In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 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. 10 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.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful 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, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
I have a good friend who is always on top of things. She is a fellow pastor, and we went to seminary together. When we took a class together and we needed to schedule our capstone presentations, she volunteered to go first. Last week, on November 30, we received her family’s Christmas card. Some years we received her Christmas card before Thanksgiving. This is mind boggling for me, because as some of you might recall, my family is not usually that punctual. There have been years when we have not done any Christmas cards, which is probably more common than what we did in 2011, when we sent out Valentine’s Day cards because we didn’t get around to sending Christmas cards. It was just two months late, no biggie.
It is really easy for me to put things off until later, especially if they aren’t things I enjoy. I have been saying that I’m going to clean out my car now for about…three years? I’m going to call that person from high school, I’m going to start praying and reading scripture at the same time every day.
And I’m sure that I’m not alone.
We are coming right up on the New Year, and many people will be setting their New Year’s resolutions. This year, I’m going to start eating better. But not on January 1. We have New Year’s parties to get to, which means one last chance to eat big for the holidays. But January 2, I’m going to…no, wait, that’s actually a really big day for college football. The Rose Bowl will be on January 2, and I’m going to have nachos. And if we are being logical, the College Football Championship Game is one week later, on January 9, so that means more nachos and probably some chicken wings. So there is no reason to start eating better until… Well, there’s the Super Bowl, then some birthdays. I figure I can start eating better around November, 2017.
This habit of putting things off can be more problematic than just delaying the start of a diet or sending of Christmas cards. My wife’s parents did three years of voluntary service in one of the most economically-depressed places in the United States, working with a series of food pantries and homeless shelters. These locations were not only economically depressed, they were also depressing. People didn’t take care of their possessions, and they didn’t care for their own bodies. In the church we might say that they were poor stewards of the things that God had given them. And in this economically depressed and spiritually depressing location, my mother-in-law learned to despise a word. That word was “manana.” At least the people in the Colorado neighborhood had picked up some culture and learned another language! But this was a common practice in this socially and economically depressed part of the world. If you asked someone to do something, they would reply, “manana.” I will do it tomorrow.
Today, not tomorrow, we will be looking at a strange text about a strange man. Here we are on the 4th of December. If you look around your neighborhood, you may see Santa Claus, Rudolph, twinkling lights, and maybe even some manger scenes. But on the second Sunday of Advent, we turn to a scrawny, hairy, and probably itchy man who stands on the street corner, yelling something about the Kingdom of heaven, while wearing clothes made of camel hair, his breath reeking of wild honey and bugs. Nothing says, “Happy birthday, Jesus” like a man wearing camel hair with locus stuck in his teeth.
While John the Baptist might not have the same appeal as a chubby man with a red suit and a white beard, John is all the more important for our upcoming holiday celebration. John is the predecessor of Jesus. He is said to be the slightly-older cousin of Jesus, born a few months before our Lord. We don’t read anything about John’s early years, but we are told that he comes on the scene as an adult just before Jesus. Matthew says that John is the one prophesied about by Isaiah, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
And John’s message is clear…kind of. He says in verse 2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Now the image is really coming together for me. John is a dirty, hairy, likely stinky man wearing camel hair clothes, eating bugs and honey. The honey helps the bugs go down. And this crazed man is standing on the street corner, calling out to passersby, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Or even better, “has come nigh,” for those who prefer the King James.
If I saw this character on my street, I would cross to the other side.
Now ask yourselves who needs to hear this message? Obviously, it is the sinners. The tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sexually promiscuous, the thieves, and the Virginia Tech fans. Repent, and sin no more! Sorry, that last one just slipped.
But it is true. These people to need to repent. Who else does? The religious leaders, that’s who. The Pharisees and the Sadducees come to John, and he doesn’t greet them by saying, “Brothers, you need not be baptized, nor do you need to repent. It’s all good, I’m here for those guys.”
Instead, John says in verse 9, “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.” Your credentials aren’t enough, and even your past accomplishments aren’t enough.
I recently updated my CV, which is short for a “curriculum vitae,” a Latin phrase meaning course of life. Most people are familiar with resumes. Resumes are often required for job applications and things like that. One of the main guidelines in writing a resume is the length. If you have ever written a resume, you know that it is to be one page long. You put your work experience, your educational experience, and a few other key details on the document, and that is it. A CV is just the opposite. It is a listing of all of your accomplishments. Mine includes all of the jobs that I have held, my education information, scholarships, my publications, my responsibilities with Virginia Mennonite Conference, and so on. A CV, even more so than a resume, is supposed to be a representation of what you are capable of doing based on what you have already accomplished.
