December 8, 2019
Sunday Between December 4 and December 10 Inclusive
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Matthew 3:1-12, The Message or Matthew 3:1-12, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
This text continues the Advent theme of preparing for the arrival of Jesus. And uses the preaching of John the Baptist to press home that preparation requires internal cleansing and not just straightening up around the house.
Verses 1 to 3. Matthew's phrase, "in those days," does not so much refer to a date in time - roughly 2,000 years ago now - as it does to a situation - "the Kingdom of Heaven has come near." John's proclamation in Verse 2:
Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
is exactly how Matthew reports Jesus beginning his ministry in Chapter 4, Verse 17.
Verses 4 to 6. The wilderness is a dangerous place filled with bandits, wild animals, and wild spirits. It is a place that respectable people avoid except for respectable reasons such as travelling for business or religious festivals or visiting family.
But it is also a place of spiritual cleansing, testing, and renewal: The 40 years spent in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt; the 40 days spent in the wilderness by Jesus.
That John is in the wilderness is fitting for a prophet. That people from Jerusalem, Judea, and along the Jordan were coming to meet John is a testament to the public acclaim that John has acquired - and to the heightened anticipation of big changes.
Notice that though Matthew reports that people were confessing their sins, unlike Mark and Luke report, John himself only says that he is baptizing "for repentance," (Verse 11) and not, "for repentance of sins."
The repentance John is seeking is individual change of attitudes and actions, but also of societal change of attitudes and actions. When the Kingdom of Heaven comes near it is not paying a state visit with photo ops and fancy dinners. It is coming to change the world. And the changes needed to go from the way things currently are to the way God desires them to be will require more than tweaking the prime lending rate, or promising more money for aid.
Verses 7 to 10. So when John sees among the crowd the leaders of the way things currently are, he reacts angrily and insults them:
You brood of vipers.
Contrary to Arthur Paul Boer's excellent advice, Never Call Them Jerks, I often have to resist adding as a personal aside while reading Verse 7, "You brood of vipers (and you know who you are) ..." But just as with Jonah and the Ninevites, it turns out that even vipers can heed warnings and repent.
However, as Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (See footnote below.) helpfully point out, this phrase would also be understood as, "you offspring of vipers." And since all of one's social standing derived from one's parents - this is a huge insult indeed. An insult that would be strenuously challenged by those listening to John - and a challenge that John anticipates and cuts off by saying, "Don't say that Abraham is your ancestor ..."
Indeed by going further with his image of the axe cutting at the ROOTS of the tree - as compared with cutting at the trunk of the tree - John is deepening the meaning of repentance to be RE-ROOTING. The practice of baptism for the Christian community would very early on become not just a rite for repentance - but more crucially, a rite for re-rooting one's identity away from one's birth family into the community of followers of Christ's way. It is this baptism of RE-ROOTING as a child of God that Jesus undergoes.
My favourite verse in this whole passage is:
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
And so, probably the best sermon title for this week is, "New Roots That Bear Fruits of Repentance."
That is, in Biblical terms, repentance is not so much about feeling sorry, or about forgiveness. It is about being in a right relationship with God. A relationship that cannot be inherited. Repentance is all about changing attitudes and behaviour to align with God's desires for us all.
Thinking through what might be the fruits of repentance for each of us - and for the congregation as a whole - might be all the work that needs to be done this Sunday.
Verses 11 to 12. Somewhere back in the mists of my memory, someone said to me that John is our model. Like John, we too point to Jesus and his ministry; we too proclaim the good news to the people.
I also am reminded of Mr. Rogers whenever I read a separating-the-wheat-from-the-chaff passage. As Mr. Rogers often pointed out even people who are bad most of the time will be good some of the time; and those who are good most of the time will be bad some of the time.
So the wheat-chaff separation is not separating into two groups of "bad" persons and "good" persons. It is separating the good that is within each person from the bad that is within each person. May it be so. (Especially you vipers out there. Just kidding. Sort of.)
Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (see link below), pages 31-35.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)
1 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."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Matthew 3:1-12 (The Message)
1 While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called "the Baptizer," was preaching in the desert country of Judea. 2 His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: "Change your life. God's kingdom is here." 3 John and his message were authorized by Isaiah's prophecy:
Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God's arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
4 John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. 5 People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. 6 There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.
7 When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: "Brood of snakes! What do you think you're doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? 8 It's your life that must change, not your skin! 9 And don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. 10 What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire.
11 "I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I'm a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. 12 He's going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He'll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he'll put out with the trash to be burned."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
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