On this second Sunday of Advent, the lectionary calls us to anticipate the arrival of that righteous shoot from the line of Jesse who will judge the poor with equity, punish the wicked & bring about a supernatural & incredible kind of peace. This Messiah will fill all the earth in such a way that when he arrives, even the outsiders (including us Gentiles) will rejoice, praise the Lord & be filled with the Holy Spirit. The news that one such as this is coming is too good to be kept quiet.
As we arrive at chapter three of Matthew, the righteous shoot has been born & the wise men have visited. King Herod has raged & his madness has been visited upon the weakest & the innocent in the slaughter of the infants. This state sanctioned violence made Jesse’s righteous shoot into a refugee who fled to Egypt to survive. As leadership in Jerusalem changes & the danger subsides, the exiled Jesus returns to Israel. It is after all of this that, John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing. John’s appearance & subsequent message point us to the wonderful arrival of God’s long-awaited Messiah.
Change your hearts & lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! John’s message is that in order to rightly receive the savior that God sends, repentance is required. In the words of John Wesley, repentance here means “removing everything which might prove a hindrance to his gracious appearance.” The arrival of Jesus demands something of us. If we are truly looking forward to the advent of Jesus, our lives will change in preparation.
And we must not forget where the kingdom of heaven is arriving. John is speaking these words from the wilderness. It is a barren place in the middle of nowhere. It is a dangerous place that may well kill you if you are not careful. John’s message that the kingdom of heaven has come near – or is coming soon – is spoken from the meanest of places. According to Matthew, John’s arrival fulfills what Isaiah said would happen: The voice of one shouting out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Dr. Ben Witherington notes on his website regarding this passage:
“What is compelling about the text is it can be punctuated in two ways: The voice of one shouting in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.' Or should it read: The voice of one shouting: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord’?” Dr. Witherington says, “The text of Isaiah suggests the latter reading so that it is in the desert where the highway of our God is to be paved.”
By his clothes & diet, Matthew frames John as a prophet like Elijah. As he speaks in the Judean desert, the multitudes from Jerusalem and Judea; all the respectable places, go out to the middle of nowhere. Upon hearing his message these people prepare for the coming of God’s Messiah by being baptized & confessing their sins.
In the crowd of respectable people who came slumming in the wilderness of Judea, were Pharisees & Sadducees; the separates & the skeptics. The Aramaic word for Pharisee means ‘separate.’ This was a group that prided itself on keeping the unchanging law perfectly. Their holy lifestyle was to set them apart from others. The Sadducees were the temple elites who, denied the existence of angels, & the immortality of the soul, & by consequence the resurrection of the dead. Recognizing these party representatives, John very tactfully calls them snakes.
You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts & lives. 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. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down & tossed into the fire.
John very directly confronts the presumption that because of their heritage, their holiness or their honors, the religious elite do not need to repent as the kingdom draws near & the Messiah comes. Having Abraham as their ancestor is not enough to be prepared for the day of Jesus’ arrival. Rick Morley, Episcopal priest & writer, offers a helpful analogy, finding similarities between the Pharisees, Sadducees & the faithful churchgoer of today.
“They thought they were in with God because of their upbringing. Their genes. The blood coursing through their veins. They had chaired the parish stewardship committee. They taught Sunday School every weekend for months on end. They mowed the church lawn, they got their pledge card in on time, & they even increased their giving over last year.”
John Chrysostom, the ancient church father, points out regarding John’s rebuke of the Pharisees & Sadducees, that the issue is not their heritage per se, but the absence of fruitful works. Chrysostom writes, “He does not forbid them to “say” they are his, but to trust in that, neglecting virtues of the soul.” To believe that we are repentance-exempt because of our church genes is pretentious & arrogant. As the kingdom of God draws near & Jesus arrives, the straight path is made by bearing fruit worthy of repentance. Indeed, the winnowing that will occur when Christ arrives is a separation not of souls to heaven or hell. The threshing floor will be cleared & all the presumptuous chaff of “my family has always gone to church” & “at least I’m not as bad as (fill in the blank),” will be burned away. Fruit worthy of repentance, hearts turned toward God in all humility & works done in all obedience, will be stored up.
John models this humility for us when he reminds us that he is not the Messiah. Verse 11: I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts & 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 & with fire. John’s great work of baptism does not make him worthy. One greater than John was yet to come. In Jesus, a greater work was right around the corner.
So how do we prepare for the arrival of Jesus? Repent. Change your heart & life. No matter who you are or what your blood line is, repentance is needed. No one is repentance-exempt, no matter their heritage, holy factor, or credentials. Repent in all humility, bearing fruit & taking up all virtue! Remember that the kingdom of heaven has come near. It has arrived not in temples or capitals, but it has made a straight path for the Messiah right in the middle of the wilderness. The good news of Jesus is being proclaimed from the barren, dismal & dangerous places. Are we willing to leave our respectable Jerusalem’s & travel to the wilds with ears to hear & eyes to see? Where are the wilderness places of our community? Where are the places no one wants to go? Is it the homeless encampment behind the Neighborhood Market? Is it First Ave, an hour before Crisis Ministries serves its meal? Is it the neighbor’s house where the children are playing outside in the cold with no shoes on their feet? Go there & listen. Go there & look. Go there & prepare the way for the Lord, making straight his path. Go there & produce fruit.