A Homily from Matthew 3:1-12
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Virginia Highland Church
December 9, 2001 (Second Sunday of Advent)
There are two places in the Bible: the Promised Land, and the wilderness. The Promised Land is the “land of milk and honey,” where’s God’s people find rest and safety. The wilderness is anywhere else. It is a barren place, where the body and mind are tempted by our human weaknesses, where people have to work and scrape just to survive, and where there is no comfort, only yearning.
Geographically, the wilderness is easy to find, and was particularly so in Jesus’ day. Just walk in any direction from Jerusalem, and when the road got rough, the water became scarce, and the people unfriendly; you were in the wilderness. In our day, that’s something like driving anywhere south of Macon.
Then and now, though, God’s children have learned that we can stumble from the Promised Land into the wilderness pretty quickly, and geography has nothing to do with it. Loss, pain, temptation; they can all lead us into times of darkness, places where all hope seems lost.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that the whole nation of Israel had found itself in the wilderness, and many of them didn’t even know it. The people in power, the political and religious leaders, the wealthy and the people who suck-up to the wealthy had enough distractions and comforts that they had no idea how far they had traveled from the presence of God.
But they had gone far indeed. All of God’s precious children stood in darkness, many of them without hope, the rest without a clue. And into that darkness God brought a light, and that light looked just like the sort of fellow you’d expect to find in the wilderness. He wore animal skins, so raw you could smell the guy before you could hear him, and there being no dumpsters for him to eat out of he ate bugs.
Yup, just the sort of person you expect to find where God, hope, security, and prosperity are not – since most of the time we like to believe they are all the same thing. A ragged, smelly, bugeater – and also the messenger of God. His name was John.
I can understand why, when he hit the big time, folks started calling him John the Baptizer. John the Bugeater just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. My guess is, though, that anyone who actually saw him eat a locust probably couldn’t get the image out of their head and thought of him as John the Bugeater for the rest of his life. To be fair, we’ll just call him John.
John had only one purpose in the world. It took up all his energy, and eventually cost him his life as well. He pointed the way out of the wilderness. We are told that he spoke with great urgency, and that standing in the wilderness he shouted “REPENT! The kingdom of heaven is near.” Matthew, who throughout his gospel suspects that we either never went to Sunday School or didn’t pay attention when we did, lets us know what John meant by quoting Isaiah.
We are told that John is “the voice crying out in the wilderness” and his cry is “Make way, make a straight path for the LORD our God.” That in itself is an amazing reminder. At some point in our own times in the wilderness, we have all asked, “Where is God?” The person of faith asks in the hopes of finding an answer, maybe even one that includes a zip code or a phone number, or at least a warm fuzzy feeling. The agnostic perhaps asks a little more snidely, but my guess is that sometimes we believers get a little snide ourselves, and that even we agnostics sometimes hope there is an answer.
“Where is God?” we ask. Turns out, God’s there in the wilderness with us. John gathers us around, and with the slightest hint of honey on his breath shouts “Repent!” and raises his hand, pointing the way for us. But he is not pointing the way out. He is not pointing to a God whom we can seek beyond the darkness. John points to the very heart of it all, and points to God, who will travel the way out with us.
John is, in fact, pointing to Jesus – God in the flesh. God, mind you, the powerful creator of the universe, in a fragile body just like ours. God, present with us in the place of weakness an temptation, ready to walk the road with us. “God is coming!” shouts John. “Make way!”
And so, 2000 years later, we gather around the altar and the baptistery; just as God’s children then gathered around the river Jordan. Like him we exclaim, “Jesus is coming! Jesus will be here, and soon!” In this holy season of Advent, we not only remember that the hope of God’s arrival was felt and answered for our ancestors in Bethlehem, we remember and celebrate that as God came before so God will come again, a hope that is expressed in the closing words of our scriptures, “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”
But John reminds us that our hope carries with it obligation. If Jesus is coming, if God has – in fact – never left us alone in the first place and will someday become real, touchable, flesh again; there are a few things we had better think about. “Repent!” John cries. “Change!” But why? What does the arrival of God, the nearness of the kingdom of Heaven, have to do with us changing?
Because, if what we do here in this place is about more than making ourselves feel good, if God is real and Jesus is coming, then everything that common sense tells us about our world and our priorities is wrong…dead wrong; because Jesus sets an entirely different standard. Wealth? It’s worthless before a savior who said “Blessed are the poor.” Power? According to Jesus the real power lies among the meek. Success? In the kingdom of heaven, the only accomplishment that matters is loving other people.
Every year at Advent we remind ourselves, as John reminds us, that Jesus is coming, and that means we need to repent, to change, to force ourselves into new ways of seeing the world and ourselves. Repentance isn’t just regret, it’s not just saying, “I’m sorry.” Repentance means turning down a new road, finding a new path, it means change.
But that’s harder than it sounds. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will remind us of John’s message (MT 21:31-32) and tell us that only the lowest, the least powerful, the most despised in the crowd actually heard, understood, and followed John’s message. It’s hard when our bellies are full and our roofs don’t leak to believe that famine and hurricanes are headed our way. Likewise, in a world that tempts and delights us with things that don’t last, a world that constantly dangles new joys and comforts, even new goals (however worthy they may seem) in front of us; in such a world it is hard to remember that there is more to life than what we can own or control.
