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December 8, 2013 - Matthew 3.1-12

“Axes! Locusts! Fire! Oh My!”

Matthew 3.1-12

December 8, 2013

 

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.”[1]

 

How do we prepare for Advent/Christmas?  How do we prepare for the coming of Jesus?  We decorate, we wrap presents, we cook expensive meals and send out cards to people we have almost lost touch with but hope not to.  We begin preparing for the coming of Jesus now almost before Halloween.  With all the preparation that we do, I wonder if we have asked ourselves the important question – How does God want us to prepare for the coming of Jesus?

Well, the Bible gives us some instruction here.  The one voice that spoke to that very topic – preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus – was John the Baptist.

John opens his ministry quoting the Old Testament.  He is pointing out the exact fulfillment of prophecy.  John was Old School.  He was a real, bona fide throwback to the old Hebrew Prophets.  They did strange stuff.  Isaiah walked around naked.  Ezekiel laid in his yard.  You don’t really want me to tell you about Jeremiah so close to lunch.  Wilderness.  Locusts and honey.  The wilderness was a time to be tested and to rely upon God.

Most modern listeners to scripture today are not willing to hear about repentance, and most preachers are not ready to preach about it.  It is disturbing to an audience to hear that you must change your direction.  It turns people away, honestly.  But John the Baptist did not dilute his message with soft, gentle, pop psychology kind of language.  His language was rough, rude and real.  “The axe lies at the root of the tree…” “You brood of vipers…” “Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance…”

It is not a far reach to say that John’s message applies to us in our own wilderness today.  If we honestly examine our cultures sexual habits, business mores, inner cities, the political manipulation of the masses, oppression, and insatiable desire to unashamedly pursue wealth, then the words desert and wilderness do not seem like too much of an overstatement. The wilderness is where the people of Israel lost their way and wandered 40 years until they were ready to trust God.  The wilderness is where John the Baptist called people to come to repentance, and it is in the wilderness that we find the beginning of the path to inner peace.

To repent has a significant meaning.  It means to change direction.  To go in the opposite direction.  To be cleansed and start over again.  But you cannot change direction or begin again unless someone tells you, “DO over!”  or “HEY! You are going the wrong way!”

When we were kids if we were playing kickball and the ball got stuck in a tree or something, we’d yell, “Do over!”  John the Baptist is yelling, “Do over! You put the ball in the tree!”

In the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin and John Candy are riding down the freeway in the middle of the night.  A car desperately pulls up beside them and the people in it start screaming “You are going the wrong way!”  Sleepily, Martin says to Candy, “someone is screaming that we are going the wrong way.”  Candy replies, “How do they know where we’re going?” “Yeah,” Martin says.  That’s when he sees that the median is BETWEEN his car and the other car, and that they are headed south bound in the north bound lane.  Coming straight at them, are two 18-wheeler tractor trailer trucks.  They barely escape with their lives, their lives flashing before them, sparks flying.  John the Baptist is screaming at the top of his lungs, “You are going the wrong way!  Turn around!  You are going to die!”

He is telling us to prepare the way for the Lord.  The path for a King must be made straight and level.  God is coming.  Jesus is coming.  We must get the way prepared.  Repentance is the first step towards preparing the way.  It is the first step in being honest about ourselves.  We sin.  We fall short of God’s glory.  We wander, we lie, we cheat, we lust, we covet, we are greedy.  Repentance begins with the simple admission that in our sin we need to be forgiven, that we need to confess.

It seems to me that a real universal among humans is the search, for the lack of a better term, “inner peace.”  If you see any poll about our culture today, a desire for spiritual meaning and peace of mind always rank super high with people today.  But nothing is more anguishing to me than when I hear the polling data and see that most people in our culture think the church is irrelevant.  When people like us again take repentance seriously, then our world will once again take the church seriously.  Often we Protestants malign the way that Catholics “do confession.”  The criticism is often made that a simple homework assignment of X of “Hail Marys” and X “Our Fathers” isn’t a good way to do repentance and confession.  That critique has a lot of validity to it, but any good Catholic could ask me, “So how do you guys do it?”  That should be question, shouldn’t it?  How do we do it?  How do we “do confession?”

