2013-12-08 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Christopher Adams
8th December 2013
Reading: Matthew 3:1-12
Matthew 3:1-12 (NIV)
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea
2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.
6Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. 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, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Like the Christ-child in the advent season, the idea for this sermon was/is much anticipated, but had yet to arrive until late this morning, so apologies for its brevity. Consider it more a reflection, rather than a sermon.
I suppose it is a common image, the picture of a man (always a man), generally with a scruffy beard, holding a sign saying something like “Repent! The End of the World is Nigh” — I imagine this image to be promulgated by films set in New York, but why New York should be the hotbed of apocalyptic warnings is beyond me. But let’s say this image is not just an image, but actually true — let’s say there are real, scruffy men walking around New York City with signs saying “The End of the World is Nigh”. I have likely seen such men on the streets of New York — or, now that I think about it more, I recall a visit to Oxford in which I encountered such a sight on the high street — you very well may have too — but if you are like me, you tend to walk right by them. Perhaps even go a bit out of your way to avoid them.
If Monty Python’s Life of Brian is anything to go by (ahem), prophets of doom were not an uncommon sight in first-century Judea, either. At the very least — and this claim has more historical grounding than the previous — political activists/zealots were trying to bring about an end of Roman rule, an end to the established order as they, and the Romans, knew it.
What strikes me about our Gospel passage is that John the Baptist stands in direct opposition to this strain of prophecy — a strain that is predicting the end of something. Rather, John’s message, quite clearly, is about beginnings. If John the Baptist were a scruffy man in New York carrying a sign, his would read: “The Beginning of the World is Nigh”. The first two verses of Matthew say, In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. Note that John’s message is something quite different from: “Repent, for our temporal world is about to end”, rather, the Kingdom of Heaven is about to begin.
Certainly, John’s message is not bumble-bees and roses: his language toward the Pharisees and Sadducees about axing the trees and chucking dead branches into the fire and winnowing forks is strong stuff and would seem to overlap with prophecies of end-time destruction, but the context of John’s message is, importantly, much different. For John, destruction is a clearing away, a getting rid of some — but not all — old things so that what already exists can grow and flourish and be put to right use. John’s message is, fundamentally, one of renewal, of growth, of life; in short, a message of hope.
Which is perhaps why people encountering John in the wilderness didn’t run away and flee, or give him a wide berth (though, frankly, a diet of locusts and honey may not have made him the most pleasantly fragrant of men). Instead, people went to him in droves. Matthew 3:5: “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees,” verse 7 tells us, “went to be baptized,” though they were, perhaps, refused.
But perhaps not. Perhaps, after hearing John’s teaching, they, or some of them, repented. And here is another way in which John’s message, though similar in tone to end-times prophets, actually differs remarkably when placed in context of beginnings, rather than endings. Prophets who insist that we should repent because the world is ending ask us to repent of our sins because destruction is near at hand, we don’t have much time left, our past needs to be dealt with in a death-bed conversion sort of way. We repent, and then the world will end. For John, the opposite is true. The world is about to begin. The Kingdom of Heaven is soon upon us. Repent! Repent in anticipation of new life! Repent so your heart is prepared to accept, to understand the new world being created. It is not enough, for John, for people to repent because the old world is ending, people need to repent because a new world is beginning.
Perhaps John’s attitude sheds light on his instructions to the Pharisees and Sadducees in verse 8: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance”. In this new world, change is welcome. We have a whole world ahead of us in which repentance is given a chance to bear fruit; repentance is allowed to show itself. Conversely, “Repent because the end is nigh” allows no room for change, for fruit to be produced — repentance is cut off by that unsightly business of total destruction. Repentance, in this worldview, literally, has no hope.
Which contrasts with Paul’s words in Romans 15. Three times he mentions hope: “by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (verse 4), quoting Isaiah he writes: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles, in him the Gentiles shall hope” (verse 12), and finally “so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”(verse 13). Repentance and hope are both predicated on a world beginning, on the Kingdom of Heaven arriving in the person of Jesus Christ. The advent season — the great anticipation — looks forward to the beginning of a new world, not the ending of one. Our response is that we are to be filled “with all joy and peace” (verse 13), we are to “Rejoice” (verse 10) and “praise the Lord” (verse 11).
In conclusion, as we wait in this advent season, let us prepare our hearts to encounter Christ’s work in his new kingdom. Let us live with hope. Let us bear fruit worthy of repentance because John said: “The Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand”, but God, in his incarnation, said: “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you”.