“Walking in Hope” Matthew 3:1-12 Pastor Lynn· Deember 4, 2016January 5, 2017
Last week our sermon was about sin and our need for repentance and Jesus was talking about his return being like a thief in the night and we have to be ready. For me, when I preach and when I’m writing a sermon, it often has an emotional effect on me. The effect I’m hoping for is one of excitement and joy because that usually signals that I’m in tune with the Spirit and the sermon is what it’s supposed to be. But last week’s sermon felt different. It felt heavy to me. Especially with this being the season of Advent which is a time of hope and joyful expectation, it felt out of sync with that. So this week I was hoping for scriptures that were a little more uplifting. And what do we get? John the Baptist and his brood of vipers! When I read this I thought, “Oh no, not again.” But then I looked at it again and found it does have joy and hope.
When I first look at John the Baptist, I see basically a wild looking character standing on a street corner wearing a sign, yelling at people to repent. To me this is what comes to mind when I think of John the Baptist. Usually we try to avoid these people because we think they are on something. They make us uncomfortable. And let’s be honest. As Christians, we don’t want to be lumped in the same category as the street corner preacher. We want to be more mainstream than that. But let’s look at John a little closer.
There are some contrasts in this passage in Matthew that are helpful to think about. First, John came preaching in the desert of Judea a message of repentance. He called people to recognize and repent of their sins. This doesn’t really sound like the best venue or the best message to draw people does it? And yet people came to him from Jerusalem, and all Judea, and the whole region of the Jordan. All kinds of people came to him. Luke records that people like tax collectors and even Roman soldiers came to John, confessing their sins, being baptized, and asking what they must do to live in such a way that they would be prepared for the coming of the Messiah. In spite of the remoteness of where John was and the seriousness and even harshness of his message, all kinds of people responded positively to him. They weren’t put off by his rough clothes or his strange diet or the fact that they had to go out into the desert to hear him. This shows us that the Spirit of God was moving in the people at this time. The Spirit was working in people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. The Spirit was at work in John, empowering his message so that people recognized the truth of his words and responded in hope.
Last week I talked about how the brokenness and sin within us will deceive us into thinking the way our broken and sinful world thinks. But the opposite is also true. The Spirit of Truth within us will help us recognize the truth in the messages we hear as well. So even if the messenger is strange and the venue is awful, if the truth is being proclaimed, the Spirit of Truth will draw people to respond. We need to be paying attention to the voice of the Spirit within us in order to discern truth and have hope.
The title of the sermon today is Walking in Hope. John’s message is one of hope. The kingdom of heaven is near! Now is the time to get ready! It’s easy to relate this to the holiday season. Christmas is coming in 3 weeks! Now is the time to get ready! Advertisers love this because they can bombard us with alarming messages about how much stuff we still need to buy in order to be ready for Christmas. John didn’t tell people to buy anything to get ready for Jesus. He said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In Luke’s account, when John told the people to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, they asked him what they should do. He said, “the man with 2 tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” He told the tax collectors to not collect more than they were required to collect. He told the soldiers to not extort money or accuse people falsely but to be content with their pay. Apparently one way the soldiers harassed the people was by falsely accusing them of crimes to either extort money to make charges go away, or to terrify the people into keeping the peace. The things that John tells the people to do are not that hard. What John is saying is to practice justice and mercy. Do this and you will be ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is good news and it gives hope. The people went away knowing that what was required was within their capacity.
Another thing to notice in this passage is what John says to the Pharisees and Sadduccees. These were the people that everyone, including themselves, would have thought would be most ready for the coming Messiah. They were the religious rulers. They were experts in the law so surely they were the most righteous. They had the best chance of escaping the wrath of God because they were the experts. But John calls them a brood of vipers. I actually love this about John. He’s not at all intimidated by these guys. He says “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John’s message to the religious elite was that they had no special standing that would protect them from the wrath of God if they did not repent. The way they would get ready for the coming Messiah was the same way everyone else would. They would need to turn from their ways of injustice and judgement and begin doing works of justice and mercy. It didn’t matter what their bloodline was or what their social status was. The message to prepare for the coming of the Lord is the same for everyone and it’s something that everyone can do. We can all prepare the way of the Lord. This gives hope.
Another thing John says that gives hope is that one greater, more powerful than himself is coming. One of the reasons people got excited about John the Baptist was because he spoke in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. The Spirit of the Lord was on him the way it was on the prophets. Yet the prophetic voice had been silent in the land for 400 years. So when John came, folks got excited. They even asked John if he himself was the Messiah. John was the voice in the wilderness calling for the people to prepare the way for the Lord, to make straight paths for him, as the prophet Isaiah had said. So John called the people to repent and to do works of justice and mercy, producing fruit in keeping with repentance, and he also told them about the one who would come after him. This one is more powerful than John. This one will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. If water baptism will wash away sin and water one’s life so righteous fruit can be produced, how much more will a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire do in a person’s life?
John goes on to say that the Messiah will be like a farmer threshing grain. He will use his winnowing fork to separate the grain from the chaff or the husk. The grain, which is the edible part, will be stored in the barn, but the part you can’t eat, the chaff, will be gathered together and burned. So what kind of hope does this image give?
A farmer goes to a lot of trouble to grow a field a grain. My grandfather used to plant corn. It takes time to prepare a field, plant seeds, watch over them, make sure they have water when they need it, make sure weeds don’t take over, and then know the right time to harvest everything. I remember going with my grandfather to check the corn to see if it was ready to pick. He would open up an ear and look at it to see how well developed the kernels were. He might spot check a few different places in the field to make sure all the corn was ready. When it was ready we would all go out and pick corn. The stalks were left in the field. The corn then had to be shucked. Once that was all done, there would be a nice pile of corn that we would usually freeze. But there would be a lot more trash left over. All the husks, the stalks, and the corn cobs would have to be disposed of. The easiest way was to gather it all together and burn it.
