Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Advent is probably one of my favorite times of the year. It is filled with anticipation in many areas. The reality of winter has set in so as a child I always anticipated snow…ok I will be honest I was really anticipating a snow day where I wouldn’t have to attend school. As December rolled around Sears would send out their catalog the “wish book” and my brother and sisters would go through the pages marking the items we wanted for Christmas. Then there was the anticipation for Christmas in general. We could not wait. I mentioned before that my family really celebrated Thanksgiving and because of that we would not decorate the house for Christmas until December because my parents wanted us to remember to be thankful for what we had before we went into the anticipation of the season. I think this instilled in us a greater sense of anticipation and longing.
Today it is a bit different. I have a new outlook now that I have somewhat matured. I anticipate different aspects in this season than I did before. I anticipate the telling of the birth of Christ by my son James. And I remember the first time he told the story on his own. I anticipate the future of the season with Albert and to see the story come alive in his life. I anticipate the Story of Emmanuel illuminating the lives of those that I have the opportunity to walk with in their journeys of faith.
This season also has a form of darkness in it as well. We do not fully know the exact date of the birth of Jesus; many believe that the actual day was in the spring while tradition has placed the celebration of Christ’s birth in the winter. Some might find that discrepancy disheartening but to me I think it is encouraging. Winter is a dark time of year, the air gets colder, and the plants seem to just die. Winter is a time of scarcity, poverty, and fear. In ancient times it was difficult to survive a winter. Winter usually brings out great amounts of illness, depression, and despair. This time of year we long for the warmth of the sun, the greens of grasses, and the singing of the birds. It is no wonder that in ancient times the celebration of the birth of Christ was set in winter, because it is a time of unknowing and hope in something unseen. It is a time where humanity had to live on faith. We need a time where light can come into the darkness.
The changing seasons have always been a source of spiritual thought. They show us that everything has a time, a place, and that nothing stays the same. In the darkness of winter our lifestyles usually slow down and take a different focus, we spend more time in our homes together, and less time running around. It is in the darker days the things that mean the most to us become more important. This darkness is not only found in winter but can be found when ever we have a trial in life. This is they type of feeling we find an entire nation in as we read of the ministry of John the Baptist.
Israel is in a dark period of their history. It is not the darkest moment but it is not the best either. They look back in their history and they know that at one point in time they were great but on this day they are a nation ruled over by another. They are a province lorded over by an empire, and others are eating the fruits of their labor and they struggle just to survive. They pull together in groups of like-minded people and form basically a tribal system of governance headed up by religious factions that come together on only a few common themes. The only light that they see is that they are at home in the land of their fore fathers and have a temple to worship in, beyond that the economic and political landscape is a wilderness. So they anticipate a new era, a new day, a new kingdom where they can once again live free as the people of God. The problem is that the various factions are at a constant battle between themselves as to what that new day will look like, and how it will emerge. In the struggle to dominate the only area of their life that they can still discuss, they oft forget that they are on the same team, that the end goal of all is the same. The Kingdom, or the restoration of Israel as it was.
Then enters a man, John. He is out in the wilderness, preaching passionately, and living oddly. I want us to sit here for a bit. Matthew gives us a clear image of John, he actually gives us a clearer description of John then he even give to the central figure of the Gospel Jesus. We know what John wears, where he lives, and what he eats this is actually very important.
John wears garments of camel’s hair and a leather belt. His clothing is functional, durable, and simple. It catches attention because it gives little regard to fashion trends and focuses only on utility. John lives a life of simplicity, and as a wonderer. This gives a depiction of his message.
He eats locus and honey. I have heard a couple of versions of what this might mean. The most obvious is that he ate bugs sweetened by honey. The second version of what this might mean is that he ate bread made of the seeds of locus trees, which is very bitter and poor bread. Either way he ate the food of poverty, eating only what could be found in the wilderness. Honey was widely available to all classes of people, and was the only sweetening agent available to the poor. Bugs or locus bread are the food of the desperate. This gives us an image of his message.
John lives and preaches out in the wilderness. He lives on the fringes of society out in the uninhabited and uncultivated areas. We often think that he is out in the desert, but that is not exactly the fullest truth. It is the area that is unfit for the growing of crops and is left for grazing, it is unclaimed because it has little value. It is also a depiction of his message as well.
