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Matthew 3:1-12

On this second Sunday of Advent our lections call us to anticipate the arrival of that righteous shoot from the line of Jesse who will judge the poor with equity, punish the wicked and bring about a supernatural and ridiculous kind of peace. This messiah will fill all the earth in such a way that when he arrives, even the outsiders (Gentiles) will rejoice, praise the Lord and 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 and the wise men have visited. King Herod has raged and his madness has been visited upon the weakest and 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 and the danger abates, the exiled Jesus returns to Israel. It is after all this that, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming.” John’s appearance and subsequent message point us to the wonderful arrival God’s long-awaited Messiah.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  John’s message is that 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.”[1] 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.

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 is spoken from the meanest of places. According to Matthew, John’s arrival fulfills what Isaiah said would happen, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Dr. Ben Witherington notes regarding this passage,

What is compelling about that text is it can be punctuated in two ways: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.'” Or should it read “The voice of one crying: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord’?” The text of Isaiah suggests the latter reading so that it is in the wilderness where “the highway of our God” is to be paved.[2]

By his clothes and diet, Matthew frames John as a prophet like Elijah. As he speaks in the Judean wilderness, 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 and confessing their sins.

In the crowd of respectables who came slumming in the wilderness of Judea, were Pharisees and Sadducees; the separates and 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, and the immortality of the soul, and by consequence the resurrection of the dead.”[3]  Recognizing these party representatives, John very tactfully calls them snakes.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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.

John very directly confronts the presumption that because of their heritage, their holiness or their honors, they do not need to repent as the kingdom draws near and the Messiah comes. Having Abraham as their ancestor is not enough to be prepared for the day of Jesus arrival. Rick Morley offers a helpful analogy, finding similarities between the Pharisees, Sadducees and the faithful churchgoer.

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, and they even increased their giving over last year.

John Chrysostom points out regarding John’s rebuke of the Pharisees and 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.”[5]  To believe that we are repentance exempt because of our church genes is pretentious and arrogant.  As the kingdom of God draws near and 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 and hell.  The threshing floor will be cleared and all of the presumptuous chaff of “my family has always gone to church” and “at least I’m not as bad as,” will be burned away.  Fruit worthy of repentance; hearts turned toward God in all humility and 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. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and 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.  No matter who you are or who you are preaching too repentance is needed.  No one is repentance exempt, no matter their heritage, holy factor, or credentials.  Repent in all humility, bearing fruit and 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 and dangerous margins.  Are we willing leave our respectable Jerusalem’s and travel to the wilds with ears to hear and eyes to see?  Consider your setting.  Where are the wilderness places of your community?  Where are the places no one wants to go?  Go there and listen.  Go there and look.  Go there and prepare the way of the Lord making straight his path.        [1] John Wesley’s Notes – [2]Dr. Ben Witherington – The Working Preacher – [3] Ibid. John Wesley [4] Rick Morley – [5] John Chrysostom, Aurea Catena,