Today marks the second week of Advent, and our Bible reading turns our attention to the days before Jesus began his public ministry.
This month there has been roadworks on the campus we live in. The roads around the site are gravelled and inclined to potholes. For 3 weeks there was grading, rolling, lots of noise and dust, until finally the main road in and out of the property has been bitumened for the very first time. It’s going to mean a lot less dust for offices and classrooms that I work from. And it’s going to be a lot better for our community and visitors.
From my office window, I’ve had a good view of the roadworks. I’ve been interested to see all the preparation and chat with the guys onsite about the work.
Today’s passage, Matthew 3:1-12, picks up that same image – of road building to prepare the way.
Before we hear Jesus bring the message of peace with God, we hear first a voice calling out in the wilderness. John the Baptist bursts into the narrative of Matthew. We hear his message to repent and turn to God in verses 2-3, and John’s message connects to the message and voices of the Old Testament prophets. Verse 3 includes a quote from the book of Isaiah, and in his message John is a bridge from the Old Testament to the New Testament. He speaks with the authority of one of the great prophets of Israel, calling for people to repent, to get ready, and be baptised as the sign of a changed heart and life.
And when we meet John the man in verse 4, we see that he looks like a figure out of the Old Testament, like an Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8, Elijah is described as a hairy man wearing a leather belt. Earlier in the week I joked that it would be fun for me to dress up as John the Baptist for today. It would certainly make an impression. Rough clothes made out of the coarse hair of the camel cinched together with a leather belt. And for morning tea today we could have locusts – big grasshoppers, and honey. But on reflection, I think dressing up as John would do Matthew’s gospel a disservice. John’s message is what we encounter first, because John’s role as a radical God-follower and announcement-maker for God are the most important things about him. How he looks and his diet is more a result of his obedience to the task that God has given him.
John has an urgent message for the people of his day. He calls out, “Change your life! The kingdom of heaven is just around the corner.” Clearly the people are not ready for the coming of God’s kingdom, and so John’s job is to urge them to turn their lives around, and show clear proof of changed lives.
John’s message, or at least his personality and style, attracted lots of attention. People flocked out of the cities and villages to see and hear him. Prophets had always been strange; a kind of novelty in Israel, and for some four hundred years before John, there had been no prophets in Israel. Just like the prophets of the Old Testament, John and his message was not entirely welcome. He lives and shares God’s message from out in the wilderness, outside of city and village life, and outside of the authority of the religious leaders and rulers. His message is abrupt and shows no favour for privilege or rank. He is unconcerned if his message upsets the religious authorities, and ultimately his words of rebuke to the local ruler, Herod, costs him his life.
Let’s look more closely at John’s message.
Matthew 3:1-13 (NIV)
In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 2 “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” 3 The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him!’”
Twice we are told in the opening verses that John is proclaiming his message from the wilderness. All through the story of the Old Testament, the wilderness was a place where God met his people, and where he provided for them. And prophets like Isaiah and Hosea promise that God would again speak from the wilderness and bless his people.
Hosea 2:14-15 (NIV)
Hosea chapter 2, verses 14-15, say:
“But then I will win her back once again. I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there. 15 I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope.”
Trouble transformed to hope. A gently restored relationship with God. A promise of harvests and peace. It’s a promise that is to be revealed and fulfilled in the desert, in the wilderness. Away from the city, away from power structures, and authority, away from the comfort of daily life. The wilderness is where God will meet his people.
In Matthew 3:3, Matthew explicitly links John with the voice in Isaiah 40. It’s a voice crying out in the wilderness, and it’s calling the people to get ready and prepare the road for the coming king. In John’s day, the roads around Palestine were simple dirt tracks. But when a king was on tour, or for a special occasion, the king would command that roads be prepared for his journey. So local people would then work to get the road in order for him. John saw this as his mission – to deliver a message that would prepare the way for God’s kingdom brought by Jesus the King.
The key to John’s message was the call to repent. The call to repentance is a constant one in the Old Testament. Time and time again God’s messengers, the prophets, call people to turn their lives around.
For example, in Isaiah 55:7, we read: “Let the wicked change their ways and banish the very thought of doing wrong. Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them. Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.” (NIV)
Repentance is about changed lives, transformed lives; lives that have dramatically changed direction and are now facing and seeking God. Repentance is also accompanied by God’s forgiveness and generous mercy.
It seems a familiar message for John’s audience, but it has a twist. John’s call to repentance includes a call to be publically baptized in the river by John himself. Never had this been seen in Israel before. For the Jews, a baptism like this was for outsiders, for Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism. Jews practiced various kinds of ceremonial washing to remind themselves of the importance of being clean before God, but they washed themselves. John’s baptism implied that firstly, being Jewish wasn’t enough to be ready for the kingdom of God; and secondly, that you couldn’t wash your own life clean. If you were going to be ready for the new thing that God was doing, then you had to humble yourself to be baptised by someone else.
