Matthew 3:1-12 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.”
Reflection John the Baptist seems especially interested in confronting us religious folk who, like the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew’s text, have a tendency to feel entitled and presume upon tradition or inheritance to claim our status as the People of God. After all, “We are good, well bred, educated, faithful churchgoers. We follow the rules, we have worked hard and earned our privilege. We give to charities, we volunteer and even pledge to support our church.” But the snarly prophet John cajoles, “Don’t kid yourselves you religious folk. God is not interested in your six-hundred and thirteen rules, the order in which you light your candles, if the priest washes her hands before celebrating communion or how many Sundays per month you show up for church. Anything that interferes with you being in right relationship with God and acting decisively to fulfill God’s desire for peace and good will for all people on earth needs to be exposed and washed away. So, repent! Turn around, change your behavior.” This is the work of Advent.
As a first step to assist us with turning around and changing our behavior John offers a baptism by water. You may wonder, where did John learn this practice of baptism? John stands like a bridge between Hebrew and Christian Testament times repurposing the Jewish tradition of baptizing Gentile converts to Judaism when they were circumcised. But, in today’s gospel text we meet John at the River Jordan doing what would have been unheard of, baptizing Jews.
We understand this to be a spiritual baptism intended to change the behavior of the coldhearted Jews to turn back to God and extend God’s peace and good will to all people. Turning Jews back to God is a dramatic change from converting Gentiles into Jews. But John counsels, “My baptism of repentance is not the end of the the game. ‘One more powerful than I is coming after me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” John’s baptism by water is completed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Christ that is given for all, the Fire that refines and changes our behavior to restore us to right relationship with God and one another.
Now we know who this “more powerful one” is. In the sentence immediately following Matthew’s gospel pericope Jesus arrives at the Jordan river and is baptized by John. What happens immediately following Jesus’ baptism? “…Jesus is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted to misuse power for his personal gain. He fasts for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he is famished.” (Matt 4.1-2) There the devil, the enemy of human consciousness, three times tempts Jesus to put his faith in his self rather than depend on his relationship with God. But Jesus keeps his mind turned toward God. The next thing we know Jesus leaves the wilderness and begins his ministry in Galilee. Jesus’ faith is fulfilled in action, his mind and his behavior are aligned in God’s desire for peace and good will for all people.
I believe it is reasonable to compare our Advent season to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Advent is a season to step out of our comfort zone and into the wilderness. This is a time for us to acknowledge that the world of cities wrapped in tinsel and steeped in Hallmark card sentiment does not have the last word.
In Advent, the season of self examination, we confess the ways we turn away from God, we take responsibility for our merciless actions, we experience remorse, express regret and by the grace of God change our behavior by looking for opportunities to extend peace and good will to all people. As Jesus teaches us a bit later in Matthew’s gospel, “ ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father.” (Matt 7.21) Actions speak louder than words.
During the wilderness time of Advent we are invited to examine our selves and confess the ways in which we have turned away from God by being less than honest, civil and merciful. And we do not to stop there. Admitting our offenses, we step out of the river and turn around, fasten the belt of righteousness around our waist and take the words from our Hallmark Christmas cards and make them real in the world by extending peace and good will to every person we meet every single day, no exceptions. You see, as soon as we express regret by grace we are able to change our ways and reveal God’s love every day.
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