1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12 ESV)
The issue of truth, trust and accountability is very much part of the political discourse, the current electioneering, and the impact of the media and particularly social media. Stranger danger has morphed online to a constant reminder particularly for young people but I wonder whether my generation and older might be more vulnerable in some ways that the person you’re in communication with online might not be who they present themselves to be. It would be so much simpler if people didn’t hide behind masks or avatars, and didn’t prevaricate, dissemble, evade, hedge, mislead, lie but just told the truth. Perhaps in the past there were more consequences for not telling the truth or for not doing what you said would – I don’t know – but today with so many more words, memes, pictures flying around, it does seem that links between words and reality are loosening and should that really break then I suspect barbarism isn’t far away.
So what do we do with the word, ‘Repent’? It is a word that doesn’t resonate with us naturally. If we use it on ourselves then we know we’ve behaved badly. Not a good place to be. If the word is used by others trying to stick it on us then human nature wants a Teflon coating so that it slides away. Again, it is not a good place to be – to have someone else say that we need to change. Nobody likes to be called out.
That is why two things strike me as pretty strange in today’s Gospel – Matthew’s account of the ministry of John the Baptist which was based around the verb, the command ‘Repent’ – and the first is why were the crowds coming to John the Baptist? The other is that John seemed to challenge certain groups to keep the link between word and reality very close. Somehow he saw that they were playing fast with words and reality and John was having known of it. When John was saying ‘Repent’ he was also saying ‘I want real’ and making it clear that actions had to be consistent with the words and that they were not to define the words.
And that’s tricky when the meaning of words evolve or change organically or by legislation.
Eric Bogle sang in the Silly Slang Song – this the second verse … Ah, those far off times when a bong meant a chime And a buzz was a noise insecticidal A joint was something between bones, and getting really stoned Only happened to bad people in the Bible When if you had a bad trip, it meant you fell and broke your hip Cold turkey just meant Christmas at Aunt Dottie’s Coke was something that you burned, smack was something that you earned From your mumzie wumzie when you had been naughty.
More difficult is legislation about such things as the definition of a human being or marriage or the issue of rights. An increasing part of modern living is coming to grips with words having new legal definitions – which affects lifestyle – and that is before the truth that we have a nature to do what we want no matter what we have said.
‘Repent!’ said John the Baptist. Not on the street corner. Not with a placard over his head. Not shouting at disinterested and annoyed strangers.
No, out in the wilderness, the people came to him. People whose history had the account of 40 years in the wilderness – possibly the closest time they had ever been to God and now the crowds were coming to this strange preacher prophet from a priestly family who was saying that the Kingdom of heaven was close by and that the Lord was coming! And this approaching figure wasn’t another prophet, wasn’t even the Messiah, no, John’s quoting of Isaiah takes the people to the top – to Number 1 – to God!
The people knew for well over a thousand years that they were sinners and they needed sacrifices for God to dwell with his people in that tension between our sin and God’s holiness and I think John’s message was so intriguing – and yes, John may have been viewed as a religious celebrity or a nutter – but he was talking about God’s return – so repent! Everyone knew what it meant – a turn around, a change of behaviour, a moving away from our world view and definition of words to an accepting of God’s definition of words and it was to be more than that because John wanted it to be real – how so, because it was impact and change behaviour.
And John was also talking about things that only God was to do – a final judgement message – which didn’t send the people back to the temple or the synagogue but to a person whose baptism would bring God – the Holy Spirit – on them. This was much more a personalised religion than a regular attending at the temple or synagogue – perhaps threatening to the religious leaders – why were they there? – because in effect John was talking about people not places, not religious practices (other than Baptism) and the intriguing thing was that he was interspersing or interchanging in his message God and the one coming after him – a man – he wears sandals. And this God-man will baptise with the Holy Spirit and also separate those for him or against him. This is the usual scary version of God the Judge – try and get on his good side – repent – make it for real – change how you behave and live – but I think John had such crowds because there was sense that God would be involved personally – and that deep down is scary but also attractive.
What might this mean for us who know to whom John as referring? We have received the baptism not of John but of the one who came after him – Jesus. We have been called to daily repentance as a lifestyle which means accepting words and definitions in a certain way about our behaviour and about our human nature and not trying to wiggle out of God’s Word. And we keep returning to Jesus because the Holy Spirit wants us to follow Jesus and live with him and thus to know God and not be afraid.
In Christian Baptism we are united with Jesus and receive his gifts and God’s promise of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation and the lifestyle paradoxically is one of repentance because being led to repentance is a return to God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and to experience God’s kindness towards us because no sin we repent of can’t be forgiven. Let that sink in. No sin we repent of can’t be forgiven. Why can I say that? Because God loved the world so much – you so much – that Jesus coming into the world is only for our forgiveness.
Remember Luther’s Small Catechism … What benefits does Baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new [person] should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
This daily perspective and approach to life – this is true mindfulness – this is real spirituality – is based in the God-man John pointed to – Jesus – and with Jesus with us, we can discover how to align words and deeds better than ever before – as we daily struggle with our sins – repent – and live as well as we can for the people around us – serve.
We need real and not just talk – the people around us need real – real Christianity – and it is possible because Jesus is really present – through words, water, bread and wine. Really. And despite our sins because we don’t get this Christianity right each day, Jesus stays with us and forgives us.
Be real. Live with Jesus. God really does love us.
- Matthew 3:1 - 12