3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, 2 “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” 3 He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
4 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
5 People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. 6 As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 7 Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. 9 And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
Thank God I’m not like those Pharisees and Sadducees who are the target of John’s rant. Do you ever read this passage in that way, excluding yourself from being the target? It’s not easy listening to such words. This is especially true of Americans like me, who are taught from early on that we’re special; perhaps even God’s new chosen people. Early on our national ancestors adopted the ideas of John Locke, accepting as fact that we are blank slates (tabula rasa), upon which our experiences can build. You can be whatever you wish. We became individualists, rejecting criticism and judgment from others – including God. Of course, there have always been others whom we’ve deemed worthy of judgment, but what about us? What is the nature of our baptism? Does it have something to do with repentance?
As I read this passage, one I’ve read many times, I recoiled at its rather harsh wording. John shouts to the Pharisees and Sadducees, questioning why they’ve come to be baptized. In reference to them, The Common English Bible softens things a bit – “you children of snakes.” The older translation of “Your brood of vipers” does seem to get to the heart of things. Snakes come in all forms, not all of which are dangerous, but a viper is dangerous. Its bite being full of poison. Why have you come? Is it out of duty? Is it to make mockery – to be part of a spectacle? Or have you come in recognition of a need for a changed life?
In Matthew’s account, John is preparing the way for the Realm of God to come into existence. For this to happen there must be radical change, a cleaning out of the barns and clearing of the forests. Everything that stands in the way of God’s reign must be done away with – thrown into a fire that can’t be put out.
This isn’t an easy text to preach, especially in circles that struggle with the idea of divine judgment. If God is love, then how can we preach and hear a message like this? Surely this isn’t the God of Jesus?
As I approached this text I had just finished reading a sermon by theologian Helmut Gollwitzer. He preached the sermon the Sunday following Kristallnacht (November 16, 1938) at the Berlin-Dahlem Church – the church that Martin Niemöller served until his arrest. Gollwitzer took up the parallel passage in Luke, but the message is similar. Reflecting on the horrors of the pogrom against Germany’s Jews, Gollwitzer asked his congregation how they could do anything at that moment but sit in horrified silence.
"What if we just sat here for an entire hour without saying a word, no singing, no speaking, just preparing ourselves silently for God’s punishment, which we have already earned?" (in Preaching in Hitler's Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, ed. by Dean Stroud, p. 118).
As Gollwitzer continues he makes it clear that whether directly participating in this violence or simply standing by hoping it would go away, they were implicated. We can look at ourselves and not see ourselves in Gollwitzer’s acceptance of a word of judgment on the nation. We do it all the time. In our individualism we fail to see our own complicity in structures and systems that oppress. Slavery was a long time ago, so let’s get over it. The holocaust that consumed the majority of Native Americans and marginalized the rest – that’s old history. We’re all blank slates, we're not responsible for the actions of others long ago. Or are we?
So what does this word from Matthew have to say to us as we venture through Advent? Isn’t it a good thing that we can get distracted by the frivolity of the season in all its consumer glory? It is in this moment that we hear a call to repentance. To repent is to turn aside, and journey in a different direction. Gollwitzer puts it even stronger, in words that are to me reminiscent of Bonhoeffer, Baptism and repentance are means of death. He writes: “Repentance is the terrible discovery that I live under a death sentence, and even worse, that I must say yes to this condemnation to death” (p. 120). In many ways Gollwitzer is recognizing that Germany had take a step toward evil and that it would pay the price. The question for us – do we recognize the price of our own choices?
There is hope, however. If repentance takes hold, then it will lead to fruit. It will place the neighbor before us, so that we might be in relationship. Gollwitzer speaks of repentance building a bridge to the neighbor (in his case, a bridge to the Jewish neighbor). What does God desire to see from us? John and Helmut Gollwitzer declare that God desires deeds – fruit. Gollwitzer writes in conclusion to this sermon on a day of national penance:
Now just outside this church our neighbor is waiting for us – waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and drive by fear for his very existence. That is the one who waiting to see if today this Christian congregation has really observed this national day of penance. Jesus Christ himself is waiting to see. Amen.” (Gollwitzer, p. 126).As we take this next step toward celebrating the good news of the incarnation, what word of preparation do we need to hear? How might we search our souls and come before God in repentance, letting that which separates us from God and neighbor die in baptism that we might experience the forgiveness and grace of God?