a sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 for the Second Sunday of Advent
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on December 5, 2010
In the midst of a busy season, somehow John attracted a crowd. People didn’t come because of his clothes – if anything, they came in spite of his animal skin wardrobe. People didn’t come to enjoy the finest meals in Judea – his food was the simple subsistence of the poor, as he ate whatever insects he could find and made them palatable with wild honey. And people definitely didn’t come because it was nearby – John made the wilderness his headquarters for living and teaching and preaching, choosing to stay far away from the center of power and prestige in Jerusalem, and yet people went out of their way to hear him.
John was on the margins, and yet he attracted a crowd. Maybe people came because of John’s message, then. But this was no easy message, either: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Turn away from the way of life you have known and turn back toward God. Leave behind the accommodations to the empire and lip service to religion. Take up the mantle of new life, peace, and hope because something bigger is on the way.
But John’s message wasn’t all that he offered – he also invited those who heard him to join him in a ritual washing of sin in the Jordan River. Even this ritual washing wasn’t all that was going on – people were changing. Things were shifting. The old ways were starting to open up. A new way was coming into being because there was something more ahead, and a crowd was gathering around to see what was going on.
Nowadays I for one wonder a bit about John’s message and the crowd it brought in. Repentance doesn’t seem to be the way to attract people these days – so many churches that seem to be successful by the world’s standards in 2010 worship in buildings that look more like a school auditorium than a sanctuary, come up with creative names that avoid the word “church” – let alone any denominational affiliation! – at all costs, and promote a faith that belongs more in the self-help section of the bookstore than in the pews of Sunday morning – all a far cry from the message of repentance that John offered in his ministry. But John nonetheless offered his proclamation to them and us: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Repentance is a cornerstone of our faith, and it is good that John reminds us of it in this season. While we have often allowed commercialism and nostalgia to take precedence in this season, the real preparation for Christmas comes in making room amidst the clutter of our lives for the new thing God is doing at Christmas and beyond, opening ourselves to the kingdom of heaven as it becomes real around us. The call to repentance is an excellent approach to these days, but it is more than just a legalistic condemnation of moral missteps. As one commentator puts it:
Repentance is not primarily about our stands of moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image. (John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word)
Maybe it was John’s message that brought people out to him after all, and maybe that same kind of message should shape our own proclamation in these Christmas days, our simple living in peace and joy and justice in response to the one who has come and is coming again.
But John was not finished with his message quite yet. Repentance was important for everyone, but he had a special word to share with some of those who had made the trek out to the wilderness. Some of the religious leaders of the day – from two different and opposing sects, no less! – all made their way out to the wilderness to see for themselves what was going on – perhaps to join in, perhaps to oppose it (the Greek can mean either – see William R. Herzog II in Feasting on the Word). But John’s message was not about reinforcing the establishment leaders. Instead, he called them a “brood of vipers,” suggesting that they too needed to take repentance seriously so that they too would bear fruit in these new days. No one had an exclusive hold on the line of faith after Abraham as they seemed to think – instead, John reminded these leaders that God could raise up children to Abraham even from the stones of the wilderness. So he called everyone who would hear to be a part of something more, to do more than just repent and be baptized but to wait and listen for another with more power and more presence who was coming after him to do what he did and much, much more.
The second part of John’s message is one we would probably prefer to ignore, and usually we drown it out with choirs of children and all the other wonderful sounds of the holiday season. But John’s message of judgment upon the religious leaders of his day hits pretty close to home. It suggests that we may not have the exclusive claim on God’s message that we think, that God may be working in the world beyond our imagination or comprehension, even that we might not deserve the privileged status of faith that we think we deserve in these days. In John’s proclamation we see hints of this becoming real in the world. John doesn’t put the focus on himself but insists that the focus be on repentance and preparing the way. He demands not assent to his way of life but a change in each person’s way of life to align more closely with God’s intentions. And John steps out of the center of power to say that there always places where God’s message needs to take root – not in bringing more to “believe” exactly as we do but in making God’s way of justice, peace, and love more real and complete for all people.
So how do we proclaim this message? Can we take John’s proclamation of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” seriously in this season when we are so focused on getting ready for the trappings of the holiday that we so easily miss the incredible things that God is doing? Can such a message be heard? And what sort of response can we really expect?
While we certainly can wonder about how others will hear this, I think we have to start by hearing these words anew and taking them seriously ourselves. At the core, these words call us back to a way that we can remember. They suggest that we reclaim something we once had and demand that we look back to determine what is ahead. These words do not suggest that we can solve our problems by returning to what we think we once were but instead offer us something new grounded in the core promises of God that we can remember: the ability to overcome sin by no power or action of our own, the promise of God to overturn the ways of the world and make all things new, and the response that we are called to offer as we walk the way of repentance in this day and always.
And so John invites us to repent – to ground ourselves anew in the promises of God to bring new life, to be held accountable by God and the community of faith for the kind of life that we see demonstrated in these days, and to hold our hope not in the gifts or trappings of an arbitrary holiday but in the new life that God promises to make real and whole around us. Only after all this can we find the kingdom of heaven coming near and imagine the way of peace and justice described in the incredible words of Isaiah we heard this morning becoming real in our midst. In the light of repentance, we can finally see the creatures of the earth coming together in peace and harmony, led by the grace and mercy of a little child as God’s presence becomes real and whole in all the world.
So as a seal of this promised day yet to come – and a reminder of the promises already fulfilled – we gather at this table, a place where we can know God’s presence and God’s grace as all are welcome to be filled and made whole again and we glimpse the coming kingdom of heaven in the faces of those with us here and the presence of no less than Jesus himself.
Until that day when Isaiah’s words become real and complete and whole for all creation and we feast at table with Christ as our host, may we make a place in these Advent days for what God is doing in our world, what God has done around us and before us, and what God promises to do ahead of us so that all things can be made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.