December 8, 2013
Matthew 3: 1-12
May the Words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight oh Lord our strength and our redeemer.
There is a lot going on in today’s Gospel lesson. It deals with issues of redemption, judgment and even baptism. This is a bit surprising considering that Jesus does not make an appearance in it. Instead we encounter John the Baptist, crying out in the Wilderness “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Perhaps for us the call to repentance has only negative connotations and is too often associated with a very harsh, and unrelenting way of thinking, of a vengeful god who cares more about rules than love. It evokes images of excessive guilt and shame. Repentance is not a comfortable word, when I hear it I start to squirm, as I probably should. Repentance is not merely about feeling guilty for your sins, or turning toward God in some non-descript way in order to avoid punishment. It is actually more difficult, requires more intentionality. Perhaps it is an issue of translation, because it is clear that what John is telling the people to do is have a change of mind, he is not calling anyone to sit and wallow in self-loathing, but we are actually being asked to recognize in ourselves our priorities, our habits, our outlook on life, and ultimately, to change them. Because , and this is the really wonderful news, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” God has come, he is in their presence, and without repentance, without a change of heart and mind, how will anyone be able to see him, without a change in the way we think and act how will we ever be able to feel at home in God’s kingdom? Repentance is necessary preparation, because with God’s kingdom comes a completely different way of life.
John’s message is not an easy one for any person to hear, but he is particularly hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John for a baptism as well, but it seems they do not come in humility. John has only harsh words for these leaders of Jewish society. He seems to suspect that they are not being totally sincere in their repentance. ‘You brood of vipers’ he says to them, and he tells them that they cannot rely on their lineage to save them. They set their pride on having Abraham as their ancestor, but their ancestry will not protect them from God’s judgment. “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.” We would be amiss if we did not take this warning to heart. As Christians we too are guilty of thinking that we will be spared God’s judgment, but John is pretty clear that we will all face Judgment, that we will all be judged according to our “fruits of repentance.” While this all sounds rather harsh, it is indeed good news, God’s reign has come near and in Christ we are faced with the reality of that reign.
John speaks of one who will bring a baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit, a baptism where the main tool is not water or oil but a winnowing fork, a tool used to scrape the chaff, or husk, separating the usable portion of the wheat grain from the unusable which is immediately thrown into the fire. This is neither a peaceful nor a particularly comforting image. But John knew what it meant to be a disciple; he knew that inviting God’s Grace into our lives is an invitation to be constantly formed and made new and that that is not necessarily something that always brings us ease or comfort. But rather we are asking the Holy Spirit to set us ablaze, or to paraphrase John Donne “to burn off the rust and deformity and restore Christ’s image within us.” God became incarnate in the world to show us the Kingdom of God, and also prepare us to live in that kingdom.
The verses following today’s gospel story reveal that as the broken and world weary masses gathered at the edge of the Jordan river in the hope that they might find healing and renewal in baptism, Jesus, that very same healing ointment and hopeful renewal they were looking for was right there in their midst. He did not set himself above or apart from this crowd of lost and lonely sinners like the Pharisees so often did, but stood among them, as one of them. Our own baptisms call us to do the same. To be marked as Christ’s own forever does not separate us from the world, but places us right square in the middle of it.
And the world is not an easy place to be in the middle of, because it is a world twisted with sin. The very fabric of human society is run through with corruption and even our attempts to overcome imbalance and injustice in the world is often met with resistance. As we become more aware of how our food is grown or our clothes are made it becomes clear that in one way or another we rely upon a system that is built on sin. Often times our instinct is to try and separate ourselves from the sin we see in the world, more often though we try to ignore it, pretending everything is just fine because it is too difficult to live in this broken world as if we were already living in God’s kingdom. We try to put off changing too much, but we cannot let ourselves off the hook.
Dietrich Bonheoffer writes, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will.” As baptized members of the body of Christ we are asked to follow Christ which means living in the world as Christ lived in it. But without true repentance we will surely lose our way, without a true change of our priorities we will forget to live as Christ and the kingdom of God will only be that much harder to see.At our baptism we are handed over to God, we acknowledge God’s love for us and are committed to being a reflection of that love in the world. The waters of our baptism commits us to following the path that Christ set for us allowing God to winnow and burn away the chaff of our lives, continually renewing Christ’s image within us. And just as Jesus stood with the newly baptized on the Jordan River so too does he stand with us, As it says in Isaiah “for when we pass through the waters God will be with us and when we walk through the fire the flame shall not consume us.”
Today on this second Sunday of Advent we are faced with the very difficult topic of judgment and what that means for us who call ourselves followers of Christ. We should be careful and never put limits on God’s love by assuming that we know who will be counted as one of God’s children and who will not. In truth I believe that everyone is a child of God, that Jesus came to save all of humanity, all of it. I recently heard someone say that “hell is not being able to let go” It is for us, as Christians, to be signs of that love by being living testaments to God’s kingdom. By showing people that letting go of the trappings of this world frees us. Bearing fruits of repentance, that is, showing the world what a truly changed mind and heart can do - this is how we must live our lives.