Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
One of my favorite parts of decorating the house for Christmas is decorating the tree. I love to reminisce about good memories from the past as I unwrap the ornaments from the storage box. The Grinch ornament collection reminds me of watching The Grinch Stole Christmas with my mom as a child. The Cape Hatteras ornament reminds me of a trip Adam and I took to the Outerbanks in college. The angel made out of seashells brings up memories of a cruise to the Bahamas with my parents. The wedding ornaments take me back to the day Adam and I were married. The baby’s first Christmas ornaments remind me of Isaac’s birth and his first Christmas with us. The snowman ornament made out of his footprint reminds me of the first time we made a homemade ornament with him. The choo-choo train ornament represents our trip to take Isaac to ride Thomas the Train in Spencer. This year Isaac proudly hung his new BB8 ornament; BB8 is a character from the newest Star Wars movie. He is already a Star Wars fan, so it seemed appropriate that BB8 was the first ornament he has ever hung on the tree. When I unwrap the ornaments next year, I will look forward to finding BB8. Every year when I decorate the tree, I am thankful for good memories.
If you are like me and you’ve been preparing your home and reminiscing about good times from the past, you might be as annoyed as I am by the arrival of John the Baptist. Here on this Second Sunday of Advent John comes on the scene with no warning saying, “Happy Advent, You Brood of Vipers! I’m so glad you’ve prepared your homes for your Christmas celebrations, now it’s time to prepare the way of the Lord! It’s time to shift your focus from past to present and future. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I do not want to welcome John the Baptist into my house. He is a lot like your most frustrating family member who changes all your plans when they walk in the door. John arrived just as suddenly into chapter three of the gospel of Matthew. Without warning, this strange and frightening figure arrives on the scene. His appearance and his message are both startling. And he is just plain weird. His clothing is made of camel’s hair, and he has a leather belt around his waist. His diet consists of locusts and wild honey. The people of Jerusalem and all Judea and of all the region along the Jordan go to him.
John’s clothes set him apart and identify him with Elijah who is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” John reminds the people of Elijah, and naturally, they come to him as it was thought that Elijah would return one day to announce the advent of the day of the Lord. His diet signifies that he lives on the margins. He does not eat what those in civilized society would eat; he eats food that can only be gathered, the food of the poor, the food of people who live in the desert. John has been set apart from the time that he was just a baby in his mother’s belly. He was the first one who recognized Jesus to be the messiah. When pregnant Mary came to visit pregnant Elizabeth, John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb. John is the last of the prophets. He stands in the water of the Jordan River, waters that remind the people of Israel of their exodus from Egypt and the many years of wilderness living that followed. He calls for a baptism of repentance. He wants to give the people another shot. Wake up, folks. It’s time to get your act together. Remember who you are – God’s holy people. Prepare the way of the Lord. On this Second Sunday of Advent, John teaches us that we prepare for God’s coming by participating in repentance.
People have all kinds of ideas of what it means to repent. We think repentance means feeling sorry for our mistakes, admitting what we’ve done wrong. Or perhaps we think repenting means trying to be a better person. Thinking about repentance dredges up feelings of guilt and unworthiness; thinking about our calling to repent often makes us fear judgment. We ask ourselves if we’ve done enough or if we feel sorry enough to receive God’s mercy and not God’s wrath. But we get repentance all wrong because we make it about the morality of individuals. Repentance is not about our moral standards or our individual worthiness; it’s about God’s desire to realign all of our lives. In the Greek, the word for repentance is “metanoia” and it means to “change one’s mind” or “turn around.” Repentance means to go another way, to change what direction we are going in, to realign ourselves in ways that will help us to get closer to what God desires for the world. When the prophets called the people to repent, they were calling the whole people of Israel turn towards God or to return to God and to reconcile. The images that Matthew uses in our text for today to tell the story of John the Baptist help to paint a different idea of what repentance means. In fact, the images of wilderness, baptism, and judgment enlarge our vision of repentance, pushing it beyond shallow morality.
John the Baptist cried out for repentance from the wilderness. He chose to live in the wilderness because it is often in the wilderness that people draw closer to God. This image of wilderness evokes memories of the joyous yet troubled history of the people of Israel. Moses led God’s people out of bondage and into the wilderness. They thought that God had brought them there to die, but God brought them there to form them. They often saw the wilderness as a form of punishment, but it was the place where they were remade into the people of God. They were stripped of excess possessions and learned to be led by God’s fiery cloud. They learned that all that they had, even the food that they ate, was a gift from God. Wilderness is a reminder that God has brought all of us out of bondage and reoriented our lives. The image of wilderness teaches us that repentance reorients our lives.
