A sermon preached on Matthew 3:1-12 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on the second Sunday of Advent, 2019.
I. Opening: John the Baptist, Forerunner to Jesus and Advent Voice
Within our Advent journey, there are certain characters, lives, examples that help us to better realize what it means to live in expectation of Jesus. I think of Mary and Elizabeth, Zechariah (John the Baptist’s dad), and, someone who never gets much credit, Joseph. But among them all there is one person, one man, one prophet, who is supremely the voice of Advent: John the Baptist.
Consider this: it was his life’s calling to announce the coming of the messiah. Luke chapter one tells us that when the angel of the Lord came to Zechariah to announce John’s birth, he said that from his conception he would be filled with the Holy Spirit and that he would “16 turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Then, from the moment he met Jesus, he began to point to Jesus and away from himself. Luke 1:39-56 tells the story of how when Mary went to stay with Elizabeth, John, still in the womb, leapt for joy! As an unborn child, John was already pointing to the Son of God. John himself would summarize his ministry to his own disciples by saying in John 3:28-30 that “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’
29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
To John was given the exalted and yet lowly privilege to prepare God’s people to receive the Good News of all that Jesus is. We should take notice that, as we read this passage, he is still doing that today. His voice is still sounding, still calling us to repent before the coming of the messiah, stressing to us the urgency of the hour. That, I suggest, is a large part of what it means to truly comprehend our Gospel reading today. We must to perceive this morning the call to repentance for first century Israel, and, in perceiving, to know that call for ourselves.
For the rest of our time together, I want us to consider together what this passage has to teach us about repentance as John called for it.
II. Two Directions: The Jordan and the Stones
From Matthew 3:3: John the Baptist was ““The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” This is a quotation from Isaiah, and as N.T. Wright says, “It was part of the great message of hope, of forgiveness, of healing for the nation after the horror of exile. God would at last come back, bringing comfort and rescue. Yes, John is saying; that’s what’s happening now. It’s time to get ready! The king, God himself, is coming back! Get ready for God’s kingdom! But the trouble was that they weren’t ready, not by a long way. You may think your house is reasonably tidy and well kept, but if you suddenly get word that the king is coming to visit you may well suddenly want to give it another spring-clean.” (Wright, MFE, pg. 17) And so they came to John for baptism.
There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye here. Think about it: we’re in the desert, by the Jordan, and people are being plunged into the water. What does this remind you of? It should remind of you of a lot of the Exodus! Of the stories about how God rescued his people from Egypt, about their time of wandering in the desert, and about how God led them into the promised land of Canaan. From N.T. Wright again: “Over a thousand years before, the children of Israel had crossed the Jordan when they first entered and conquered the promised land. Now they had to go through the river again, as a sign that they were getting ready for a greater conquest, God’s defeat of all evil and the establishment of his kingdom on earth as in heaven…This wasn’t just a symbolic cleansing for individuals; it was a sign of the new thing that God was doing in history, for Israel and the world.” (Wright, MFE, pg. 18).
In terms of repentance, the point here is that if you are, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, too dull to even perceive what God is up to, then you ultimately cannot receive the Good News of the Gospel. Repentance means literally “turning around” or, as Ken Bailey puts it, “accepting to be found.” As C.S. Lewis said, “If you’re heading in the wrong direction, the most progressive thing you can do is to turn around and start walking in the right direction.” Right there, in the Jordan, God was calling the lost sheep of Israel back to himself so that they could receive the coming Messiah.
III. Children of Abraham from the Stones?
Let’s take another look at John’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees:
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Why does John say that God can raise up children for Abraham from stones? What is the connection there? “Interpreters of this passage often puzzled about what connection, if any, there is between “children” and “stones” until, in the process of translating (or retranslating) this saying from Greek back into Aramaic (or Hebrew), it became evident: ben…means “son” or “child,” with the plural banim; and eben…means “stone,” with the plural ebanim; so, what John the Baptist was saying was that God was able to make banim out of ebanim, a play on words that is lost…in…translation.” (Pelikan, WBI, pg. 10)
In this wordplay, John was telling the Pharisees and Sadducees that to trust simply in their lineage and heritage was ridiculous – God could just as well make children for Abraham out of the very rocks that surrounded them there in that desert. John saw in this particular group of Jewish leaders an awful hypocrisy, something which would not only keep them from being a part of what God was about to do, but something that would warrant even God’s judgment and wrath. Wright again says, “The Pharisees prided themselves on their purity; they were unlikely to be guilty of gross or obvious sins. Yes, but their pride itself was getting in the way of God’s homecoming, and their arrogance towards other Israelites, let alone towards the rest of the world, was quite out of keeping with the humility needed before the coming king.” (Wright, MFE, pg 18)
“Even now,” John the Baptist says, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The rest of the gospel story reveals that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees (though by no means all of them) rejected Jesus. What these verses reveal is that the blindness was a picture of eternal ruin and destruction. As Tim Keller has said, we so often see that there are two ways to run from God: one is by being very bad and the other is by being very good. Here it was their sense of spiritual pride and entitlement that was keeping them from the very repentance they needed. And the longer we are in the Christian life, the more we ought to seek to guard ourselves from the same kind of wicked attitude.
Strong words – and they are no less strong than today. What do they teach us? For one, they teach us that a life can outwardly look very decent, and yet inwardly be a very different story. Make sure you see this: John was not telling the Pharisees and Sadducees that they simply needed to add more good works to their repentance. Instead, he was telling them that they had not yet even begun to repent! He was calling them to bring forth truly good fruit from humble, repentant hearts reliant upon the grace of God. This year, may John the Baptist challenge us all to clear the rubbish, straighten the path, and repent. Repent so that we can be ever ready to be part of the new thing that God has done, is doing, and will do thru his son Jesus.
In reflecting on John the Baptist, Jeffrey Gibbs writes, “Who would want to have such a preacher as John in our day? But all Christian preachers are to be like John. This is not accomplished through the use of angry rhetoric, bizarre diet, or prophetic clothing, but in the preaching of God’s demands that lays bare human failure and human need for Christ, the Mightier One who has come. People are not brought into the blessings of God’s royal rule in Christ, nor are they prepared to be gathered to God on the Last Day, by “giving them what they want.” Everyone who would be a Christian in our day must encounter the message of John the Baptizer. Even those who have believed for long years must never forget the wrath from which God delivered and kept them in Christ. John’s voice still rings out in faithful preaching: “Repent! For the reign of heaven stands near!” (Matthew 1:1 – 11:1, pg. 172)
And so, we give all glory, honor, and praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Amen.