Synopsis: How do you think people would respond if we hear on tomorrow’s morning news that a guy wearing a black robe, a rope belt, and a reformation-style hat has arrived in Rome, and he is baptizing people in the Tiber River, which runs through Vatican City?
Scriptures: Matthew 3: 1-12 and Ezekiel 34
Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.
“Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”
This was the message of John the Baptist, a guy who lived over 2,000 years ago in a place far from America, to people of a different faith. How can Christians today relate to him and his message of repentance?
The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us much about John the Baptist until he starts baptizing people. He describes John as eating locusts and wild honey and wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist.
This garb wasn’t unusual for a prophet. In the Old Testament, in the book of 2 Kings, King Ahaziah asked his messengers to seek a prediction from Baal regarding whether he would recover from an injury. His messengers returned stating that they came upon a prophet who told them that the King would surely die because he sought a prediction from Baal, not from the Lord. When King Ahaziah asked what this prophet looked like, they replied, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” King Ahaziah said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
When John started baptizing people, it had been 400 years since a prophet had spoken to Israel. But John’s coming was foretold by both the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Malachi. In verse 3, Matthew directly quotes Isaiah’s prophecy from chapter 40, verse 3.
It has been over 500 years since there has been a great reformer of the Christian faith. Imagine if there was a prophecy that Martin Luther would come again to reform the Christian faith and prepare the way for Jesus’ Second Coming. Now imagine hearing tomorrow on the morning news that a guy showed up in Rome wearing a black monk’s robe, a rope-like belt, and a reformation-style hat, and was baptizing people in the Tiber River, which basically runs through Vatican City?
How do you think people would respond?
How many people do you think would flock to Rome just to check out this nut who obviously thinks he’s Martin Luther? Maybe they would have no intention of repenting and no intention of being baptized. They would come just because they were curious – or wanted some entertainment – or wanted to take a selfie with him and post it on social media.
I’m sure many people came to see John for the same reason – except for the selfie part, of course. They may not have been religious Jews; they were just curious and wanted to check out this guy who thinks he’s Elijah come again in fulfillment of some Torah prophecy.
John was weird and did some weird stuff by the world’s standards. That’s because he was not of this world. That’s why he was raised in the wilderness – so he wouldn’t become like everyone else.
If we’re not of this world, we are also weird. I have been called weird. In fact, the person who ended up being the accidental “matchmaker” for Tabatha and I warned Tabatha, “Joan’s coming to the party. You haven’t met her yet. She’s a little weird.”
It used to bother me that people might think I’m weird. But now, I think being weird is a good thing. Look at what it did for John the Baptist. People came to him and heard what he had to say just because he was weird. How many of them ended up repenting and being baptized?
That’s accidental repentance.
Back to our Martin Luther scenario. We’ve said some people would come to Rome to see him out of curiosity. Now imagine seeing the pointy-hats of the bishops from the Vatican approaching the scene and maybe even a gaggle of Protestant ministers with their black robes and stoles. Imagine one of them asking him, “So, are you the reincarnation of Martin Luther?”
How do you think he would respond?
Martin Luther was excommunicated from the church, which also allowed anyone to murder him without penalty. So, we would understand if he might not come right out and say, “Yes, I am!” Many of those bishops and perhaps even some Protestant ministers surrounding him might not see any need for another Reformation. They might be quite happy with the ways things are, thank you very much. Unless, of course, he could solve the problem of fewer butts in the pews and dollars in the offering plate.
In the Gospel of John, when the priests and Levites came from Jerusalem and asked John who he is, John denied being the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet. He simply alluded to Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3.
He didn’t come right out and say, “Yep! I’m the prophet Elijah come again just like Isaiah’s prophecy said!” We can understand why he wasn’t so straightforward. Elijah was horribly persecuted in his time by Queen Jezebel. She wanted him dead, and he had to run for his life.
Throughout Israel’s history, many of its prophets were murdered by illegitimate and corrupt kings. Unfortunately, this would be John’s fate as well. But first, he needed to fulfill his mission to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the Christ.
John baptized people in the Jordan River, which is about 70 miles long and ran along the eastern border of Israel, about 20 miles east of Jerusalem. A baptism by John in the Jordan River would have been quite symbolic to the Jewish people.
Toward the end of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, after the death of Moses and the installation of Joshua as Israel’s new leader, it was at this river that Israel renewed their covenant with God before entering into the Promised Land. Here, at the Jordan River, John was asking people to renew their covenant with God once again.
In Matthew’s gospel, John attacks the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees, as we know, had a problem with self-righteousness. Since they were the sons of Abraham, they figured that they were already saved. The only people who were baptized in Judaism those days were converts and anyone whose ritual purity had been sullied in some way though, for example, contact with a corpse.
But John’s baptism didn’t have anything to do with cleansing the body; it was about cleansing the heart. To approach John for baptism required people to admit that their hearts were defiled and needed to be cleansed. The Pharisees and Sadducees figured they didn’t do anything that would have required they receive a mikvah (or ritual bath). But John saw how much their hearts were defiled.
Why did the Pharisees and Sadducees come if they weren’t sincere? Well, they had a lot of influence over the people. The Sadducees administered the rites in the Temple. The Pharisees taught Torah law and how to properly follow it – along with a whole heap of “Tradition of the Elders.”
They didn’t like what John was saying. What John was saying is this: “You can follow all the rites and rituals and traditions you want. You can even come here and be baptized, but if it doesn’t lead to a change of heart, if it doesn’t inspire you to love others as you love yourself, then it is worthless!”
