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The Peaceable Kingdom

HW in HI

based on Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist might have made a typical American, but he was not a typical Israelite. There was nothing typical about John the Baptist. He lived in the wilderness. But it was well known in those days that demons inhabited the wilderness. Maybe if you had a good reason, you might travel there with a group of your kin – your family – but one certainly did not live in the wilderness. And John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Weird. This is not what was worn and this is not what was eaten. Not in Israel, not 2,000 years ago.

John probably would have been an okay American. You know, a rugged individualist, lover of the outdoors. Sort of a John Muir, Sierra Club kind of guy. And maybe he would be a good member of generation X. The scripture doesn’t say whether or not he pierced his body somewhere or other, but the camel’s hair clothing and eating bugs – that could be generation x.

So what on earth is going on? Why are people flocking to him? They’re coming in droves. Well, Israel did have a great history of prophets. In the past, prophets had warned of captivity if the Israelites did not turn toward God. And here was John the Prophet, baptizing people, and calling them to confess their sins and change their ways.

The author of the gospel, Matthew, has figured things out. He tells us that the prophet Isaiah told us that John would come: "This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" Well, John was in the wilderness. No doubt about that. And he told the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And they did. They came in droves and were baptized.

Some of the people who came seemed to be coming for the wrong reasons. They weren’t repenting. They just wanted to get baptized. Actually, we still see that today. People will call up the church and say, “We want to get our baby baptized.” Baptism is a good and beautiful thing. With baptism we become a full member of the church. But often times these are people who have no intention of turning their lives to God, and so baptism doesn’t make any sense. Usually we suggest they start coming to church, so that the promises they make are real promises. This is a problem faced by just about every church, but John had it first.

John, however, doesn’t mince words. He says things to these people that I hope no clergy would ever say. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John probably could not have done a better job of insulting them. He insults their heritage and their honor and social standing all at once. They are the illegitimate children of snakes. John the Baptist was hurling the first “Yo Mama” insult. Something like, “Yo mama wears army boots.” But worse.

John has a point to make. He tells them, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Which is to say, confess your sins and start acting like children of God, not children of snakes. And he tells them, “Don’t think just because you’re good Israelites, that you’ve got it made. You don’t. Your heritage is no guarantee that you will be a child of God. If necessary, God will raise up children from elsewhere.” Actually, he says: “If necessary, God will raise up children from stones.” John had guts. He was blunt, and he pretty much didn’t care whom he insulted. The people he was condemning were good keepers of the Torah. But John told them, “So what?” They were of the right heritage. . But John told them, “So what?” They knew all the right people. But John told them, “So what?”

It is easy for us to sit here, redeemed by Christ, in our beautiful little church. John wasn’t talking about us. But let’s imagine for a moment that he is. Are we pretty sure of ourselves, that we’re doing just the right things and saying just the right prayers? Do we gloss over the confession on Sunday mornings because, well, after all – we haven’t much to confess? Are we proud of our heritage? Are we sure that there is some advantage in being part this or hapa that? Are we pretty sure that St. Peter already has a nice big check mark right next to our name, and we’re getting right into heaven?

If any of us applies to us, perhaps this is a good time for us to confess our sins. We don’t have to tell them to John the Baptist. We can tell them straight to God. Maybe now is a good time to confess our sins and – what? If we just confess our sins, the job is only half done.

This is a true story. A man was travelling on business in Europe, with a group of business people. They had a bit of time off when they were in Paris, so two of them went to see Notre Dame. One was a lifelong Roman Catholic; we’ll call him George. George decided to go into the cathedral and make his confession. He stood in front of the church for endless minutes, and finally turned away, tears in his eyes. He told his friend, “I can’t do it. You can’t say confession unless you’re ready to change.”

I believe that was the essence of John the Baptist’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees. “Don’t come get baptized. You’re not for real. You’re not ready, even if you say you are. First, turn your heart to God. Then repent of your sins. Then I’ll baptize you.”

And if we are already baptized? Well, our sins are forgiven. We know that. But like George, our confession will mean nothing unless we are ready to turn to God.

This Advent as we prepare for Christmas, let us turn our hearts toward God. The prophet Isaiah tells us of the coming of Christ and the kingdom of God:

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

The kingdom of God will be peaceable and glorious. We live between the first coming of Christ and the second. The peaceable kingdom is not yet here. Not it gets a little closer as we turn our hearts to God. In the words of Paul, “May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Amen.


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Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999