John G. Stackhouse, Jr. is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver.
Text: Matthew 3:1-12 (also Isaiah 11:1-10)
"Show me a tidy home, and I'll show you a female relative about to visit it!" This bit of old-fashioned humour — which, let me declare immediately, I learned from a refrigerator magnet used by my decidedly feminist wife — expresses a dark truth especially obvious in a Yuletide of house parties and family celebrations: some people's visits require considerable preparation!
Indeed, a corollary truth is that we prepare differently depending upon who it is that is visiting and what the purpose is of the visit. Let's pick a hypothetical example: your own pastor, whom we'll call Murray.
Now, if you know Murray primarily as your best friend from high school days, your regular squash partner and someone well-known to your family, then it's no big deal when Murray stops by the house. This is especially true if he's only dropping off an old pair of ice skates for one of your kids. You tell him to come by whenever he likes, and if you're not home, to just leave the skates on the porch.
If Murray is your pastor, though, and he telephones to arrange a pastoral visit, then you might do what we did in this circumstance: we made sure our front room was tidy (despite the ravages of our three sons), had a snack prepared, dressed in appropriate clothes (Miss Manners was duly consulted)-and rehearsed our alibis!
Preparing for someone's visit depends on who the someone is, who that person is to you, and why he or she is visiting.
In our text from Matthew's Gospel, John the Baptist told the people of his day, and tells the people of our day, that someone is coming, who that person is, why he is visiting, and how we ought to prepare.
"In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming …" (Matt. 3:1).
Those were the days, all right. The days of Jesus, which the immediately preceding paragraph of Matthew's gospel tells us were days of danger and blood. A child named Jesus had been born, foreign astrologers had foretold that he would become King of the Jews, and the current king had violently resisted, killing all the young boys in the area in the attempt to falsify this prophecy. God informed Jesus' family of the plot and they escaped out of the country, returning only after the madman Herod was dead, and then avoiding his heir by living in northern Israel, in Nazareth.
John was Jesus' kin, although perhaps distant kin since another gospel records John saying he didn't know Jesus personally before this episode. John came from a priestly family, but he was no priest. He was an old-time prophet. Indeed (to consider the words Matthew quotes here from Isaiah), he was a "prophet's prophet," a true blast from the past, a wilderness man clad in the outback attire of camel's hair and leather, living on the bare subsistence of locusts and honey. And John did what prophets do. He proclaimed.
He did not, let's be clear, make learned observations about the state of society. He did not offer polite suggestions. He did not compose clever poems. He proclaimed.
When heralds proclaim, they do two things: they tell us what the monarch says the situation is, and then what the monarch says we must do in response. Their language might be formal, but it is also sharply clear: "Since the King of X has declared war upon us, we must meet his challenge and you must sign up for armed service." "Since there is a famine in the land, you must give up a share of your produce to a central store." "Because this town had been disloyal, the king requires you to present yourselves before the royal court when it arrives for judgment."
John proclaims: "The kingdom of heaven has come near, so repent" (3:2).
The sphere of God's rule approaches, John says, so get ready for it. Like the shadow of an eclipse rushing across the land; like a blizzard sweeping down and out of the sky; like a tsunami rolling toward shore; the kingdom of God is coming and you'd better prepare.
Verses 11 and 12 make clear that God is coming in person, and he has serious business to take up with you. "I baptize you with water for repentance," John begins, "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."
God is coming to make earth as it is in heaven, and he will do so by the ordeals of plunging the earth into the pure, or Holy, Spirit and into the purgation of fiery judgment. He will heave us all into the air with his winnowing fork to see who has the substance to drop back to earth and who, instead, is so weightless that the wind blows us away into oblivion. God is coming: get ready.
So John tells people what to do. And his message is simple: "Turn." The word "repent" means to alter one's course, to change one's mind, to redirect one's life from the heart on out, to straighten up. It means more than to feel sorry, although it includes that. It means more than apologize, although it includes that. It means, "Prepare for drastic change, position oneself for reorientation, and then turn."
Comedian Bob Newhart tells the story of a wonderfully patient driving instructor. We catch the instructor in mid-lesson with an overly-literalistic student. "Now, Mr. Smith, please turn left. [Pause] Well, now, that's my fault, Mr. Smith: I should have said, 'Please turn left at the next street.' Let's see if we can back off of this garden …."
Intending to turn is not enough. Turning is not enough. Only correct turning will do. And John says, "Turn: repent."
He's called "John the Baptist." "Baptism" comes from an ordinary Greek word that means just "to dip," as in water. When you fill your sink tonight to do the dishes, you'll baptize a cup, scrub it, and set it on a rack to dry. John provided baptism as an outward ritual to undergo as a sign of people's inward decision to repent. They could stand with him in the muddy old Jordan River and be dipped by him in its murk. Down with the old life, and up with the new. Change. Turn. Straighten out.
This rite of baptism is what non-Jews had to undergo — and still do today — when they join the Jewish faith. By insisting on baptism, John clearly implies that his fellow Jews cannot rely on their Jewishness, their birth into the chosen nation, to save them from the judgment to come. They have to repent, to change, to turn, to be initiated into a new pattern of life fit for the kingdom of heaven.
