December 4, 2016 “Unexpected Warning” – Matthew 3:1-12
December 4, 2016 – Second Sunday in Advent
“We had practically no warning.” That’s what Trevor Cates said about the fire that burned down his home in Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Monday. “My wife and son ran through the home and grabbed a laundry basket full of pictures, our firesafe, my two Bibles, some changes of clothes, and our two cats and one dog.” He also lost the church building he attends, Banner Baptist in the north part of the city.
The death toll is at least 12 or 13. People are still missing. Warnings to evacuate came unexpected and too late. A mobile phone warning that was possible did not go out at all. County and emergency officials are being asked why people weren’t warned. Television told people Monday that no structures were threatened just an hour before the fire swept into the city. No one imagined that a fire like that would come so close so fast.
In our text, John the Baptist warned crowds of people about God’s arrival like wildfire in the world. As we learn in Luke, this leather-belted, locust-eating prophet was Jesus’ cousin, six months older. At thirty years of age, he began preaching the message we read in verse 2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Like wise folks in the path of a fire, many heeded John’s warning. Verse 5 says they came out from the big city of Jerusalem and the little villages of the countryside. Verse 6 tells us they observed his warning by confessing their sins and being baptized. But like officials in Tennessee, officials in Judea did not take John’s alarm seriously.
Verse 7 mentions “many Pharisees and Sadducees.” John stood waste deep in the swirling brown Jordan River, calling out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”, and baptizing anyone who came. But when he looked up and saw them on the bank he doubted their true repentance. He addressed them as “You brood of vipers!” asking “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” That was unexpected.
Pharisees and Sadducees were both religious parties and political parties. They were leading Jewish teachers and laymen, movers and shakers in Judea. They were civil authorities and leaders in the synagogues. Pharisees were holy, respected men of the community, honored by common people. Sadducees were sophisticated folk who did not life after death. They associated with the rich. So these influential citizens came out to see the hairy prophet. Unexpectedly, John showed them no respect at all.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were there to judge John. They would warn the people if he was a fraud. But before they could render judgment on John, he judged them, and warned them to exhibit real repentance, not just a show for the crowds or a pretense to get close and see what John was up to.
An American woman visited the Louvre, the world’s most famous art gallery, in Paris. As she finished her tour she remarked to a French gentleman that she did not really care for the paintings she had seen. His reply was, “The paintings are not on trial, Madame; you are.” Her lack of interest in the art she saw was an indictment of her, not of the art she saw.
The best and brightest leaders of first century Judaism thought they could judge and even warn the man who was preaching in the desert. They found, to their surprise, that this scruffy hermit was warning them.
John’s baptism in the Jordan was both an opportunity and a warning. It was an opportunity to prepare for the coming of the Lord and His kingdom. Rabbis baptized proselytes, Gentiles who converted to Judaism. It showed that they were entering a new way of life as members of God’s covenant people. John did the unexpected, baptizing Jews, people who were children of Abraham, people already inside the Covenant.
John’s baptism was a way to enter God’s coming kingdom. It was a visible sign of a change of heart, of transformation in one’s way of life. A Jew who had failed miserably in keeping God’s law could start over. As John quoted from Isaiah in verse 3, you could straighten out your life so that God could come to you. But what about those who were not spiritual failures, what about the good folks, what about the Pharisees and Sadducees?
When we talk about these Jewish leaders, particularly the Pharisees, we may be talking about ourselves. One unexpected warning here is that you and I could be standing on the bank looking down our noses at John, not wading in the muddy water getting dunked by him. Pharisees were good, decent, God-fearing, middle-class citizens of their time. They worked hard, went to worship every week and taught their children the Bible. They gave money to charity, studied the Word, and prayed all the time. Pharisees are us.
John’s baptism was a warning. It was a warning of guilt for all who think they are not guilty. Like Josef K. in Kafka’s surreal novel, The Trial, the more we protest our innocence, the more the tables are turned and the stronger becomes the presumption of our guilt. The more righteous we imagine ourselves, the louder John yells at us, calling us vipers, snakes.
It seems unfair. Most of us here are Christians. We are righteous by faith in Christ. If anyone has a claim to being in the kingdom of God, it is us. Pharisees and Sadducees looked to their own heritage as Jews, “We have Abraham as our father,” John imagines them saying in verse 9. You and I say, “We have Jesus as our Savior.” But John warned the Jews that God could make children for Abraham out of rocks. He could do the same today. And God might do better with a rock than with how we Christians behave sometimes.
Like the Pharisees, we may be happy to sit around like dead rocks, comfortable in our salvation. But I Peter 2:5, says we to be living stones. John says we are to be alive and growing like trees. “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance,” he told the Pharisees and Sadducees in verse 8.
