By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 8, 2019
Matthew 3:1–12 (ESV)
1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to 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 he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
There is something very interesting about this time of year. It seems as if the entire world is caught in a state of anticipation. Children across the land eagerly seek out the man in a red suit to whisper their greatest desires into the ear of the one that might fulfill their greatest longing. Lists are being made as living rooms are being decorated with garland and lights. We eagerly wait some something miraculous.
There is something about this season, even when the true meaning is so often lost under layers of secular veneer, that can almost give us a glimpse into the holy anxiety of advent. Yes, I use the word anxiety because I feel it encapsulates the tension of this season so much more than anticipation. There is excitement and dread. There is stress and there is joy. We eagerly wait yet we also long for something simpler. The season is filled with anxiety. Anxiety with a righteous twist.
I want us to consider the anxiety as we think about the coming day, we celebrate the dawning of our salvation. I want us to consider it because there is anxiety. As we anticipate time spent with family, we know that there is joy and stress. You travel distances, you plan a meal, or you are reminded of a vacancy of those that you will not see. There is joy and stress, there is hope and there is tension. Yet the day will come and when it comes, we see smiles, we hear laughter, we sing for joy because we know even in our darkest days there is hope.
Remember that anxiety and as you consider it, you might just get a glimpse into the lives of those that lived so long ago. For centuries they longed for the day where the anointed one would come. They longed for that day because it gave them hope, a hope that one day they might see a future where peace would reign, and work might be easier.
They had heard for generations that one day their messiah would come. One day they would not have to struggle, one day their children would not face the horrors of war, one day their bellies would not growl while they slept. They longed and they hoped.
This holy anxiety was at a point where nearly the entire empire felt its pull. They knew that something was about to happen, and they did not know what. Some faced the day with dread because they enjoyed the wealth and status they accrued, while others looked at that system with disdain and sought a different lifestyle, while others just hoped to survive.
This is the setting of today’s passage. An entire culture gripped with some form of anxiety, a longing for change coupled with a desire for things to remain. In those days John was out in the wilderness of Judea preaching.
There is something in these words that stirs my heart. Something that gives me hope even though I have heard the story countless times throughout my life. John was preaching in the wilderness. There is something mysterious about it, something that attracts our imagination. The wilderness in ancient times and even today is something veiled. There is something to be respected and feared, while it also gives us a sense of possibility. John is out in the wilderness. Often the idea of the wilderness was a lonely place, an empty waste, filled with abandonment. It was to the wilderness the religious leaders would drive the goat to carry the sins of the nation, separated from the people and lost to the great unknown. It was in the wilderness that John the Baptist began proclaiming the Gospel.
He was out in that empty place, the place of separation and waste. He was out there on the fringe of life, yet it was there the glimmer of hope began to take form. He proclaimed, like an announcer at the start of a football game, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Sometimes I feel we do not fully see what is going on as we read these words. We forget that the world in ancient days was a much larger place. Today we travel distances unimagined even a hundred years ago. The distance I travel to work each day, is a greater distance than my great grandfather would travel in a week, which is a distance that his grandfather probably would not travel in his lifetime. To us mile seem small but, in an age, where the distance was covered on foot it is great. John was not just on the outskirts of town; he was in the wilderness. That area where no one was, separated from the rest of society, a place no one needed to go because there was no reason to be there. Yet it was there he preached, it was there in the wilderness people gathered, and it was there in that wilderness people longed to go because this holy anxiety they experienced found some release.
He stood there in along the banks of the Jordan peaching. He cried out in the wilderness to those that made the journey to listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That one statement is loaded with so much.
Do we know what it means to repent? At times we hear words so many times we no longer value the meaning. I feel repent is one of those words, but it carries so much depth. The word encourages us to reconsider, to turn around, or to change our mind. It prompts us to look at our current activities from a different perspective and examine our place. Repent, John said in that empty place, for the kingdom is at hand. One meaning of the word repent that I came across as I studied this week is to become sober again. This struck me, not because I am one that lives a life of intoxication but because at times, we can live lives bound in various influences.
As I thought of that concept of becoming sober, I considered mindfulness or being in the right mind, or frame of mind. I sat with this idea for a while. How often do we get bound in our minds? How often do we allow our minds to be bound by worry? I must admit there are moments where my mind can be gripped by various things, things that I think are important, I plan and I reconsider aspects of the plans that I make, I try to figure out where resources will come from and how we can stretch those resources. I can be so bound in my own mind that I totally miss what is going on around me. I am bound in a mindset that can be toxic.
John is out there proclaiming in the wilderness, “Wake up! The kingdom is approaching.” His words are just as jarring as someone honking their horn at a light that had turned green while you still have the brakes on. You did not see the light change because you were distracted. Your mind was elsewhere while those around you had places to be.
John is in the wilderness, crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” The word straight came to mind as I read this portion of scripture. To me I find the wilderness inviting. I love going to Colorado where you can go out into the mountains and hike. I love driving on the mountain roads that twist and turn. I love it, but there is something about those roads that is annoying. You drive miles and you do not really get anywhere. You feel like you are driving somewhere fast and going a great distance, because the forces of gravity push and pull on you body. Yet the distance covered is only a fraction of the distance you could have covered in the same time if you were on a road in Kansas. There is something else about those winding roads, you must pay attention. You mind must stay focused on the road or you might run the risk of great harm. Although I love the twist and turns, I cannot fully enjoy the wilderness because my mind is bound not on the scenery but the lane lines, and the warning signs.
