3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This 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.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even 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. 12His 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.”
Why the Fanfare?
Of all the characters in the Bible, surely John – John — the Baptizer, as we call him– is the strangest! He was an ascetic who lived alone in the wilderness eating insects and berries and wearing animal hides. John didn’t care what he looked like, or probably how often he bathed. Perhaps he was known to a few farmers who sometimes spotted him in the brush at the edge of the desert. But John had so little interaction with civilization that his voice was rusty and the presence of people made him uncomfortable. But he was deeply spiritual: He spent his days thinking, praying, fasting, and meditating – waiting for the moment when he would begin doing what God had called him to do –to be a herald.
Now being a herald is an odd occupation – and not many job openings. The last time I saw a herald was when Prince William and Kate had their daughter Charlotte. The herald in full regalia and reading from a scroll, stood on the hospital steps of St. Mary’s hospital to announce the coming of the royal infant. The baby attracted great attention, but heralds get very little. As a herald, you are not the main man; you’re only his announcer. You are not Johnny Carson; you are Ed McMahan. Not the bride; only the bridesmaid. You are not the King, you are simply his trumpeter.
So John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, was called to herald Christ, to play the bugle, to sound the alarm, if you will. To tell people to get ready, to prepare the way, because the King is coming. And John knew what he was talking about because he knew the King personally. The King – Jesus—was his cousin.
What a coincidence that in the whole history of God’s kingdom, God should choose Jesus of tiny Nazareth and his own cousin to play such pivotal roles in the history of mankind! Small world! And why did God choose such an eccentric character to prophesy the arrival of the messiah? And, for that matter, why did Christ need a herald? Wasn’t he spectacular enough, miraculous enough in his own right? Wouldn’t Jesus’ miracles have drawn sufficient attention without needing an opening act? And what was John’s message on the banks of the Jordan?
These aren’t rhetorical questions; they are genuine questions. I admit to questioning the Word of God. If I am going to try my humble best to explain God’s Word, I first shake it down, turn it inside out, hold it up to the light, and give it a thorough examination. And the person and role of John the Baptist is something that has always perplexed me.
Let’s take the last question – the most important one – first. What was John’s message? A King’s herald might shout: “O Yea, O Yea, His Royal Majesty approaches! Prepare the way for his arrival!” And by that announcement and the trumpet fanfare accompanying it, the commoners would bow before the procession. But John’s message was clearly more than a “listen up” and “bow down.” It was “REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD HAS COME NEAR! REPENT!”
We know that word, don’t we? Repent: To say you’re sorry. To be penitent. To confess your sins and ask forgiveness. Then as now, the people that John was speaking to were sinful and needed to confess. But I need help connecting the dots: How does repentance “prepare the way of the Lord”?
Now John’s audience group were Jews, mostly ordinary people like you and me. But as his following grew larger, the Jewish establishment also turned out to see what all the fuss was about. Today’s passage mentions the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They, too, walked out into the desert to hear this unconventional rabblerouser. They were defensive. Who is this nut? What is he saying that is drawing such a following?
You see, for the Jews, there had been no prophetic voice in 400 years. For long centuries, the voice of prophecy had been silent. Then John appeared out of the wilderness with the authoritative prophetic voice of God – denouncing evil, speaking the truth, offending those who hid behind their pedigrees and their rituals, and challenging men and women to be better. John was fearless and spoke with a divine authority which did not point back to himself but only to God. And he did not hold back when it came to church leaders: You “brood of vipers,” he called them! “[You are like snakes trying to escape a burning ground fire, or like barren plants that produce nothing of value.]10Even 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.” Time is running out for you! You will be cut down!”
