Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bugs, Vipers and the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12)

Let’s take a look at the man who prepared the way for Christ while we’re preparing for his coming during the season of Advent.

We mostly know John the Baptist because of his connection to Jesus, but he had a following of his own, and those followers were still meeting and spreading their word into the time of the early church. Paul meets them in Acts, remember.

So here he is out in the desert, wearing a camel’s hair coat that is not like the one you get at Brooks Brothers and eating wild honey and bugs. No wonder people came out to see him. He’s like the original “Man vs. Wild” show.

Once they came to see him, though, they also heard his message, and it made a greater impact than his appearance ever could. “Repent,” he said. “For the kingdom is at hand.” Thousands of people listen and seek baptism in the Jordan River. Jewish faith includes a number of ceremonial washings, and baptism symbolically combines them.

Their ancestors became a nation when they crossed that river behind Joshua, and no longer people who wandered in the desert like they had nowhere to go. They hope to leave behind their spiritual wanderings in turning to follow God as their guide and leader.

One day, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees come to see the hubbub. John picks them out right away, and calls them out just a moment later.

“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Although it sounds like he wonders how they found out where he was, I can’t imagine John really meant that. If he’s drawing crowds from all over the place, he would expect to see these religious officials show up sooner or later.

I believe he means his question to present them with a choice about why they came. Are they there for their own reasons or are they there because of his message? They two won’t have anything to do with one another in the end.

Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife. When John proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand, he used a concept they rejected. They didn’t believe some kind of new kingdom was coming.

We know the Pharisees as those mean guys who always argue with Jesus, but they had a wide range of members. Originally, the Pharisee school began with the idea that the people who claimed they followed God should act like it. If your life didn’t look any different from someone who didn’t follow God, how was God honored by that, they asked. Over time, they kept refining their guidelines and adding to what they received from Moses, so they become the legal hairsplitters who say anyone that lifts more than a thimbleful of honey to their lips on the Sabbath breaks the law.

They would come to see John to check out what doctrine he was preaching and make sure it matched the Law and the prophets’ writings down to the last degree. They had no interest in all in listening to the meaning of his message, just its details.

But, John’s question cuts off their agendas and confronts them with the reality he proclaims. God’s kingdom will break into this world, and begin transforming it right now. Even though we understand that God will one day remake the world entirely, we still face the same two questions John asked his listeners.

The first comes to us before we are believers. God says to us, “I am changing this world. Will I change you too?” His ultimate plan is to restore the world to what he always meant it to be, and to restore in us the image of himself that has been a part of us since before our births.

When we, like John’s listeners, hear that the “kingdom is at hand,” we confront the choice to let God make us a part of that kingdom breaking into the world or to deny that reality.

And if we are Christians, the incoming kingdom presents us with a choice as well. We may have already agreed that God will change us and allowed that change to begin. Maybe we’re resistant or stubborn and we change slowly, but we have answered the first question. Now comes the second. “I am changing this world,” God says. “Will you be one of the ways I use to change it?

“You have heard the good news,” he tells us. “Now will you be one who brings it as well?”

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