For, as Isaiah's prophecy makes clear, this is a kingdom in which God vindicates the poor and destroys the wicked. This is a kingdom in which oppressors and oppressed have left off those roles and been brought together in harmony. This is a kingdom in which predators and prey have left off those roles and been brought together just as animals, enjoying each other's company, perfectly safe to each other and even to little children. If one is still a predator, one has no place here. If one still abuses one's power over someone else — if one is a bullying parent, or a punishing supervisor, or a self-centred coach, or a manipulative lover — one has no place in this kingdom of peace. One will change, or be destroyed.
Even the recognized full-time religious people, the Pharisees and Sadducees, cannot fall back on their status as children of Abraham. Status — as Abrahamites or, we might add, as Presbyterians — means nothing in the new kingdom. Indeed, John — who is not exactly renowned as a silky flatterer — is especially harsh precisely on those whom everyone would expect would have least need to repent. Which expectation, of course, was precisely their problem: they were, so to speak, "all right, Jack" — all right, John!
"But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who wanted you to flee from the wrath to come?'" (3:7).
Well! Sons of snakes, indeed. So all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory or God. And this glory now is near, the glory that can be smelled as a whiff of smoke from a forest fire roaring just over the ridge.
What to do? What to do?
Repent. Turn. Don't just feel badly: "bear fruit worthy of repentance" (3:8). Start with apologies, yes, to God and to all whom you have wronged.That's a fruit of repentance: acknowledge your sins to yourself, to God, and to those affected by them. But go on to new habits, new patterns. Make it easier for God to come to you to help you, rather than throwing up obstacles and making his path crooked. Don't impede him: make a straight road for God to come to your heart.
It will not do, when I have arrogantly chosen the wrong road and driven down it for hours, to realize that I have made a serious error and tell my passengers merely, "Gosh, I made a little mistake," while continuing on my way. It won't even do to say solemnly, "I'm sincerely sorry," if I don't change direction. All that will suffice is for me to turn, to alter my course-even if it means stopping dead, turning around, and going back. And then I must choose properly. I must get on the right road and move on down it.
It will not do to greet a distinguished and critical visitor with casual excuses for the mess: not even profuse apologies will do. How welcome can someone feel who has to slog through an unshovelled snowy walk, pick his way up icy stairs, knock at a door while standing on a dark stoop, and then stumble through a hallway strewn with junk only to find no empty chair? We must ask ourselves: what prevents God from walking straight into my life? What keeps me from welcoming him into my home? What needs to be cleared out, put away, thrown in the trash, or fixed up before he visits? No wishful thinking will do: I must begin — today! now! — to prepare the way of the Lord.
I once saw electrical cables smoke right through their casings as too much voltage pushed its way through too much resistance. The voltage could not ultimately be withstood: it was too powerful. And the cables burned. In the same way, we must ask ourselves as individuals, as families and as churches: in what respects do we interfere with our Lord's coming to us? What will he have to push aside, cut away, straighten out, and burn up in order to deal with us squarely? What are we hanging on to, and what are we enthusiastically building, that hinders his way?
The tenth verse tells us that God is the farmer coming to harvest: "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." God is moving from tree to tree, lifting up branches and looking for signs of healthy life: fruit. Those trees that are growing true he finds full of fruit. He smiles, perhaps pats the trunk, and goes on his way, recording that tree on his list for continued care.
Those trees, however, that are barren, that are taking up space for no good reason, that are sucking nutrients out of the ground and blocking sunshine from reaching other plants without producing anything good for anyone else — those trees have got to go. Why keep them? The farmer puts down his basket and checklist: they're not needed now. Instead, he picks up his ax, looks for a moment at the bonfire already ablaze with other deadwood, and then does the only appropriate thing he can do. Wham!
We might be tempted to sniff at John the Baptist as much too stark, even simplistic. Surely things aren't that drastic. Surely there aren't just two kinds of people in the world: those who repent and those who do not. Surely God is love, which we know means tolerant, even indulgent, and certainly not judgmental — and thus we know that they, we're not that bad (whatever "that" means), so everything will be just fine.
Please: Don't let the sentimentality of our culture's degenerate "Christmas" confuse you. Don't underestimate that tiny, little baby, helpless in a manger, who is oh-so-cute and cuddly. God is no longer far away, comfortably remote so that we can phone in our righteousness and leave cheap excuses for our self-centredness on his answering machine. God is now here, and the kingdom comes, his will is done on earth, as it is in heaven.
King Herod understood something of the truth: the deeply wicked often do. He recognized the threat Jesus posed to his power, his authority, his "lifestyle," and he moved with characteristic swiftness and ruthlessness to stamp it out. John the Baptist also understood something of the truth: the deeply holy always do. He recognized the threat Jesus posed to his people, their complacency, their self-righteousness, and he knew that threat was near. When you hear the smoke alarm, it is no time for small talk or diffident suggestions. "Get out! Now! The fire is coming and if you don't do what I say you're going to die!"
See the glow of Christmas, that soft light beaming out from the manger? It's the Light of the World. He's coming — that's what Advent remembers. He came, and he's coming again. But this Light is not the multicoloured twinkles on a tree; not the blue glow of television specials; not the amber candles of a church service. This is the Light of the World, the Light of God's judgment, the fire of his purity, the inescapable brightness of his presence.
Only a few more repenting days 'til Christmas. Are we ready?