But what a person is capable of doing and what they actually do isn’t always the same. You may have a very strong resume or CV, you may even have really strong references, but that is only an indicator of what you can do and what you have done. Not what you will do.
Some of you who are business owners have probably hired a person based on your knowledge of their previous work. Or maybe you have hired a person to work on your house or your car. Maybe you are a teacher and you have been working with a student for an entire year. And the employee doesn’t live up to your expectations. The carpenter or the mechanic doesn’t fix the problem you are having. The student doesn’t perform as well as they did before.
Your past success, your credentials, who your daddy is, your job title. These things may make for a very successful CV or resume. But more is expected of you. You are expected to continue to do these great things at the same level of expertise, if not better.
So when these religious leaders approach John, he doesn’t slap them on the back and congratulate them on a successful career. He calls them to repentance, too.
This whole scenario gets ever weirder after our text for today. If we were to jump ahead to verse 13, who is it that comes to Jesus for baptism? It is Jesus. And John is understandably hesitant to baptize Jesus. “You should be baptizing me!,” John says. I think this part that our text leaves out is a key to understanding this entire passage. Because this isn’t about repenting in the sense that we often use the word. Because if baptism is simply about asking forgiveness for your sins and being metaphorically washed clean, then most Christians would agree that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. There is something more going on here.
Remember that the Greek word “metanoia,” which we translate as “repent,” literally means to turn or to change. This isn’t about simply stating out loud that you have made mistakes in your life. This is about turning your life to align with God’s will. John came proclaiming this alternative kingdom where God is the king, and he is inviting people to turn their lives to align with God’s will. And it doesn’t matter if you are a tax collector, a prostitute, a Pharisee, or a Sadducee. Everyone needs to realign their lives from time to time. Even Jesus himself.
Even Jesus had to pray, not my will but yours be done.
I’m not suggesting that Jesus ever sinned, but there are times when Jesus even needs to discern what God’s will is and to realign his life with God’s kingdom. And if Jesus needed that reminder from time to time, surely we do as well.
It has now been over a month since my baseball team lost the World Series, so I think I am ready to talk about it. Once again, my team went all the way to the decisive game 7 of the series, only to lose in extra innings. And as soon as the last out was recorded, the players for the Chicago Cubs put on their 2016 World Series Champion t-shirts and hats. Similar items were sold around the world and were readily available at the click of a mouse.
Have you ever wondered how they print up all of those t-shirts and hats so quickly? The answer is, they don’t. They print two sets, one for the team that actually wins, and one set for the team that loses. Because they don’t know who will win, they have to have both on hand for the victory celebration.
Have you ever wondered what happens to all of those shirts and hats that were printed for the losing team? They are often donated to organizations like World Vision. If you go to Zambia, you can find men wearing t-shirts that say, “Chicago Bears, 2007 Super Bowl Champions.” The Indianapolis Colts actually won that year, but I don’t think the previously-naked man minds the inaccuracy too much. 15,000 of these shirts were distributed in Zambia.
This year, after my team from Cleveland lost the World Series, Major League baseball made the decision to destroy the shirts that had been printed for a Cleveland victory. And I know that it is more complicated than I am letting on, but I have to think that those shirts could have been put to good use somewhere. The World Series ended just one month after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti and parts of the southeastern shore of the United States.
I’m not saying that it was a sin to destroy the shirts, but I believe that there could be a better use for them. We follow Jesus, who says to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the poor. I believe that to make the decision to donate these otherwise worthless shirts is the kind of repentance, the kind of turning, that we all need to do every day. We need to be asking ourselves all the time if our lives are aligning with the God revealed in Jesus Christ; the God revealed on the cross.
This is why we have John the Baptist as a part of our Advent reading. John, complete with camel hair clothing and bugs in his teeth, stands on the corner calling out for people to repent. He isn’t just calling those sinners over there. He is calling the religious folks as well. He is calling us all to realign our lives to God’s will.
There was an ancient Rabbi named Eliezer. As he was teaching his students one day, Rabbi Eliezer instructed them, “Repent one day before your death.” One of the students replied, “But Rabbi, how will we know when that day is?”
Eliezer replied, “Exactly. All the more reason to repent today, lest you die tomorrow.”
John’s call to repentance isn’t something for tomorrow. Don’t wait until manana. Repent, realign your life to God will today, and then do it again tomorrow.