Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Good morning - You brood of vipers!
You repentance-fakers, saying the right words and acting all holy-like! Your social standing and your family history don’t mean a thing. Quit talking, quit posturing, and change your lives! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!
You’re nothing but a bunch of snakes!
Well, I thought that I might take a cue from John the Baptist’s playbook on winning communication. John is one of those characters that show up in the season of Advent. He was the forerunner of Jesus, the one who paved the way – John was Jesus’ advance man.
But I’m thinking, maybe emulating John is not the way to go. He comes off – just a little strong. But once you get past his gruff exterior, his message – well, it’s at least as harsh as his demeanor.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This is season of hoping and waiting, a season of expectation, a season of preparation for the joy and the wonder and the great celebration of Christmas. We light a candle each week and the light grows as we get nearer the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
And we begin this season of wonder and joy and expectation with – with some wild man insulting us? With a bizarre figure telling us to turn or burn?
John is one weird dude. Look at what he eats: locusts and wild honey. Eating locusts was not unheard of, and Leviticus chapter 11 even spelled out the kinds of locusts you were permitted to eat. Sure, they have a lot of protein, but I once had a cicada fly right into my mouth and it really wasn’t that appetizing. John was eating locusts by choice.
And then he has honey to go with the locusts. Well, if it works for Great Plains Pizza, I guess it would work for locusts. But have you ever gone after wild honey? Harvesting honey from domestic bees can be a lot of work, but harvesting wild honey is not only a messy job, it can be dangerous. We try to get our kids to sit up straight and have some semblance of etiquette at the table, and John just has a grab and go meal of locusts and wild honey.
And then there is the matter of his clothing. Camel hair makes burlap seem nice and soft. An odd fashion choice, to say the least. He is an outdoorsy, hardworking kind of guy – so why not flannel? Why not Carhartt?
John looks odd, dresses strangely, eats weird stuff. He is not interested in social niceties. John is not the kind of guy you want as a role model for your kids.
John should have been a priest. That’s the way things worked back then. A son was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps. Even Jesus honored the tradition, becoming a carpenter like Joseph. But not John. Not only did he reject the priesthood, his whole life was a critique of the religious establishment. His clothing reminded people of the prophet Elijah, who had a lot to say about society and kings and politics and justice. John’s style and dress and manner were all designed to upset the apple cart. John was rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.
But these are mostly superficial issues. We pay way too much attention to the way a person looks or talks or dresses or what they eat. So, let’s go beyond appearances. Maybe more to the point, John is just plain annoying. Especially in this season of the year. John has a lot of nerve.
Can you imagine getting a Christmas card from John the Baptist? There would be a big snake on the front of the card. You open it, and it says, “Greetings, you brood of vipers! If you want to have a Happy New Year, you better turn your lives around. Happy Holidays, JB. P.S. I never thought that much of your family anyway.”
In this season, there are performances of the Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol and The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever. There are all kinds of Christmas specials on TV: Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. There is a chipmunk Christmas. But you will definitely not find a John the Baptist Christmas Special.
John seems completely out of place in this season. And while we are thinking about Christmas cards, there is a reason that Hallmark doesn’t make cards with John the Baptist. You can find Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men. You can find words from the Old Testament prophets, you can find themes of joy and peace and hope and love and light. But you won’t find a card with a theme of repentance, and you will not find John the Baptist.
John is rude, he is annoying, and yes, he is even embarrassing. He flaunts convention and tradition, disrespecting his elders. He scoffs at authority. He forages for food. He has fashion issues. And on top of it all, he is called a Baptist. We work hard to not be thought of as barefoot and backward and obsessed with hellfire and damnation, and then every Advent, John comes along and undoes all of that.
John is rude and annoying and embarrassing. But the worst thing is – are you ready for this? Here’s the worst thing. The worst thing is, he may be right. Don’t you hate it when people like him turn out to be right?
Let’s look at his message. His message is about preparation – getting ready. In introducing John, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”
John prepared the way for the Lord by preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins and baptizing those who responded.
It’s a novel idea. It’s not the way we usually prepare for Christmas. When people ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?” what comes to mind? You probably think first of all about your shopping. Have I bought something for everybody on the list? Will that sweater fit dad? Will my niece be happy with an iTunes gift card? And then you may think about cooking. Will we have ham or turkey for Christmas, or maybe do something different – what about enchiladas or lasagna? And what about all the baking?
And then, you may think about getting the house ready. You need to put up your outdoor lights. You need to get the tree up. There is cleaning and straightening and decorating to do. And then, some of us get ready for Christmas by getting our calendars sorted out. We have to synchronize our schedules and fit in the school concerts and the church dinner and the work Christmas party and that play or concert we want to go to, all while working around the ISU basketball schedule, of course. And then we have to arrange get-togethers for the family. Maybe both sides of the family. Maybe 3 or 4 sides of the family.