Except for those who own nothing and control nothing. They listened to John, and confessing their sins stepped into the river Jordan to be born again into a new life. I don’t know about you, but that phrase “confessing their sins” makes me cringe a little. I’ve heard so much lousy preaching on the topic of sin that even saying the word makes my jaw freeze up a little. It’s not that I don’t know that I’m a sinner. I know it, and if I forget I can always be thankful that God made parents and in-laws to remind me.
My problem is that some people get a little obnoxious on the topic of sin. “This is a sin, that’s a sin. Here, I made you a list of your sins…you’d better repent of every one of them.” It can get a little tedious and silly at times. But even though sin is reflected in what we do, sin is not really about what we do. The essence of sin is our hearts and where we place them. Sin is doing the easy thing and believing that only the world we can see and touch is real, and sin is likewise believing that the only consequences for our actions are in that same, physical world.
John, standing there in his bug-stained animal skins cried out, “Don’t be so silly! Get a clue! There’s more to life than what we know, and someday, someday soon, it’s all going to smack us in the face. Hard! So get on the train before it leaves the station and CHANGE!” Even so, come Lord Jesus.
Then John turned to the good people, the religious people, the ones who took their faith seriously enough that it changed the way the acted. They had come to listen as well, and we expect that, when John points to them, he’s going to say to everyone else, “Be more like them. Be people of faith. Live out what you believe every day.”
And so, looking at these good, church-going folks (and Matthew tells us that both the liberals and the conservatives were present), John says, “You are nothing but the children of snakes, trying to slither your way out of the forest fire that is the end of the world.” So much for the good guys, the people who are actually trying to live lives of faith, people like us.
That’s another reality about Jesus coming. We may find that the demands of following Christ are actually tougher than we think they are. We may learn that we haven’t changed enough, tried hard enough, worked hard enough to meet the standard that Jesus set. Some of us may already suspect that, when push comes to shove, we’re really only doing just enough to get by, to slither in under the wire.
But, Jesus is coming! Someday, we will have to look God in the eye, a God who knows what it’s like to be human and who did a better job of it than we ever could, and will have to explain why. Why we did, and why we didn’t. Why sleep or money or sex or comfort was more important than changing the world. It won’t just be the non-church folk explaining it. It will be all of us.
A friend recently pointed out to that liberals have a tough time believing that anyone goes to Hell. I agreed, and then reminded him that fundamentalists have no problem believing that other people go to Hell, but will never admit that they themselves might someday end up there. John reminds us that we could all very well be wrong. Before him stood the bearers of the covenant with Abraham, God’s sacred promise, and John says, “Don’t think that will save you. God could replace you with these rocks if God wanted to. Children of Abraham are known by their fruits, by what they make in the world, not by their names or nationalities. And just so you know, trees that don’t bear fruit get cut down and used for kindling.”
Personally, I’m willing to trust a loving, merciful God on the issue of eternal damnation. I don’t claim to know who will be in Heaven and who won’t. But John reminds us that – if Jesus is coming (and Jesus is) – then we all of us will be held accountable, and all of the things that we use to give us comfort – labels like “saved” and “Christian” and “believer” and “spiritual” will not mean squat when we have to stare into the all-knowing eyes of our Creator and explain “why.” Even so, come Lord Jesus.
John closes his sermon with another happy, cheerful image. He points to the symbol of baptism, a symbol that well preceded Jesus as a metaphor for death and new life. John says that just as we can step into water to be made anew, to be transformed and healed so Jesus will come with fire to transform us as well. Personally, I would have been OK with just the water thing, but clearly Jesus asks more of us than a pleasant dip in the stream.
Like a miller pitching the useless bits of grass into the fire and keeping only what is nourishing, John tells us God is coming back, and when Jesus arrives we better hope that we are worth keeping. Even so, come Lord Jesus.
In case you haven’t noticed, this is scary stuff. If you remember, a few years back people had bumper stickers and shirts that said “Remember the Reason for the Season.” Well, the reason for the season of Advent is remembering that Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming, and that should scare us all; because every one of us falls short of John’s standard, which is conveniently also God’s. Jesus is coming, and we are not ready or worthy.
But Jesus is coming. We gather here to confess and to sing, to share and be served, because Jesus is coming. Yes, that means that we should and must change, that we should and must do more, and that we will never do enough. But it means so much more.
It means we’re worth coming back for. You and me, all of us, unworthy as John the Bugeating Baptizer clearly would remind us we are, we are worth everything to the God who created us. Jesus is coming, and we will never hurt again. Jesus is coming and we will be forgiven. Jesus is coming, and we will be reunited with all those whom we have lost to death. Jesus is coming, and Jesus is coming for us.
That’s the good news and the bad news. If there is a God, and if there is a Jesus, and if this world is going to end just as our lives will someday end; then everything common sense tells us about the world is wrong. Just as that applies to the easy things that make us feel good, so it also applies to the hard things that scare us.
As much as Jesus’ return requires of us, it requires more of God. As much as Jesus’ coming should rightfully scare all of us who are honest with ourselves, so much more so it should comfort us if we are honest about who Jesus is.
We can leap into the river of new life like poor and rejected who followed John, or we can hang back, self-assured, like the faithful believers who doubted him. Either way, Jesus is coming for us, for you and for me; ultimately and finally because God loves us enough to want us to come home.
That is our challenge and that is our hope. No matter what else seems important or worthwhile, no matter what else seems frightening or fatal, Jesus is coming.
Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.