Prepare the Way

 

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Matthew 03:1-12 / 2 Advent / 5 December 2010 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

“Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” Matthew 3:1-12

Imagine yourself standing in the wilderness across the Jordan river. You hear a voice calling, shouting, from a distance. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” You see a figure approaching, a wild-haired bearded man, his skin bronzed by the sun, his eyes ablaze with prophetic fire. He is dressed like a prophet straight out of the pages of the Old Testament – coarse camel’s hair and a leather sash around his waist. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was Elijah come back from heaven. You realize that you are standing on the very spot where the tradition has it that Elijah was whisked off to heaven centuries before.

The strange figure draws closer. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He’s looking directly at you, pointing a long index finger in your direction. Yes, he means you, religious one. Pious Israelite. Pharisee. Sadducee. Scribe. Tax collector. Prostitute. Sinner. It doesn’t matter who or what you are. Repent. Are you good? Then repent of your goodness. You’re not good enough. Are you bad? Then repent of your badness. It’s worse than you think.

Who is this strange man with the funny wilderness diet? Grasshoppers and wild honey. What’s that about? From where did he come? Who sent him? His name is John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. His parents were old, extraordinarily old when he was born. He was raised as an orphan in the wilderness. He seems to want nothing to do with the temple. He comes from priestly parents, but he is not priest. His business is iat the Jordan River. He came to baptize.

Baptism was not unknown at the time of John. There is evidence that the wilderness communities where John likely grew up practiced a form of baptism. You were baptized when you became a Jew, an honorary Israelite. Proselyte baptism. That made John’s baptism something new, different. The people that came from Jerusalem and all the region of Judah were not proselytes to Judaism but Jews. Some of them religious leaders – Pharisees and Sadducees.

You can see why John’s baptism drew such controversy. He was calling all of Israel to be washed, implying they were not washed. Unclean. He singles out the religious leaders for the harshest treatment. “You brood of vipers! You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And don’t start jabbering about how you have Abraham as your father for God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones.” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

I wonder what they thought. What do you think when someone says to you, “Repent!” We usually think, “Repent of what?” What did I do? Or, “Hey, you should talk! You’re the one who needs to repent!” But no, John is speaking to you. There’s a coming wrath and judgment and fire. Repent!

John’s appearing in the Jordan wilderness marks the end of the Old Testament. The prophet Malachi said that Elijah would come before the Day of the Lord to the prepare the hearts of the people. John came in the spirit of Elijah. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets. The others pointed from a distance down through the centuries. John points directly. The time for Israel’s redemption had come. The age of the Messiah was about to dawn, and Israel was in desperate need of a bath.

We have this impulse. When something important happens, there’s always a bath or a shower involved. Or at least you wash your hands. That was the notion behind Jewish proselyte baptism. You were leaving your old way of life, your old religious loyalties, everything. You were starting fresh, starting over, starting new. You were reborn an Israelite. What John was doing was calling Israel to be washed and ready for the Coming One. He was calling Israel out of the land, away from Jerusalem, away from the temple and its religious institutions back into the wilderness in kind of an exodus in reverse. He was calling every Israelite to repent.

To repent is to have a change of mind. That’s what the word repent literally means. Metanoia. To change your mind, your thinking. It’s not about behaving yourself. That’s bearing the fruits of repentance. But repentance is a total flip of the mind and the will. The time was at hand, urgent. There was no tomorrow. No procrastination. The kingdom of heaven is near.

Perhaps you noticed a parallel. John preached a baptism of repentance to prepare for Jesus’ first appearing. And Jesus gave His Church a Baptism to prepare for His second appearing. We too are called to repentance, to be drowned and die to Sin and Self. To rise up and live in Christ to God.

The Baptism you received is different than John’s in that it came from Jesus, with the fiery Pentecost wind of His Spirit. John’s baptism was fulfilled when Jesus stood in the water before John to be baptized by Him, when the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended and the Father said, “This is my beloved Son,” and John said “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That was the purpose of John’s baptism, to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming in humility to die and rise. But the purpose of your Baptism is to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming in glory to raise the dead and give salvation, to join you with Jesus now in His death and life so that you might die and rise to live forever. Your Baptism is fulfilled the day you die and on the Last Day when you rise.

John’s baptism was for that time only. Jesus’ Baptism is for the end times until the end of time.

John preached Jesus as the promised Coming One. It’s striking the kind of Jesus he preaches. It’s really not the One that shows up! John’s Jesus has a winnowing fork in His hand and a fire of judgment kindled and He’s ready to toss the grain into the fiery wind and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire as he gathers up His wheat into the barn. John’s Jesus has an axe already laid to the root of every fruitless tree. Would you want to meet this Jesus on those terms? I wouldn’t. We’d be toast.

Yet when Jesus finally appears, He appears humble and meek. He submits Himself to John’s baptism of repentance even though He is the one perfect Jew who has not need for repentance. Instead of an axe and a winnowing fork, He comes with a cross and a death. Instead of coming in judgment, He comes to be judged. It’s no wonder that John had his doubts and had to ask if they got the right candidate for the job. Gentle Jesus hardly seemed to fit the bill.

But that’s precisely the point. Jesus comes as Gospel to John’s Law. Who would have known that the axe of God’s wrath would be laid against the promised “shoot from the stump of Jesse”? Who would have known that the fire of God’s judgment would be turned against the Son in His passion to save us? Who would have known that the way of the kingdom of heaven is for the King to die for HIs subjects and rise from the dead?

Seven hundred years before John, the prophet Isaiah saw the coming kingdom in the form of a tiny shoot sprouting from the stump of King David’s family tree. And from that Sprout a righteous Branch that would bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord would rest upon Him. He would judge the world by His righteousness and restore harmony and shalom to the creation so that even the wolf and the lamb could lie down in peace. Isaiah saw a Day when the Root of Jesse would become a banner lifted high, a signal for all peoples, whose resting place would be glorious. From its humble beginnings to its glorious ending: the sprout become a branch become the Tree of LIfe from whose fruit the repentant may eat and live.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The message is the same today in our wilderness as it was then in John’s. Repent. Turn away from your sin, your self, your death. Be baptized. Look to Christ the Lamb lifted up for you. Eat the wilderness food of His body, drink His blood for your forgiveness, for your life, for your salvation. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make His paths straight. He’s coming soon.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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