearts to meet the Lord. But some who come to see John and be baptized, such as the wealthy, religious elites, come for an appearance of piety, and because they can’t risk ignoring him. He demands their attention, because he is a threat to their lifestyle– their wealth and power. John is drawing people away from the synagogues and institutionalized religion! And he’s telling the harsh truth about them, revealing who they really are. “You brood of vipers!” he shouts. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
On this Second Sunday of Advent, we, too, like the people of Judea, Jerusalem, and the area around the Jordan, should listen to John with open hearts, so that the Word may accomplish its work in us and equip us for service. This is the violent, unjust world to which Christ will come, first as the infant, then again as our King. So, we wait and hope in Him. Our faith leads to transformed lives—to our bearing good fruit, as John commands us. But what we anticipate, what we live for in Advent, as one New Testament scholar says, is “the fulfillment of the transformative justice of the Kingdom, when right will be vindicated as right and wrong clearly identified as wrong.” Don’t we all long for that to happen?
According to John the Baptist, the day of judgment is not far off. The Lord, he says in the third chapter of Matthew, has already placed an ax against the tree, ready to cut down any that don’t bear good fruit. The winnowing fork is already in his hand. Similar to a pitchfork, the winnowing fork is used to lift harvested wheat up into the air. The wind blows away the lighter chaff or husk surrounding the seed and other debris, while the edible grain falls to the threshing floor. The Lord will clear his threshing floor, John says, gather the wheat—those who reveal their repentance by their good works—into the granary, the Kingdom of God. The chaff will be burned with an unquenchable fire, the power of God.
But we have no fear. Our Judge is our Redeemer. Our merciful, loving Savior has claimed us in our baptisms. We belong to Him, just as Quinn and Laila will be claimed by him in their baptisms today. We are united by the Spirit as Christ’s Body for the world. Every day, the Spirit leads us and helps us bear good fruit.
Friends, I pray that the Spirit will stir you to boldly proclaim the gospel in word and deeds, like John! May the Lord grant you courage to always tell the truth and work for peace and justice.
May you be attentive to the voice of the one who cried out to all Judea and Jerusalem and speaks to us, still. Let go of your problems, worries, and anxieties. Resist the frantic busyness and materialism that the world says is good, especially this time of year.
Come with me, John says, to the wilderness. Come, just as you are. You don’t need to bring anything but you. It’s a place of safety and refuge. Honesty, trust and transformation. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near.”
Holy One, thank you for the words of the prophets, especially for John. He spoke the truth boldly, lived simply, and served you faithfully, even dying for you. Lead us, Lord, into the wilderness, where ever that place may be for each of us. Draw us into that space of safety and refuge, where we can leave all our problems, fears, and anxieties behind and learn to place our trust in you. Help us to be attentive to your voice. Give us repentant hearts that will lead to the transformation of ourselves, our lives, our church and world. Lead us to do the works that you want us to do, works in your name that will bear good fruit. Grant us patience and courage as we wait and hope for your Son’s return and the transformative justice of your Kingdom. In His name we pray. Amen.