Your only salvation, said John, is to REPENT. The word isderived from the verb “to turn,” to revolve – to turn away from evil and turn toward God. True repentance requires being deeply and authentically sorry, but it also requires a re-orientation – a turning toward a new way of living. John’s message was nothing new. Prophets long before John had called for this same repentance: The message given to Ezekiel was “Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? [Ezekiel 43: 11]. Jeremiah said, “Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned; for Thou art the Lord my God.” Hosea had it: “O Israel, return unto me the Lord thy God . . . Take with you words and turn unto the Lord.” [Hosea 14: 1-2].
Now, turning away from sin and toward God requires action. Specifically confessing our sins and trying to repair the injuries or broken relationships that we caused. It is humbling, embarrassing and painful work to go back to those folks and try to make amends. It will stir up old hurts, and you will meet rejection. For those familiar with the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, the confessing and making things right are at the very heart of recovery. Why? Because we can’t start a journey with God if our suitcases are filled with old baggage, old behaviors, old jealousies, old angers, old enemies, old grudges, and old guilt. There is no room for God in a suitcase full of old junk. We can’t carry it with us into a new life!
When my younger brother Ed began his first professional job, he proudly carried a new briefcase. I noticed that he carried it lightly – almost as though it was empty—but I didn’t think much more about it. A week or two later, I was nearby when he popped the spring to get out a pen. And, inside, that’s almost all there was! An ink pen, a tiny notepad, and a Gumby figure— a ‘70s version of the stress ball. He certainly carried no baggage into his new job! He had plenty of room for the work he would soon be bringing home.
People who do lots of traveling understand the value of packing light, too. “Never fill up your suitcase from home, they say; because how will you bring home the treasures you find on your travels. Leave room for your new treasures! Likewise, we don’t want to carry our old baggage into our new life with Christ! We need room for God’s treasures!
But what if we can’t entirely shed our baggage? Well, “Loveliest of all,” says scholar William Barclay, “God comes half-way and more to meet the penitent.” Clean out all the junk in your life as best you can, and I will take care of the rest. Return to me as far as you can, and I will come to you the rest of the way. Like the Father of the prodigal son, I will run out to meet you!
So when John says, REPENT, he is saying “turn yourself around!” A king is coming but you can’t see him, can’t understand him, can’t follow him, can’t receive his blessings until you dump out that suitcase! And you Pharisees and Sadducees, don’t try to pull rank on Jesus. Whether you are a direct descendent of Abraham means nothing to the King. It is all about the heart.
So, do you remember our questions at the start of this sermon? Why did God choose such an eccentric prophet? Why did Christ need a herald? And what was John’s message on the banks of the Jordan?
We now know the message and something about the messenger. The fact the John was related to Christ, a distant cousin, was imperative, because he knew Jesus from boyhood. He had been among the first people to recognize the divinity of Christ. Plus God had equipped John for the fearless role of prophet.
A scene from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town comes to mind. Emily returns from the dead to relive a single day of her life in Grover’s Corners. She steps back into her girlhood home where life bustles and she realizes that people are oblivious to the passage of time and blind to earth’s beauty. “Oh, earth,” Emily say, “you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” And to the narrator, she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” To which he replies, “No, the saints and the poets, maybe.” Well, John the Baptist was a saint and a poet. Because he lived outside civilization, he could see it for what it was. He could speak the prophetic message of repentance as no other could have spoken it. He was the perfect herald!
But why did Christ need a herald? He didn’t! Christ needed no trumpet fanfare. We are the ones who needed it!! We needed it! We need that voice in our churches, in our world, in our friendships, that says, “REPENT! TURN YOURSELF AROUND! YOU ARE HEADED THE WRONG DIRECTION. YOU ARE GOING TO MISS THE KINGDOM OF GOD!
On the personal level, we need Christian friends who will be our John the Baptist, and we need to be John the Baptist for our friends. We need friends brave enough to confront us and say, “Get rid of that dead weight you are carrying around. Clean up your lives and clean out your hearts! Christ has come, the gift has been given. God wants to live in your heart, but you can neither hear God nor receive God.
I will close with the words to a familiar carol:
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given,
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still,
the dear Christ enter in.