John lived the life of poverty and simplicity wondering out in the wilderness of unclaimed land, it is almost as if his very life is an image of the Exodus. But we must remember that John was not a poor man. His father was a priest, and John was his only child. John had an inheritance; he had a home and land to live on. He had a ready-made career in the temple by his very linage, yet he chose to live on the fringes of society. Spoke his message there in the Wilderness.
He is the voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He cried out to everyone to, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.” This term repent is one we often hear, but the language that John uses is much deeper. In the old testament the word translated as repent means: to turn back, turn to, return, to return, to restore, to be returned, recovered, be brought back. The understanding of repent was about restoration and turning back to the one that we once knew. But this is not what John was preaching. When John cried out in the wilderness he was using a word that was much different it meant: to change any or all of the elements composing one’s life: attitude, thoughts, and behaviors concerning the demands of God for right living. The usage of this word is in essence saying that there is nothing to restore because there is not anything there. John was saying to the people of Israel that they are as far from God as the very Gentile overlords and that there needs to be a total change.
People came from all over Judea to listen to his message, it caused them to change and they confessed and were baptized in the river Jordan. They crossed the waters and entered into a new life the very action was one not used for Jewish people but for Gentile converts to the Jewish religion. And people came, not only Gentiles but also the Jewish people. Even the very ones that lead the various religious factions, the Pharisees and Sadducees, came to be baptized by John. Yet to them he had even harsher words, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?”
Brood of vipers? I have to admit I did not enjoy researching this passage, because even pictures of snakes can send shivers down my spine. But I spent time reading about this phrase. Vipers of Asia are unique reptiles that can either lay eggs or give birth to living offspring. In ancient times it was believe that vipers would eat their way out of the mother snake while in the process killing their mother. I tried to research this out further to see if this was a fact or just a tradition of history, unfortunately there were too many snake pictures so I cannot confirm or deny this statement. Regardless the phrase stands in history as meaning, “Mother killers.” Who is the mother being killed? John cries out to the religious leaders saying you are killing our faith you have eaten your way out into the world and in the process taken the very life away from everything you stand for. John says you brood of vipers have killed Israel, killed the very thing you claim to protect. Israel is no longer the light of the world but a dead carcass spewing out little venomous snakes.
Darkness surrounds them all. The only hope is found in the words of a crazy man living on the fringe of society, a man that turned from a life of prosperity to hopefully bring people to the God they never knew. The kingdom of Heaven has come near. There is hope in those words. Even though the religious leaders have killed the religion, the kingdom has come near. The kingdom is just ahead the new day is just around the corner. Do not lose hope in this darkness because the light is on the horizon. Repent; change every aspect of you life.
John is calling them and each of us into something greater. He is calling us to repent, to change everything about our lives to align them with God, to become a people that is loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with other. John is crying out to everyone that will listen, to throw away that old life and the things that bring status and honor in that life and to clothe ourselves in something else. It is very similar to the many cycles within the church. Those in the early church gave all they had to the apostles and everyone’s needs were met even through harsh persecution. This period of time was followed by abundance where the church was in a place of honor and people like St. Anthony left society to live in the wilderness giving up all the wealth the world had to offer to live a life of simplicity in the wilderness, giving rise to a new day in the church. This too was followed by abundance and complacency and St. Francis, a wealthy man, gave up all his wealth and lived a life of simplicity and charity to spark a revival in the church. Again followed by abundance and leaders began to eat through the mother and poison the faith. Then emerged the Lutherans and other various reformations occurred bringing repentance to the church, and these became established and again religion ate the way through the relational aspects of faith. The cycle continued bringing about the Society of Friends and other various denominations and religious orders in Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic expressions of faith each one rising in their own ways and each dying in others. God is continuously at work in His world continuing to call us out of the comfort of society to the margins to build and restore relationships with Himself and humanity. He is calling us each to repentance. The question then is, are we willing to answer that call and step out in faith, step out into the wilderness to cry out to the lost? Or are we going to be a brood of vipers eating our way out into the world in the process killing what was once there?
There is a new day coming near, a new era in the cycle of the church. Some hope that it is the second coming and it is fine to think that, but in the anticipation of that great day let us not become lax and comfortable. Let us instead actively participate in bringing hope and light into the darkness of our world by totally turning to God in mind, body, and spirit. Let us now join together in a time of Holy Expectancy, a time of anticipation as we listen and wait for God to speak to us and through us, and let us become the people God has called us to be.