Sermon: Advent I
Sinai’s Last Thunder
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 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.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 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. 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.
“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. 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.”
• Matthew 3:1-12
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Sinai’s Last Thunder (Matthew 3:1-12)
What are we going to do with John the Baptist? John is one of the most vividly drawn characters in Scripture and each Advent we come face to face with him again. The four Gospels show us that Jesus’ public work began in the context of John’s ministry, and this text from Matthew summarizes it well.
▪John lived in the wilderness. He lived an ascetic life, living under vows that limited his dress, his diet, and his vocation.
▪John was a prophet to whom the Word of the Lord came.
▪Like the Hebrew prophets who came before him, John preached repentance, urging Israel to turn back to God.
▪John complemented his preaching with the prophetic action of baptism.
▪John came to fulfill God’s promise given through the prophet Isaiah — he came to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, who was about to arrive, bringing salvation to his people.
How should we approach today’s description of John the Baptist? One way would be to discuss the theological words in this Gospel lesson. Note the rich, profound concepts that are meaningful to our faith: the Word of God, the wilderness, baptism, repentance, the forgiveness of sins, God’s promises through the prophets, the coming of the Lord, God’s salvation. We could meditate on these rich words and concepts this morning.
Another way we could approach John would be to try and understand the historical context of his ministry. We could talk about why he appeared in the wilderness and why he baptized in the Jordan River and what that would have symbolized for the Jewish people. We could discuss Israel’s relationship with the Romans who ruled over them at that time, the Jews’ continuing sense of being a people in exile, and how John was raised up to address that situation.
Today, I’d like to look at this Gospel text from a close and personal angle. You see — and I am going to be frank here — I have an idea that John the Baptist is not a person I would like very much. And I doubt that most of you would care for him either. I’m quite sure he would not be welcomed with enthusiasm in most of our churches today. He was strange, abrasive, different.
▪ First of all, John was a hermit. He lived in the wilderness. He lived under a Nazirite vow which meant he didn’t do a lot of the things you and I consider normal. The Gospels say he dressed in unconventional clothes. He ate a funny diet. It’s likely his personal hygiene was not up to our standards. He looked rough and talked rough — and probably didn’t smell so good. I doubt he was skilled in social graces or manners. He was an outsider and didn’t fit into polite company well.
▪ Second, John was narrow-minded. No matter what subject you brought up, he wanted to talk about one thing: repentance.
▪ Third, John didn’t mind his own business. Not only did he want to talk about repentance, he wanted you to repent! John wasn’t afraid to look you in the eye and tell you what was what. He wasn’t shy about challenging others about their lifestyles, their priorities, their spending habits, their entertainment choices, their religious practices. He was not concerned about winning friends. He believed God had called him to tell the plain truth bluntly and forcefully, and then tell people to get their act together.
▪ Fourth, John didn’t put much stock in religious trappings. The Pharisees were the most conservative and respected religious people in Israel in those days — and John called them snakes! If he came to visit us today, he would not likely be impressed with a beautiful church building, a full slate of good programs, or a group of people who were devoted to their church. He would start asking uncomfortable questions that go beyond the externals and focus on whether a person’s heart and life is right.
▪ Fifth, John put people on the spot publicly. John’s ministry was not a quiet, private business. He called people to profess their repentance right out in the open, in public view. When he called you to turn your life around, he insisted that you had to do that in front of everyone. He said, if you’re serious, come down here to the river, take off your clothes, and I’ll baptize you and wash you clean like a newborn baby. Your mom and dad will know. Your friends and coworkers will know. Everyone will know. John didn’t care about embarrassing people. He believed so strongly in what he was doing that he thought that taking a public stand was worth any discomfort a person might feel.
So, what do you do with people like that? Strong personalities who separate themselves from the way you and other normal people live, who are narrow and negative and severe; who don’t mind their own business but freely speak their opinions and judgments to you and even about you? How do you deal with people who don’t simply accept the way you are but who constantly challenge you to change? Who put you on the spot and embarrass you in front of your family and friends?
This was John the Baptist: and I will be honest with you, he makes me uncomfortable. All his talk about sin and repentance, all his warnings about a God of judgment and the wrath to come, his refusal to accept any excuses from anyone, his rough appearance and uncouth ways, his direct way of confronting people, and his demand that even the most respectable people humble themselves and go down to the river and be baptized — all these things get under my skin and make me want to avoid him.
There is, of course, one positive characteristic that I love about John: he had a strong hope in the Messiah and when the time came he consistently pointed people away from himself to Jesus. When, as John’s Gospel records, John said, “He must increase and I must decrease,” I think that’s just about as good an approach to life as I can imagine.
