1 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.”
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.” (CEB)
In Those Days
For any Christian who wants to jump too quickly into Christmas, the second Sunday of Advent acts as a bungee cord of sorts and pulls us back to the reality of Advent. Advent is not Christmas, it can barely even be described as “getting ready for Christmas.” While it is a time of anticipation, the anticipation is something other than December 25th and the birth of a savior. The Gospel reading from Matthew 3 presents a fully-grown John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance, axes, fruit, and fire. It’s hardly a Christmas story.
John appears in the wilderness like a man who has wandered out of some retirement home for old prophets. If Jesus is the door which opens to reveal a new age in the world, John the Baptist is the hinge on which that door swings. There is a turning of epochs in the hand of God, and time itself has shifted to reveal the coming Day of the Lord. John was dressed in camel’s hair clothing with a leather belt, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He looks like the old age, but he points to the new. He baptizes with the water of the ancient Jordan River, and promises that the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Everything is about to change. The old is passing away; the new presses in to take its place. The long night of darkness is coming to an end, and John cries out like a rooster, announcing the arrival of the new dawn to a sleeping world.
But who was John the Baptist? Much of what we know about him comes from the New Testament, but there are some sources outside the Bible that mention him. One of those sources is the book Antiquities of the Jews, which was written around A.D. 94, by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian. Josephus says of John, “He was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows and piety toward God, and so doing to join in baptism.”
The Gospel of Matthew paints a very specific portrait of John, and he is depicted in three ways. First, he embodies Old Testament prophecy. He doesn’t speak as an isolated preacher, but as the voice of the great Old Testament prophetic tradition. The description of his clothing and food also places John firmly in the prophetic tradition. Anyone who looked at the guy would have been thinking of Elijah, maybe even thinking that Elijah had returned from the past. He is the symbol that the people were looking for which told them that the deepest hopes of the Jewish people were about to come true. It would be like Abraham Lincoln suddenly reappearing to speak before Congress and tell them to get their act together. Or like Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig suddenly showing up in uniform again to lead Baseball into to a new golden age. John the Baptist is more than a countryside preacher, he’s the heart and soul of the Old Testament prophetic faith.
Second, John the Baptist is a preacher of repentance. His basic message is given in a single sentence, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The nearness of this kingdom is connected with Jesus. But how can John say that the promised kingdom of heaven, full of mercy and peace has come near in human history? This is a kingdom where everything that opposes God and God’s good purposes for humanity and creation are destroyed, and all that expresses God’s purposes are lifted up.
It’s been a long time since John preached. There are still wars, there is still evil and oppression and hatred, and all the things that have always stood in opposition to God are still running rampant. How can we, who live centuries later, accept John’s message? The answer is that the kingdom is near, and in some ways it is here, but it is not yet come to fullness. It is in Jesus that the kingdom of heaven has come near. In Jesus, what will ultimately be true in the future for all of creation is a present reality. Jesus embodied and expressed the peace, love, and mercy that God wills for all people. The promise of the Kingdom of Heaven is still a promise of which we have been given a foretaste in Jesus Christ.
That kingdom is near, so we must repent, confess our sins, turn our lives around, and live today as citizens of this kingdom which is so near that its boundaries are pressing in against the age in which we live. But repentance is only possible when we are given a new way of perceiving what is true and real. If John had only been shouting, “repent!” he would have been wasting his breath. People only turn away from one way of life to another when they turn toward something deeper and truer. The reason for repenting, the deeper and truer reality, is the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Third, John is someone who points to Jesus. John’s mission was not only to announce the arrival of the kingdom, but to point to the one who brought it. John baptizes with water and makes it clear that his baptism is only a foretaste and a preparation for the baptism of Jesus who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” But what does this mean? John is telling us that God will bring in justice and set everything right. For the moment, the greedy and the cruel and the indifferent and the powerful seem to have history in their grasp. They call the shots; they decide how human history will go. But this is a temporary illusion. The final judgment is God’s gracious and unchallengeable “NO!” to the petty schemes of human evil and oppression, and God’s “YES!” to all that is good. Tyrants and those who prey upon others may appear strong today, but no one and no thing that opposes God’s righteousness will be allowed to stand forever; all that stands against the Kingdom of Heaven will be “burned with unquenchable fire.”
Christians already begin to experience the freedom and confidence of those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. We can live in a world full of people who are stepping on the heads of others in order to grasp their fingers around a little more cash and know that true treasure lies elsewhere.
At a conference I went to in Florida back in 2010, I got to hear the true story of a woman named Rosa. She was described as a woman, a Latino grandmother living in Illinois, who had the gift of illiteracy. Her pastor, Andreas, told this story about her. Every Sunday she came to church and, when the Scripture was announced, she would open up her Bible and ask someone next to her to show her the correct page, and with that person’s help, she would carefully mark the text that Pastor Andreas was to read. Then as the Scripture was read and the sermon was preached, she was a sponge. She soaked up every word. Then on Monday morning, she would get on the bus to go to work, and she would sit next to someone she thought might speak Spanish. Then this little grandmother would pull out her Bible, open it to the place she had very carefully marked, and say to the person next to her, “I cannot read. Could you please read this to me?” How many people out there do you think would say “No” to a little grandmother who can’t read? Probably not very many. When this unsuspecting person finished reading the Scripture to her, she would say, “Hmm. That’s very interesting. What do you think it means?” And then off they would go. Rosa didn’t just do this on Mondays. She did this on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday as well. She used something as simple as her bus trip to and from work to be a witness for this kingdom of heaven that is so near.
Christians are able to discern that an anonymous life teaching children is of more value, in the kingdom sense, than being famous enough to appear on the front of a magazine. We realize that serving others will stand eternally, long after the satisfaction of pulling in a six-figure salary has been burned away. Christians can even stand graveside and look into the terrible face of the last enemy, the final foe, and affirm, “If we have died with Christ, we shall surely be raised with him.”
But for many of us there is a disconnect here. I think part of our difficulty is that we tend to compartmentalize things, we have difficulty recognizing that there is no secular life for Christians, there is only Kingdom life. We think of our jobs as secular, and when we serve God we do it at church or we go on a mission trip. And it’s for this reason that I told you about Rosa. Rosa recognized that every moment in her life was an opportunity to serve God and live life in the kingdom of heaven: even her bus trips.
Do you see your work, your career, as something that you have to do in the secular world to make a living, or do you see it for what I believe it really is: a calling and an opportunity? Whether you’re a banker, a teacher, a healthcare worker, a mechanic, a civil service officer, a farmer, a waitress, or if you polish shoes for a living, the work we all do in our every day is holy to God. It’s an opportunity to show the world how Christians can live life in the Kingdom in our every day. It’s how we bear fruit.
Christian people can show the marks of the kingdom, which include love, peace, mercy, humility, and restoration, in our daily work. The kingdom of heaven is near. John speaks of judgment when he says things like, “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” (NRSV). A lot of people read this and they start to get a little motivated because they want to avoid hell, they only see the negative side of the story, and they want to avoid being wood chopped for the fire.
But I read this and I see something more. I see an opportunity. I see that even a person like me can bear fruit. I’m even expected to bear fruit. I can be a force for the kingdom of heaven in my every day, and so can every Christian, simply by living out the kingdom in whatever we’re doing. That makes me get a lot motivated. I want to bear fruit. I want to be like Rosa. I want to use every opportunity God gives me—and the opportunities come just about every moment of every day—I want to use those opportunities to bear some fruit for the kingdom. I want to be a Christian because a kingdom has come near, and it’s banging on the door of the present age. Which kingdom are we going to live in? That’s what we have to decide.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!