The truth is we are not comfortable with it.  The only corporate way we have to confess is through the Pastoral Prayer.  We do that, and it is a good way to do that corporately.  But what about my sins?  And your sins?  We need to say in the family of faith the same thing we say to God.  It makes it more real to us.  That means that you and I are going to have to trust each other enough, that you are going to have to trust the person sitting next to you enough to be able to go to them and have a tough conversation where we forgive each other, encourage each other, and resolve to work together to walk in repentance.

Sometimes we like to think that repentance is just a vertical matter, between God and us.  But it’s not.  It certainly begins there, but unless the repentance becomes horizontal as well as vertical, then we are not living it out.  If it stays from God to me, then I am shutting it down on my end.  Real repentance flows from God to me and to those around me.  That is the horizontal.  You and I have been forgiven by God.  If we take that seriously, we will forgive each other.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book, Gospel Medicine, about how repentance is lived out horizontally and not just vertically.

In case you have not noticed, Christianity is a religion which the sinners have all the advantages.  They can step on your feet fifty times and you are supposed to keep smiling.  They can talk bad about you every time you leave the room and it is your job to excuse them with no thought of getting even.  The burden is on you, because you have been forgiven yourself, and God expects you to do unto others as God has done unto you.

This is not a bad motivation for learning how to forgive.  If God is willing to stay with me in spite of my meanness, my weakness, my stubborn self-righteousness then who am I to hold those things against someone else?  Better I should confess my own sins than keep track of yours, only it is hard to stay focused on my shortcomings.  I would so rather stay focused on yours, especially when they are hurtful to me. 

Staying angry with you is how I protect myself from you.  Refusing to forgive you is not only how I punish you; it is also how I keep you from hurting me again, and nine times out of ten it works, only there is a serious side effect.  It is called bitterness, and it can do terrible things to the human body and soul.[2]

 

Bitterness is the opposite of repentance.  It is not ignorance, when you do not know there are stones and fallen trees that lie in the path of God to your heart.  It is knowing that the stones and stumps are in the way and blaming someone else for putting them there, refusing to turn around and prepare the way of the Lord.  The path to inner peace is found in the wilderness.  It is cluttered with obstacles.  It begins here.  If you are looking for it, the beginning of the path is right behind you.  Turn around, and follow the path.

We often make the mistake, in our particular brand of Christianity, in thinking that simply by acknowledging our sin, that we are repenting.  We pray, “God, I am sorry,” and then we wipe our tears and are done with it.  Shame on us.  True repentance involves actually making progress in the right direction.  Not just stopping the path of sin, but turning around and heading in the right direction – toward Jesus.

It is not enough to be sorry for sin and scared of Hell.  Feeling sorry for sin does not mean you have repented.  Being scared of Hell never saved anyone!  If you want to run from a burning house, then any direction will do – or even just a safe enough distance.  Lots of people – and you might be one of them – at some point in their lives got real scared of Hell, and ran a safe distance into the church, and now they think they are saved.  Running from Hell is not repentance – running to Jesus is.  It is not enough to know we have done wrong – we must follow Christ with intentionality.  We have got to follow Jesus on purpose.  Look at John’s words:

“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.”

Being in church no more makes you or I a Christian anymore than being in a garage makes you or I a car.  If we are going to prepare the way for the Lord, if Advent is going to be real for us, then we have to ask ourselves: “Do I have some repenting to do?”  “Did I ever really run to Jesus, or did I just run scared from Hell?” “Is there something that I have not done, like asking or giving forgiveness, that I ought to do?”  “Is my heart ready for Jesus?”

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.’

The one who is coming is the Lamb of God, and he comes bearing the fire of transformation and salvation.  You have a chance today to prepare your heart for God, perhaps for the first time.  Or maybe you need to clear a path that you have cleared before.  But prepare the way of the Lord!

 

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2] Taylor, Barbara Brown; Gospel Medicine, Boston: Crowley Publications, 1995.  Referenced from p. 46 of Pulpit Resource, William Willimon, editor.