But what about all this other stuff? Why did he have to break onto the scene like a bull in a china shop, upsetting everything, the way he did?
I think there is a clear theological answer to that: John was God’s LAST prophet to Israel under the covenant with Moses. John was the final peal of thunder from Mt. Sinai. John was the last in a long line of strange men and women who followed God’s unique calling to put themselves outside of mainstream Jewish religion in order that they might get the nation’s attention and call the people of Israel back to God. They called Israel back to the covenant they had entered into under Moses when they received the Ten Commandments and all of God’s laws.
When we lived in the east, and would travel through New York, they had signs that warned you about going the wrong way down a ramp on the highway. At the intersection where the ramp met the road, it would say, “Do Not Enter.” But then, a little farther down the ramp would be another sign — “Wrong Way!” Finally, a bit farther on was a sign with big letters, saying, “Go Back!” After that, you’d be driving down the highway in the wrong direction, in the face of oncoming traffic.
John was the man who was standing at the end of the line, the last warning, holding up a sign saying, “Stop! Turn around! GO BACK!!!” He warned Israel that they couldn’t go any farther in the direction they were going without getting themselves into serious danger of death and destruction.
Now, if that’s your job, you can’t be subtle about it. You have to get people’s attention. You have to speak directly and confrontationally. You can’t beat around the bush. This is not the time for winning personality contests. You have to speak the truth plainly, simply, and without waffling. There is no time to debate, no time to sit around and analyze what’s happening. People are about to plunge to their destruction, and you have to warn them. You have to point them to another way that will lead to life and not death. This was a grave emergency for the people of Israel, the danger was imminent, and God called John to warn Israel about it with a sense of urgency. And that is exactly what John the Baptist was all about.
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And that, my friends, is one thing that Advent is all about.
Advent is the time when God is shouting at us, “Stop!” It is the season in which he points us to the consequences of ignoring him and living selfishly. It is God’s urgent appeal that we will pause, consider our ways, and turn in fresh faith to put our hope in his promises.
We have turned Advent into something else. We’ve made it simply about preparing for Christmas. That certainly is part of it, but it’s not the whole message of this season. Traditionally, Advent has been a penitential season, like Lent. It’s a time for self-examination. It’s a time to confess our sins. It’s a time to humble ourselves and be honest with ourselves and recognize that, in many ways, we’re a mess and our families are a mess, and our churches are a mess, and the nations are a mess, and our world is a mess.
Advent is a time to recognize that unless God saves us we will not be saved.
That is why it has been traditional practice for people to fast during Advent, just as they do during Lent. In worship, many churches don’t sing the “Gloria” during Advent. Advent liturgies and hymns tend to be somber and stark, like the November/December landscape here in the northern hemisphere. The colors of Advent are dark blue and deep purple like the days that are growing darker as we move into winter. Our scripture readings are from the prophets and in the Gospels we meet people like John the Baptist, who hold up God’s Law like a mirror to our lives, tell us where we are falling short, and urge us to turn our lives around.
I remember watching a football game on TV when I was eight years old. It was between the Minnesota Vikings and the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers had the ball down near their own goal line and their quarterback threw a pass that was complete at about the 30-yard line. When the Vikings defensive back tackled the receiver, he stripped the ball from his arms, causing a fumble. Vikings linebacker Jim Marshall swooped in and picked up the ball and started running toward the goal line.
But there was one huge problem: he was running the wrong way! His teammates chased him down the field, yelling at him. His other teammates on the sidelines did the same. But Marshall was so exuberant about retrieving the fumble and having a clear field in front of him that he just kept running and running and running. He ran for 66 yards, and as he went into the end zone he flung the ball up into the air and out of bounds. It was only as he began to go toward his bench that a teammate finally caught up with him and gave him the bad news: he had gone the wrong way and scored points for the other team.
What a terrible feeling Jim Marshall must have had at that moment! He was out there, playing the game, doing his job and thinking he was doing it well. He was so caught up in the moment that he couldn’t hear the voices all around him screaming at him that he was going the wrong way. He just kept running and running and running until it was too late.
Don’t keep running and running and running during Advent, this season before Christmas. It is entirely possible you might be running in the wrong direction. Stop for a moment and look at where you are on the field. Listen closely. Is God trying to say something to you? Is he trying to point you in another direction?
Maybe we can learn something from this crazy guy named John the Baptist after all.
May God give us grace to hear his Word repentance this Advent season so that our hearts may turn toward Jesus and welcome his coming. Amen.