Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 4, 2022
Matthew 3:1-12 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
During Advent we follow God’s people to the wilderness and heed the prophetic wisdom of John the Baptist. What was true for waiting for the coming Messiah still holds for those waiting for the second and final advent of our King.
Was it John’s eccentric ways that drew the crowds to him? Perhaps for some, the sight of the wild man who ate locusts and wore camel hair was enough of an intrigue to join the crowd going to the Jordan River. But for others, it seems clear that the Holy Spirit pulled them there—how else does repentance truly come to bear fruit in our lives?
John’s words remind us of our mixed-nature. Some of us are gathered on any given Sunday because we are intrigued but unsure. Some of us are here because we’ve been dragged along. Some of us are here because it’s what we’ve always done: not only that, we are doing what our parents did before us.
And John the Baptist is not the kind to be satisfied with just going through the motions. He knows the crux of the issue: we are not people who have arrived, we are people who are preparing for someone else to arrive.
It is quite possible that once we have a sense of comfortability about our right to belong compared to others, like the Pharisees and Sadducees who point to their lineage with Abraham as their right to belong, that we need to de-centralize ourselves and prepare the way for another to be centered.
John says this in two ways. First, we prepare by repenting in order to make the paths of the Lord straight. Calling upon the words first spoken by the prophet Isaiah, this means both communal and individual repentance towards better alignment with the holiness of God. Making our lives “straight” according to the holy texts does at least two things—it turns our hearts and lives towards God, and our holy living becomes the straight paths of justice and righteousness that blesses the lives of others. Every path made straight is marked by the good character of God.
John’s baptism is coupled with this repentance and commitment to holy living. John is not a “resting on your laurels” kind of guy. Even in the womb, remember, he responded to the presence of Jesus Christ. He knows how truly near the kingdom of heaven is! He has been preparing for and celebrating this coming one his whole life. His way of celebrating may seem odd to us, a life of simplicity, living in the wilderness, and preaching repentance, but it is on par with the way of the prophets of God, prophets who allow themselves to be de-centralized and used a visual and auditory message of the central one, God.
The second way that John speaks of the way we shift our focus to the coming Messiah is by not making presumptions about ourselves. John is not shy to call out the Pharisees and Sadducees for thinking their connection to Abraham is their safety net—their “get out of repentance free” card. By thinking of how important it is that they are the sons of Abraham, they appear to have forgotten why Abraham matters in the first place: he was chosen by God. As such, God can choose anyone to be part of his family—and Jesus will clearly and explicitly expand our understanding of what it means to be a child of Abraham by making us his co-heirs.
Just as easily, John says, God can remove a branch of the family tree that is not producing the good fruit of the holy one. This is why repentance is so important to John: repentance is the first fruit of a new life lived towards holiness.
Now, John’s emphasis on repentance and sin, which Dale Bruner highlights as happening in all four of the gospels before Jesus comes into full view as the bearer of the good news gospel, can be wielded inappropriately. When we decide to take on the bearer of John’s message and call for repentance, it is best for us to remember that we are not the ones who wield the ax of judgment: Jesus does.
We are not just people with a baptism of repentance, we are people with the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. We have nothing to fear from admitting what is not right and asking for help to make it more in alignment with how it’s supposed to be!
When you think about it, John’s prophetic call isn’t very descriptive; it’s rather broad. Unlike the prophets who came before him, there is no litany of wrongs done by God’s people (besides staking too much claim on being a child of Abraham, that is). We ought to be careful in knowing what sort of sins other people need to repent of, and take this broad nature to consider our own lives with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Where have our paths bent crooked? Where have our spiritual journeys turned resting points into end points that make us feel comfortable and free from responsibility? What are we not dealing with that needs to be named, challenged, nurtured, admitted to?
In a time when sin is a difficult conversation, mostly focused on differing views of what constitutes sinful lifestyles and what moral issues amount to the level of heresy, I wonder if this broadness is a way that we can shift our focus from sinful activity to addressing sinful thinking first. If we take the time to follow the Holy Spirit’s interior lead, we will likely find that the sins we need to repent of have to do with how we’re thinking of ourselves, others, and God, and that by doing so, the way we live our lives will change.
Plus, if we are carrying Christ’s sandals in humility, we will not be able to be tempted to pick up the ax or threshing fork in judgment.
It isn’t translated this way into most of our English translations, but verse 1 uses all present tense verbs even though this is recounting of something that happened in the past. (Usually, the aorist or imperfect tense would be used.) This is an example of the use of the historic present tense. For some scholars, this helps us connect with the applicable nature to our own times: reading these verses as though they are also being spoken in our present time might help us feel the weight of their call.
Like John the Baptist, the desert fathers and mothers (especially during the fourth century) were sought out by ordinary believers who wished for spiritual guidance on how to live. The desert fathers and mothers committed themselves to prayer, simplicity, and solitude—balanced with hospitality for those who came to them. They were valued for their wisdom, espoused in word and lifestyle. Some could be firebrands, like John the Baptist, but most appear to have used gentler words to teach just as convicting messages. One such example is the anonymous wisdom of “an old man” who encapsulates a message similar to John’s by the Jordan River: “The prophets wrote books, then came our Fathers who put them into practice. Those who came after them learnt them by heart. Then came this present generation, who have written them out and put them into their window seats without using them.” (Quoted in “The Desert Tradition,” in Spiritual Classics from the Early Church, edited by Robert Atwell.)
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