And so crowds flocked to see and hear John, and no doubt, also see the spectacle of people submitting themselves to getting dunked in the river by the rough and ready looking prophet.
Earlier this week, we were coming back from a visit to the Cranbourne Botanical Gardens with my mum. And all of a sudden the traffic came to a complete stop. I was sure there must have been an accident. But no, a police car had pulled over a vehicle on the shoulder. That was all. But every other driver on the freeway needed to slow right down and have a good look at what was going on. We all know the frustration of a gaper’s delay.
In Matthew 3:7-10, John fires up at the religious leaders for being gapers on his scene. Many of them had come out of Jerusalem to stand by and watch as John taught and as people repented and were baptised. They are only there as onlookers, as bystanders. John doesn’t tell us that they are getting in the way, but he does make it clear that their standing around watching reveals something sinister about their hearts and lives.
Verse 7, John goes on the attack, and calls the religious leaders a brood of snakes! Definitely not words you want to be hearing from your pastor or a prophet. John’s anger is that these are the very people who should know that no-one can stand up before God and declare themselves righteous. From other stories in the Gospels, you can easily imagine the religious leaders standing aloof and passing judgement on John and all who came to repent and be baptised. Their own certainty about their rightness before God blinded them. John goes on to undermine their assumptions. Verse 8, John tells them to live lives that demonstrate that they have repented and turned to God. Verse 9, John attacks their assumption that being Jewish was enough to save them. Despite what they think, they are not ready for God’s coming king; and their hard hearts deserve judgement.
In verse 10, John uses the image of the gardener who judges the garden by how productive plants are. If a tree is not producing good fruit, then it will be removed, and room made for a productive and healthy plant.
My father had a funny gardening habit. He would take his axe outside and show it to an unproductive or failing tree, and tell it that this was its warning. If it didn’t shape up and fruit, he would cut it down. At least in the case of one recalcitrant lemon tree, it did the trick, and the lemon fruited gloriously from then on, having heard the warning that judgement was imminent.
And that’s John’s message too. That God’s kingdom brings judgement as well as blessing. And John’s message to even the most religious people of his day was that they were not ready. And the only way to be ready was to repent, be baptised, and then live in a way that reflected the kingdom of God.
In the last 2 verses of our passage, John explains further what he is preparing the people of his day for. John highlights in verses 11-12 the difference between the baptism and repentance that he offered, and the even greater baptism that Jesus would bring.
The people of John’s day understood him to be God’s prophet; but John says in verse 11, that there was another coming who was so much greater that John wasn’t even worthy to be his slave. John offered people the opportunity to repent and the symbol of cleansing through water baptism, but the coming Jesus was bringing the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptism was not just a single act that occurred in repentance, but baptism was going to ongoing, daily conversation with God through his Spirit. The baptism that Jesus offers is a baptism that brings us into the kingdom of God, makes us part of God’s family, and that enables us to share in the life of Jesus himself.
Repentance is more than saying sorry. Repentance brings us to examine our life, to change the direction and purpose of our lives to cooperate with God’s kingdom and his son Jesus. John promised that the kingdom of God was close, and then Jesus announces that entry into the kingdom of God is through him alone.
John’s message is designed to encourage the humble who knew their failings before God, and also warn the proud and wicked. God was not going to ignore the injustice of the world, indeed God’s kingdom was all about putting things right once and for all. John’s calling out in the wilderness is for those who believe that God is near, and that his kingdom brings both blessing and judgement. It’s a message to get our lives in order; to prepare for the coming of the king.
In this the second week of Advent, the message of Matthew 3 is that we each need to pause and consider how ready we are for the coming of the King. Have we made peace with God by turning from those things that displease God or go against his wishes for us and turning to follow Jesus instead? Is the direction of our life one that seeks to cooperate with Jesus and live by his Holy Spirit? Are we sharing in the life of Jesus and living in the peace and light of his presence with us?
John announced the first coming of Jesus, and we now wait for his second coming. But the message is the same – for us and for our community. Are we ready for the coming of the king? And if we are ready, then our task is to be help others be ready too.
What do you see when you look at your life? Where does John the Baptist challenge you? In what ways is your life out of whack? What distracts you and calls you away from living in the kingdom way? In what ways do you hurt yourself or others? In what ways have you grown lazy or cold towards the voice of God in your life? The call of John, and the call of Jesus is to repent and turn around – because you are worth it – because you are created in the image of God – because Jesus loves you, and Jesus is coming. Let us all prepare the way for the king. Amen.