We are busy doing what needs to be done, making preparations, when John the Baptist shows up and sticks his nose into our Christmas, calling for repentance of all things. He is abrupt, and it is not at all convenient. But maybe we need to be inconvenienced, just a bit. Maybe we need to be embarrassed about what we have made of Christmas. Maybe we even need to be offended, just a bit.
We need to ask ourselves: after all of the shopping and parties and TV specials, after all the cookies and fruitcake, after all the carols and family dinners and gift-giving, what has changed? We go through these days leading up to Christmas, and in a few weeks, it’s back to the regular routine of life, and then we do it all again next year.
There is nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s nice to have a change of pace. There is certainly joy to be found in all that happens in this season. But there is a reason that this is the most stressful time of the year. There is a reason that for many people, it is the loneliest tie of year, the hardest time of year. And it is possible to forget the reason for all of the celebration in the first place.
Maybe we need a character like John to shock us back into reality. John calls us to repentance – to turn our lives around. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Well, let’s face it: repentance is not a big seller. It’s not what you would call a crowd-pleaser.
There was a Doonesbury comic strip where the minister, Rev. Scot Sloan, is talking to a couple inquiring about church membership. He describes the basic approach of his Little Church on Walden: “I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity. Basically I believe we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, it’s about recommitment, about redemption. It’s all there in the brochure.”
The wife says, “Wait a minute - sinners? Redemption? Doesn’t that imply guilt?”
The husband says, “I dunno, there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.”
The wife adds, “That’s right. We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.”
But then the husband says, “On the other hand, you do offer racquetball.”
But the wife reminds him, “So do the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more.”
Repentance seems like such a downer. Fortunately, it really doesn’t apply to us, does it? I mean after all, it’s for sinners – real sinners, people who don’t go to church like us. Or, we may think of repentance as a one-shot deal that we took care of years ago, when we were baptized. In our better moments, we might say, “OK, we all need to repent from the materialism and self-centeredness that affects us all. We know we’re not perfect and we could all stand some improvement.”
But that is still a shallow understanding of repentance, shallow in that it is rather vague and general. Susan and I heard Presbyterian minister and homiletics professor Tom Long speak at a conference this fall. He describes repentance in this way:
Whenever we return to an old and well-worn passage in the Bible and do not, through nostalgia or willfulness, have it to say only what we expect it to say, but allow it to encounter us anew, creating new and demanding possibilities for our lives, we have repented.
When we invoke some experience in our memory and discover, in our remembering, more evidence of the hand of God there than we first saw, more signs of the grace of God than we ever knew were there before, more call for gratitude to God than we have yet expressed, and we find ourselves wanting to live a different, more faithful and more obedient tomorrow because of what we have discerned, we have repented.
Whenever we return to the faith we have been given, to the gospel we have heard so often, to the stories which have been told again and again, and find there not a retreat, but a renewal; whenever we discover that all that God has done in our common yesterdays is pointing us anew to the Christ who comes this day, to forgive our sins and to make possible a tomorrow of faith and joy, we have repented.
Repentance comes in many ways. When in our hurried life we visit someone and are able to set aside thoughts of tasks that have to be done and errands that have to be run and work waiting for us and listen, really listen, when we are truly there in the moment, we have repented.
Or, when we are able to set aside judgment of others long enough to look and see their need, or we are able to set aside our critique of others long enough to see their gifts, or we are able to set aside our fear of those who are different long enough to see our common humanity, we have repented.
What if, in this season of Advent, we really did seek repentance? And what if, instead of looking for others to repent, we listened to John, and we ourselves repented, and looked to Christ? I have a feeling that would go a long way toward bringing the hope and peace and joy and love that we seek in this season – to our lives, and maybe even to our world.
John preached repentance, but it’s very interesting to me that John did not go after people. He didn’t seek crowds; crowds sought him. John didn’t do an ad buy or a direct mail campaign. He didn’t have a TV show. He didn’t use social media. And he certainly did not have an image consultant. John went about things pretty much the opposite of what any evangelist would tell you to do.
His appearance and demeanor and personal habits said, “I could care less what you think.” John just went and set up shop out in the wilderness. And people flocked to him from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem itself. Unlikely as it seems, John’s message drew people. He had something they needed. Maybe repentance is something we all need.
John had issues, no doubt, but he had fire and passion and a deep belief that things could change—that change is possible. And it is. And maybe we prepare for the change God has for us, maybe we prepare for Jesus’ coming, maybe we prepare for Christmas, by repenting – by turning around, by turning toward Christ, by opening our hearts.
While we are making our Christmas lists this year, maybe we need to add repentance to the top of the list. Amen.