What is John saying out in the wilderness? Wake up! The kingdom of heaven is approaching. One might even say that he is telling us slow down, take a breath, stop and smell the roses. He is saying if you do not open your eyes you are going to miss everything.
John was not just a radical preacher, but he was a son of a priest. His birth was one that was foretold by an angel from God. John’s father served in the temple of God and it was in that temple that his father got the announcement of his long-anticipated son. John was a child that was born into one of the most influential families in the nation. In Israel, a priest was important. I used to think of John’s dad as simply being a pastor, but he was much more that that. The temple of God in Jerusalem was probably the single greatest religious structure in the world. To serve in the temple meant that you worked in the greatest center of commerce in all of Israel. This temple was the engine that drove their entire economy. And John’s father, was a priest, but not just any priest, he was a priest that served inside. He was one of the priests that brought the incense into the holy place. He literally carried the prayers of the people to the very seat of God.
John was born into a family that had influence. The temple and those that served there, were at that very center of Israel. They provided the services that gave the people their status and identity. Every Child of Abraham traveled to this place three times a year. And while they were there, they offered sacrifices and gave their tithes. This temple was not just a local church, but it was a marvel of the empire. The wealth of the temple, after its destruction financed the landmarks of Rome. The temple had influence. Yet John was not in the temple. He did not participate in the politics of this religious industrial complex. John was not in the center of Jerusalem; he was out in the wilderness. John seemingly turned his back on his very culture, and he cried out to them to open their eyes, because they are about to miss the very thing, they say they are waiting for.
John did turn his back on the mainstream culture. Those that served in the temple had certain requirements, John was raised in a family that was used to these finer things. I am not saying that John’s father was not a Godly man, but while he served in the temple, he wore clothing that reflected the majesty of the place he worked. Have you ever wondered why we know what John wore? It is because of it was so far removed from his father’s attire. His father wore priestly linen, and John wore camel’s hair. Camel’s hair was the garb of the prophets, it was the fabric that people used to make tents. John’s garments were not for pleasure but durability. We are also told of his diet. The priest of the temple would eat the meat of the sacrifices, but what does John eat? He eats locusts and wild honey. He foraged and lived off the land.
I want us to think about this. John turned from the social norms, he lived a simple life in durable clothing, eating what the land provided. And he is crying out in that wilderness, “you are missing it.” The entire culture is revolving around religion, yet they are about to miss the one thing they are looking for. The anxiety is building, the anticipation mounts and their minds are turned the wrong direction. He cries out, “Repent,” because he hears the voice of God, yet those that in a position to be the mouthpiece of God are not even listening.
He cries in that wilderness, and people begin to wonder. This son of a priest, a priest of a high order has left his rightful place in the temple and is out in the wilderness. He has sacrificed a good lifestyle and is living a life of poverty. And they wonder why? He looks out at the people that gather, and he sees those of his own class, and he yells at them, “You brood of vipers!”
And this is where my heart begins to ache. Israel at this time knew how to do religion. Their religious economy was the greatest it had ever been. They had a structure that had so much excess they could put golden siding on a complex larger than an NFL Stadium. They knew religion. They had a righteous marketplace that was selling perfect sacrificial animals that guaranteed that your petitions would be heard by the living God. They had a perfect religious community that was bringing a great majority of their nation to their steps.
And John looks at these religious leaders and he calls them a brood of vipers. The viper had a sour history in Israel. God had sent a plague of vipers to Israel while their ancestors wondered in the desert. Those vipers were released on the people because of their grumbling. They turned from the God that brought them out of Egypt, they complained that God did not care. And God removed his hand of protection from them for a moment. And the vipers stuck. The venom of rebellion coursed through their veins and the only remedy was for them to turn and look toward the place God sat and lift their eyes up to the bronze representation of their rebellion.
John looks out at the religious leaders and he calls them a brood of vipers. They are leaders of rebellion, instruments of the grumblings. John left their system and went out into the wilderness to call the people to turn. But these leaders were filled with nationalistic pride. We have Abraham as our father. And John says who cares God can make children for Abraham out of the rocks they are standing on.
What can we learn from John, in this time of holy anxiety? What is it we are looking at? Are our lives focused where it needs to be? Repent, turn around, become sober again. Get in your right mind and focus on the right things. Simplify your lives. Take the exit off the winding road and get on the path that take us to the true destination. The kingdom is at hand. It is near and all around us, but do we see it? The very place God wants us to be and serve is right here with us already but are we grumbling about what we do not have?
I am far from perfect. I live a life that is filled with busyness and distractions, I grumble, and I worry. I often find myself focused on what I wish I had instead of being thankful for what I do have. I am no better than a brood of vipers. I am filled with anxiety, yet do I see the precious gift God has provided? As we anticipate the coming day, we celebrate Christ’s birth I pray that we can approach it with sober minds able to see the kingdom. The kingdom he has called each of us to participate in, the kingdom that has no boarders, or limits, and will never end. A kingdom that Jesus rules and is available to us if we are willing to turn and follow him.