What do you and I need to repent? As the Gospels unfold, we see that these supposedly righteous men were guilty of looking down not only on prophets like John and then Jesus, but that they despised their fellow Jews, the common people who did not measure up to their standards. You and I need to repent of the ways we’ve looked at our fellow Christians.
This year’s presidential election has divided Christians. Many have wondered about someone who voted differently whether a real Christian could really vote that way. We’ve taken comfort in the righteousness of our own ballot and despised other believers who marked a different box. We’ve divided ourselves by party like Pharisees and Sadducees. It’s time to repent of that spirit of distain and seek the true righteousness of God’s kingdom.
Just like then, dividing up into parties, even religious parties like Pharisees and Sadducees is not going to bring in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is what our reading from Isaiah pictured, a peaceable kingdom where wolves live with lambs, and leopards lie down with baby goats, and calves and lions walk side by side. We heard Paul in Romans 15:7 say “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.” John the Baptist is warning us to repent of our lack of welcome for each other.
No political party is going to help us be truly and completely welcoming people of God’s kingdom. There is no party that will aid us in welcoming both unborn babies into life and welcoming those who come to this country running for their lives. Neither party will help us listen well to both lower income white people and to African and Asian and Hispanic and Muslim people. Neither party is going to help us get free from fear and distrust of those who are different from us. You cannot vote your way into the peaceable kingdom of God. You can only repent your way into it.
John told the Pharisees in verse 11 that he was baptizing with water, a sign of sins washed away and new birth into a new way of life. But that baptism in water was not the end of the story. One more powerful was coming who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It was an unexpected warning and an unexpected promise.
Fire burns. Verse 12 talks about separating good, edible wheat from the worthless husks. That inedible chaff will get thrown in the fire. That’s the warning about all our divisions and self-righteousness. The Lord Jesus will come and consume our sin in unquenchable fire. His grace forgives and burns away the sin in us and it will also burn away all our pretend goodness.
Fire burns, but it also produces warmth and light. Nothing is more comforting on a cold winter night than a fire in a fireplace. Nothing is more welcoming on a dark chill night in the mountains than a campfire to sit around. The fire of our Lord Jesus is like that, fierce and frightening for all that is wrong in us, but full of cheer and light when we let it illumine and chase away the darkness in us.
Thomas Alva Edison perfected the electric light bulb by finding a filament which would glow incandescently without burning up when electric current passed through it. At Menlo Park he conducted 1,200 experiments with different materials before he discovered a carbonized cotton thread would work. On October 21, 1879 he threw the switch one more time and a bulb glowed for more than forty hours. In the next decade he tried 6,000 different natural materials to find a filament with the longest life and brightest shine.
Christian life is like Edison’s experiments. Jesus pours into us a burning fire, an enormous energy that will make our lives glow with the brightness of His goodness. By repentance and faith, we throw the switch allowing His grace to flow into us. But the rest of Christian life constantly tests the materials through which His grace can work. We are warned that only some of what we are and do will hold up and shine brightly. A great deal of it must get burned up and thrown away.
I gave my life to Jesus 50 years ago in a little church where we got warned perhaps too often about the dangers of our Lord’s fire. I admit my first faith was partly built on fear. I hope that you and the children growing up among us don’t have to experience so much of that fear. But I also hope that you will hear the real warning today, the call of the prophet that says it is time to repent, to prepare, to let that burning light shine into your life.
If you haven’t yet turned your life over to Jesus and decided to follow Him, this warning is for you. It’s time now to confess your sins and let Jesus transform you into someone new. If you haven’t been baptized, then baptism is still the sign that God gives us to know and experience that new life. I’d be very, very happy to talk with you about it.
And if you’ve already given your life to Jesus, whether decades ago or just recently, the warning is for you too. It’s time—it’s always time—to repent of sins that have stuck with you and let them be burned away. And it’s time, especially now, to repent of following human parties and to renew your commitment to following Jesus. It’s time to let His peace reconcile you to brothers and sisters in Him and to let His light shine on us together.
The grace of Jesus Christ burns up all our pride, all our self-righteousness. And when it does, then new and better materials of grace will be given to us. Jesus will show us ways of living that really can carry the current of His divine fire.
John the Baptist speaks his unexpected warning. Even the best of us need to flee from the wrath to come. Even our finest good deeds may burn in the fire of grace. In Advent we remember that we all must repent, over and over. As Romans 3:10 says, “No one is righteous, no not one.” When we heed that warning, then the grace of Jesus our Savior will course through us, not to burn, but to shine.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj