Matthew 3:1-12 – The Nightmare Before Christmas?

John the Baptist is kind of a wet blanket, isn’t he?  In the middle of our multi-colored lights, fat little plush snowmen, reindeer with blinking noses, and flameless candles, John the Baptist stands up and shouts for us to repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.  It’s an unwelcome message, and one that frankly we would rather not have to hear as we celebrate the season and enjoy another cup of hot spiced cider.  If our usual Christmas festivities are dreamlike in their nostalgic splendor, then John the Baptist is the nightmare that wakes us up in a cold sweat.

That’s why you won’t see a lot of John the Baptist at Christmastime.  You won’t find a plush John the Baptist doll in your boxes of decorations.  You won’t find him ranting and raving like a madman in the middle of a children’s storybook.  And you certainly won’t see him standing in the back of the nativity scene with his wild eyes and camel’s hair coat.  No, we keep John the Baptist at a distance during this time of the year.  We hide him beneath the Christmas lights, and the holiday music, and the shopping carts.  We turn our attention instead to everything that seems “wonderful” and “magical”, those things that carry a sense of nostalgia and cheerfulness.

But as we do this, we also run the risk of missing that which is really wonderful and really magical, and we come perilously close to making our own ideals and longings the center of Christmas.  Be that as it may, we expect our holiday preparations to contain a certain cheerfulness, a certain feel-good quality to them, and John the Baptist is neither cheerful nor feel-good.

We meet him standing knee-deep in the waters of the Jordan River, wearing camel’s hair and munching on locusts and wild honey.  He calls out a stern warning to “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Those aren’t exactly warm and friendly words of welcome.  When some Pharisees and Sadducees show up to be baptized, John lashes out at them, calling them a “brood of vipers” and warning them of the wrath to come.  He proclaims that someone more powerful is coming, someone who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, someone holding a winnowing fork in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.  The wheat he will gather into his granary, and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

It’s an off-putting message, especially if you’ve just been to a children’s Christmas pageant.  John the Baptist pulls no punches, and he preaches a rather abrasive message, but it’s also a very important one for us to hear during this season of Advent.  After all, all four gospels tell us that the story of Jesus really begins with John the Baptist.  All four gospels tell us that the path to Jesus goes through that wilderness where John is preaching, and in all four gospels, John’s message is pretty much the same: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.  It’s a message that can sound pretty terrifying to us, especially in contrast to our usual holiday fare, but it’s absolutely essential to being a follower of Jesus.

John’s message is one of repentance.  Repentance is something of a confusing subject for a lot of Christians.  Most Christians would tend to describe repentance as saying you’re sorry, or confessing your sins so that God will forgive you.  After all, isn’t that what John is talking about when he warns about the wheat being separated from the chaff?  Isn’t he telling us to confess our sins to God, and be truly sorry for them so that we can be assured that we’re in the granary instead of in the fire?

Well, not quite.  That’s not really what repentance means, at least not in the Biblical sense of the word.  Theologian Marcus Borg writes:

The biblical meaning of “repentance” is quite different from an apology.  In the the Christian Old Testament, “repentance” means “to return” – that is, to return from exile, to return to life in the presence of God, to a life centered in God.  In the Christian New Testament, the word “repentance” carries this meaning, and one more. The roots of the Greek word for “repentance” mean “to go beyond the mind that you have.”  So apology and repentance or forgiveness and repentance, are quite different. Apology and forgiveness do not in themselves imply change. Repentance does.[1] 

Repentance is first and foremost about change, a reordering of priorities both personal and public, a reorientation of all life to center on God.  As you might guess, this kind of deep change is not the kind of thing that we can bring about through our own power.

What John the Baptist – and the season of Advent – remind us is that repentance is not primarily about our improving our own moral standing, but rather about God’s desire to realign us and re-center us around our Savior.  Repentance is not so much about our confession as about God’s power to transform the world, to transform all of us into reflections of Christ’s life.  Every year in this season of Advent, John the Baptist comes along and proclaims repentance; he proclaims a return from our misguided desires, from our selfish aims, from the exiles of our own making, to a life centered in God.  This return, this re-centering, this repentance, is what God is doing in Advent.

It’s no accident that our Advent journey leads us out into the wilderness where John is preaching.  The image of the wilderness recalls memories of the joyous yet troubled history of Israel. God led the people of Israel out of bondage into the wilderness, where they feared that God had brought them to die.  They sinned and rebelled and forgot God in the wilderness, but they also eventually learned to trust and obey God there.  Despite their sinfulness and their disobedience, God led them through that wilderness, God delivered them from their exile, and God brought them home again.

Our Old Testament reading for this morning was an example of this.  Living in exile, the people of Israel were experiencing hopeless times.  Isaiah likens them to a dead tree stump, yet in a stunning message of hope Isaiah looks forward to the day when a shoot will grow out of what seemed like dead wood.  The shoot will be a righteous deliverer, one who will establish peace on the earth.  The people of Israel heard Isaiah’s words and looked forward to a better day.  Today we hear Isaiah’s words and look backward to Jesus, and offer ourselves up to God that we might be re-centered around the life of our Savior.

In Advent we remember and affirm that in Jesus Christ, God has brought each of us out of bondage and has fundamentally reordered our lives.  There may be times when we are sinful, or rebellious, or forgetful of our God, but through our wanderings God persistently promises to keep pointing us in the right direction.

Today in our text, John the Baptist once again points ahead, toward what is to come.  He helps us in our expectant waiting for the birth of our Savior, the hope of the world.  And yet, as we enter John’s wilderness, we find that we may only look forward by looking back.  It’s a little bit like how those ghosts in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol made Ebenezer Scrooge look backward into his past before change could happen in his present, and thus give him hope for his future.  We too, are a little like Scrooge – in that we look backward to what God has already done, and it is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that promises to transform us in the present and give us hope for our future.  Ultimately, this is why John’s fiery message is not a message of condemnation, but a message of hope.

It’s hopeful because we know how the story ends.  It’s hopeful because we know that on the heels of that wild and frightening preacher named John, there comes a Savior who will separate us from our sinfulness, a Savior who will burn away all in us that is terrible, and self-focused, and unfaithful, like the chaff that gets thrown into the fire, a Savior who will gather us in and establish ultimate peace and righteousness in his kingdom.  This is the hope upon which our lives rest.  This is the promise to which we are drawn every Advent.  And this is the message of the wilderness: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!

At first that may sound like a nightmare.  But keep in mind that John the Baptist comes once again to point us forward, to that morning in Bethlehem when the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth touched, and came together in the tiny person of a newborn baby.  That is why we celebrate this season.  That is why we reorient our lives around peace, and hope, and love.

And that is a dream come true.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] The Washington Post’s “On Faith Panelists Blog”, April 28, 2007.

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