My point is that the grain is what’s valuable. The farmer is willing to go through all the trouble it takes to get the grain. He’s willing to deal with all the trash that is left over in order to get the grain. Jesus is willing to go to the trouble of getting what is valuable in us. He’s willing to sift through all the trash in our lives and to dispose of it, so that what is of value is safe. The baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire is like the farmer sorting out the grain from the chaff. The Spirit deals with the junk in our lives and burns it away so that what is left is the grain, the part that nourishes and gives life.
To go back to what John said about his own baptism with water, repentance is necessary for the fruit of righteousness to be produced, just as water is necessary for a tree to produce fruit, but good fruit comes when the Spirit is also at work in us, burning away the junk, the trash, the polluting things in our lives, so that the fruit that is produced is nourishing and of excellent quality. That is what the Lord is looking for, the high quality stuff in our lives. We can’t produce it on our own but the Messiah is going to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire, filling us with what we lack so that this excellent fruit will be produced in us as we join with the Spirit’s work in our lives. We can have hope because the Messiah is going to deal with the junk in our lives. He’s going to work with us in removing it. Repentance gets us going in this journey, but we need the Messiah’s work in our lives to get to the end. The Messiah is going to fill us with the Spirit and fruit will be produced in our lives that we can’t even imagine yet. This is wonderful news! This is why people were flocking out into the desert to listen to John and be baptized. He gave them hope.
The time in which John ministered was not a very hopeful time. The Jews were living under Roman occupation and they had to deal with the realities of that. I got a taste of what that might have been like when I visited the Holy Land last month. We spent a lot of our time in the West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation. Even though I had a measure of protection by virtue of my American passport, it was still scary seeing armed soldiers everywhere you go. There were military checkpoints we had to go through and we were asked if we were Jewish or not. There were places we were allowed to enter that our Palestinian guide was not allowed to enter. We heard stories of Palestinian children being arrested in the middle of the night and taken to military prisons without any parent being allowed with them and without them being advised of any of their rights. And we heard the dwindling voice of hope in the people we talked with. This gives me a whole new perspective on the times in which Jesus and John lived, a time when they were harassed and humiliated in lots of ways by their occupiers. Of course the people wanted to be free of that and so were hopeful when John came announcing that it was time to prepare the way for the Lord.
But when the Lord came, he was so much different than what they expected that even John sent messengers to Jesus to ask if he really was the Messiah or if they should wait for someone else. Sometimes our hope is misdirected. We hope for a change in the circumstances around us, when God wants the change to take place within us. The kernel is inside the husk, not outside. The valuable bit is inside, not outside. When the inside is good, then the whole thing is good. When the inside is rotten, it doesn’t matter how good the outside looks, the whole thing is bad. God wants to change us inside, in our very spirits, so that we are producing good fruit that results in a good world around us. The only way lasting change for good and peace will happen in our world is if humans are changed from the inside out.
Producing good fruit doesn’t depend on our circumstances. That’s more good news. When we plant a garden, we have to do so much work controlling the circumstances so that the plants will grow. We have to weed and water and hope it doesn’t rain too much or it isn’t too hot or too cold. We have to fertilize and prune and so forth. This is all focused on making the right environment so good food can be produced. But the fruit of righteousness that John talks about depends on an inward environment not an outward one. So circumstances shouldn’t restrict us from producing fruits of righteousness. There is no law against righteousness or mercy or kindness. We are free to produce all the love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, patience, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control that we want. We are free to love our neighbors all we want. We are free to pray for our enemies all we want. There is no law against any of these things.
We live in a time of uncertainty and fear in the US. It’s a time of deep divisions being exposed in our culture in a way that they haven’t been for a long time. Having come from visiting a land that is divided and militarized, I can tell you I don’t want to see that happen here. I don’t want walls built and people groups marginalized and families living in fear. I don’t want children being targeted and voices being silenced. And so if we do not want these things happening, we need to do what John is telling the people here to do. We need to produce the fruit of justice and mercy so that our world is filled with good things. The message John had for the people of his day is the same message we need to listen to and obey today. If we want to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God in our country and in our world, we need to do what John says “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Share what you have, don’t take advantage of others, look out for your neighbors, pray for your enemies. The prophet Micah says that what God requires of us is to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love others as we love ourselves.
None of this is easy to do, but there is no law against any of it. And we have been given the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and who gives us counsel, guidance and power so we know what to do and when to do it. The Spirit works within our hearts to sort the trash from the treasure. We need to be listening to the Spirit and responding to the Spirit’s leading. The bad news is there is a lot of chaos in our world. The good news is that God knows all about it and wants us to respond. He’s got work for us to do. There are great opportunities ahead for the growth of the Kingdom of God and we need to be preparing ourselves to step into these opportunities. I don’t know what it will cost us. But that’s part of our preparation, figuring out how big a cost we are willing to pay to be a part of God’s kingdom building in our world. It may cost relationships, or time, or cherished ideas or principles. We may need to face just how much trash has accumulated in our spirits. Remember my sermon last week about letting the Spirit get in there in our hearts, move things around and expose the trash that we aren’t even aware of. We may have to spend more time in prayer and fasting. We may have to do without some things. Are we willing to do what is necessary to participate in God’s kingdom building initiative in this world?