John invited folks into a baptism of repentance that looked toward a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. In John’s day, it was common to invite people into pools for ritual cleansing, but John was signaling it was time to make things right once and for all because it was time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. In baptism we remember who we really are, cast off the ways we’ve failed, and claim our identity as children of God. We are reminded that no matter who our ancestors are, God can make us into God’s children. Baptism is much more than a symbol of our own decision to follow God; it celebrates God’s claiming of us. The image of baptismal waters is a reminder that repentance is about reclaiming our identity in God.
Both the image of the ax lying at the root of the tree and the wheat being separated from the chaff are images of judgment. John reminds is that when God comes, the world cannot continue on with business as usual. There is a fundamental break with the past. God will cut down trees that don’t bear fruit and will burn away the chaff so that the wheat can be usable. Repentance is about moving away from the things of this world toward the things of God, toward the kingdom. Again, we don’t need to individualize it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be cut down or burnt up. It means that God will purify us and our communities and get rid of all that keeps us from following in God’s ways. John invites us to begin to purify ourselves before Jesus, who is more powerful than John, comes with the Holy Spirit and fire to purify us once and for all.
It should not be lost on us why the Pharisees and the Sadducees come from the center of power to see what’s going on. They want to know how much of a threat John is. Why are all these people flocking towards him? John has strong words for them because their rituals are empty. Their words do not lead to actions that line up with God’s ways. They have not truly repented because their repentance has not born any fruit. They have not been reoriented. They have not been reminded of who they are. They have not moved away from the things of this world. John calls them vipers because they have been like snakes. They have been predatory, poisonous, false teachers who pervert the people, leading them away from God. Herod will eventually kill John the Baptist because he is a threat to power, but repentance moves us away from the desire for power and the violence necessary to maintain it. It empties us of ourselves and fills us with God.
Perhaps, John the Baptist is the perfect character for this Second Sunday of Advent. John is weird but so is Advent. Our culture asks us to celebrate Christmas right now. In fact, the mall asked us to do it right after the Halloween decorations were taken down. We should eat, drink, and be merry. We should be good to ourselves and treat ourselves with things we deserve. We should consume things that make us happy. We should stare at our trees and reminisce about good memories from the past. Focus on warm and fuzzy feelings and eggnog. Sometimes we enjoy these celebrations, and other times they come up empty. But John invites us into Advent first, into a time of waiting, into a time of preparation. He cautions us not to jump into empty or false celebrations of Christmas. Instead of consuming, he invites us to create, to give birth, to bring forth something new. He asks us to do the work of Advent, to wait, to prepare. We don’t just sit around in our waiting and do nothing. As one theologian says, “Repentance is not passive waiting but active expectancy characterized by the alignment of one’s whole being with what God is doing in the world.”[i] In order to align ourselves with what God is doing in the world, we have the opportunity in Advent to trim off the dead limbs and to burn the chaff. We have the chance to get rid of all the things in our lives that take up so much space that we don’t have room to participate in what God is doing. We can empty ourselves of all the things that distract us so that we are aware of our need for God. Oscar Romero writes, “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”[ii]
We cannot change and turn towards God if we continue to think that Christmas is about good memories and gifts that can be bought from the store. We need to have a moment like the Grinch did, a moment where we hear the Who’s singing on Christmas morning, even though the Grinch had taken away all their tinsel and packages. Remember what Dr. Seuss said: “Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, Was singing! Without any presents at all! He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same! And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, Stood puzzling and puzzling: ‘How could it be so?” ‘It came with out ribbons! It came without tags!’ ‘It came without packages, boxes or bags!’ And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn't come from a store.’ ‘Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more’!”
This Advent we are reminded that no one knows not the day or the hour, but the Lord is indeed coming. God will come to be with us. How will we prepare the way? John invites us to prepare ourselves through the practice of repentance. Repentance will reorient us; repentance will reclaim our identity as God’s children; repentance will move us away from the things of this world and toward the things of God. Repentance will change us; repentance will turn us away from our desire for power; repentance will lead us into poverty of spirit. What do we need to turn away from? How do we need to change? What do we need to empty ourselves of so that we can be filled with God? There isn’t a better way to repent than to come to the table of our Lord. The table of our Lord reorients us; it reminds us of our story as God’s people by telling the story of the life and death and resurrection of our Lord. The table invites us to turn away from selfishness, to make things right with God and with brothers and sisters whom we’ve wronged, to make things right in our communities. It invites us to leave our centers of power and to make friends with those in the wilderness. The table invites us to proclaim the truth that has changed all of us: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again! The table beckons us to eat of Christ’s body and to drink of Christ’s blood so we can bear fruit as his body in the world. The table calls out for us to repent and prepare the way, for the kingdom of heaven has indeed come near. Amen.