That’s phony repentance.
If Martin Luther was in Rome, baptizing people in the Tiber River, how do think the Catholic and Protestant ministers would respond to that message? “You can be baptized, go to church every Sunday, be confirmed, take Communion, serve as a deacon or even be ordained a priest or minister, but if it doesn’t inspire the growth of love in your heart, it’s all worthless!”
I’m sure that some of those who would come to see our reincarnated Martin Luther might be Christians who are sincerely repentant. Most Christians are not oblivious to the sins of the Christian church – and not just sins from long ago, like the Crusades. We’ve recently become aware of some horrible sins committed by some of our religious leaders.
And I’m sure many who came to hear and be baptized by John were truly repentant. We know that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were more concerned with the letter of the law and their own reputations then they were about planting the seed of love in people’s hearts and properly nurturing that seed. Whole groups of people were ostracized: Samaritans, Lepers, Tax Collectors, Romans, and anyone judged to be “sinners.”
The shepherds turned out to be wolves in disguise. God promised in our reading from Ezekiel chapter 34 that he would come and shepherd the people Himself. John was calling people to repentance to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Good Shepherd. Become like sheep in your hearts, not like wolves. The Good Shepherd will know the difference between the sheep and the wild animals.
John warns the people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” It doesn’t matter if someone is a “son of Abraham” if he doesn’t act like it. True sons and daughters resemble their parents. This doesn’t make salvation dependent on good works; it makes good works dependent on salvation. We are not saved unless our hearts have changed, and if our hearts have changed, that will be evident in our good works.
John makes this clear in Luke’s gospel. After John warned the people, they asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He told tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” He told soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.”
Loving one another as we love ourselves was not a new commandment in Judaism. There’s a Jewish parable called “The Rabbi and the Exceedingly Ugly Man.” It goes like this:
On one occasion Rabbi Eleazer son of Rabbi Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He was riding leisurely on his donkey by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah. There he chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, rabbi.”
He, however, did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “Raca (which means ‘Empty one’ or ‘Good for nothing’) how ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?” The man replied; “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.’” When R. Eleazer realized that he had sinned he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me!”
That’s sincere repentance!
The rabbi immediately realized his mistake and was grateful for the correction. He realized he was calling someone made in the image of God – someone like himself – ugly, empty, good for nothing. Some say we can’t love others until we love ourselves. I used to think that, but now I think it’s the other way around. We learn to love ourselves through loving others. That’s why loving one another comes first in the commandment. If we wait until we love ourselves before we love others, we’ll never get there.
John tells the crowd that he is baptizing them with water; he is purifying their hearts for the one coming after him, who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will fill their hearts with the most powerful force in the Universe – an eternal force that creates entire Universes: The fire of love.
This advent let us rejoice in our weirdness! Accidental repentance can happen when somebody meets one of us weirdos, and they are curious. Their burning question is usually something like, “Why are you always so happy? Why aren’t you miserable like everyone else?” How many of us have been able to share the Gospel with people who really want to know how to get whatever we’ve got?
I have to admit, I am sometimes tempted to be more like others when I’m around people who are very different from me. We all want to feel like we belong, but we don’t have to compromise. We belong to people who are not of this world, people like John the Baptist. Like him, we can be the “voice crying out in the wilderness” that leads people to repentance.
This advent let each one of us envision what our life would be like if our heart was burning with love. I’m not talking about gushy, lovey-dovey, romantic love. I’m talking about agape love – the kind of love that sees every human being as another glorious expression of the Divine within – the kind of love that treats every human being as if he or she has unlimited value. What would that look like?
Now, I’m sure some of us might immediately think of a person or persons in our lives whom we would have trouble loving. What is the mind telling us about why they should be exempt from our love? That’s when phony repentance might be tempting.
And that is the time to choose sincere repentance – to stop believing what the mind says and start believing what the heart says about them. Does what they did matter more than who they are? Does it make “exceedingly ugly” the vessel God has made?
Be careful how you answer because the answer you give will also be true for you. If you believe that they can be good-for-nothing, then you’ll believe that you can be too. If you believe that they can’t be forgiven for what they have done, then you’ll believe it’s possible that you can’t be forgiven.
Finally, this advent, let us consider the areas where we need to repent as a Christian community. As a member of the Christian community, I often feel ashamed of how some Christians ostracize and persecute people for “religious reasons” when Jesus never gave us any reason to treat others that way. How can we repent for them by giving of our time, talents, and resources to serve those who suffer?
John was preparing the people for the Lord’s first coming, where the Lord sacrificed his personal self in order to demonstrate to the world who God is, who we are in relation to Him, and what His Love looks like. We are preparing ourselves and others for the Lord’s second coming – for the Christ to come into hearts that have prepared him room, and from there, rule a Kingdom where the only law is love.
Let’s pray together:
Father, we come to your throne of grace with sincere repentance. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, make us aware of what needs to be cleansed in our hearts to prepare room for the Christ’s arrival and the coming of Your Glorious Kingdom. Amen.
Deffinbaugh, Robert L. “4. John the Baptist and Jesus (Matthew 3: 1-17), Bible.org,
Lose, David J. “Advent 2A: Reclaiming Repentance.” DavidLose.net, 28 Nov. 2016, davidlose.net/2016/11/advent-2-a-reclaiming-repentance/
Young, Brad H. The Parables (p. 9). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.