December 9, 2007 - Second Sunday in Advent
The Jeep began to rock back and forth as the river poured into it. Last Tuesday, Connie King and her granddaughter Jessie were trying to drive to their home in the hills above Vernonia, Oregon. But they were trapped by the sudden, unexpected rise of the Nehalem River. They stalled in the water and were trapped. Fortunately someone who lived nearby came with a rope. Connie and Jessie were pulled to safety. Their Jeep spent the next twelve hours under water.
It seems like we’ve recently heard a “flood” of stories about people being overwhelmed by natural disasters. Before dawn on November 24, fire unexpectedly raced down Latigo and Corral Canyons near Malibu, California and burned 45 homes to the ground. Yesterday tiny islands in northern Fiji braced for a cyclone with 150 mile per hour winds. All these disasters came unexpectedly, but not without warning, like the sudden coming of God’s wrath into our world.
In our text, John the Baptist is the warning about God’s arrival in the world. As we learn in Luke, this leather-belted, locust-eating prophet is Jesus’ cousin, about 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 a flood plain, or in a fire zone, or in the path of a hurricane, many heeded John’s warning. Verse 5 says they came out from the big city of Jerusalem and the little villages of the whole countryside. Verse 6 tells us that they observed his warning by confessing their sins and being baptized. But not everyone came to take John’s alarm seriously. Verse 7 describes a group of “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
John immediately perceived something insincere about these spectators. He 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 they had come to repent. Verse 7 says he addressed them as “You brood of vipers!” asking “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” That was unexpected.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were at one and the same time both religious sects and political parties. They were leading Jewish teachers and laymen, whose influence guided life in Judea. They were respected civil authorities and leaders in the synagogue congregations. The Pharisees were the most holy and honored men of the community. So, along with all the crowds of ordinary people, these influential citizens came out to see the man dressed in camel hair. They were caught off guard when John showed them no respect at all.
It’s likely that the Pharisees and Sadducees were there to render a verdict regarding John. They came to judge for themselves whether he was a prophet from God or a charlatan. But before they could form their own verdict about John, he rendered a verdict about them. The man they came to judge was judging them, and it was not favorable.
An American woman was visiting the Louvre, the world’s most famous art gallery, in Paris. As she was finishing 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 great masters who had painted them.
Likewise, the best and brightest leaders of first century Judaism thought they could come and decide whether or not they liked the man who was preaching in the desert. They found, to their surprise, that this scruffy hermit did not like them. Their very intent to judge God’s messenger was a judgment on themselves. They weren’t allowed to render a verdict on John. Unexpectedly, he rendered a verdict on them.
John’s baptism in the Jordan was both an opportunity and a judgment. It was an opportunity to be prepared for the coming of the Lord and His kingdom. The rabbis of that time baptized proselytes, Gentiles who converted to Judaism. It was a way of showing that they were entering into a new way of life, of giving them citizenship in God’s covenant people. John did the unexpected, baptizing Jews, people who already belonged to the children of Abraham, people already inside the Covenant.
With God arriving to establish His kingdom, John’s baptism was a way to enter it. It was a visible sign of a change of heart, of a transformation in one’s way of life. Accepting this baptism, a Jew who had failed miserably in keeping God’s law could start over. As John quoted from Isaiah in verse 3, you could start fresh to 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 ask about these Jewish leaders, particularly the Pharisees, we are asking about ourselves. One unexpected verdict of this morning’s text is that most of us, that you and I, would be standing on the bank looking down our noses at John, not wading in the muddy water getting dunked by him. The Pharisees were the 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 great amounts to charity, studied Scripture constantly, prayed at every opportunity The Pharisees are us. I know I’m one.
John’s baptism was a new beginning, but it was also a verdict. It was a verdict of guilty for everyone who thinks 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 on us 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’s an unexpected verdict about the Pharisees and it’s an unexpected verdict about us.
It seems unjust. After all, most of us here are Christians. We are righteous by faith in Christ. If anyone has a claim to being accepted and welcomed into the kingdom of God, it is us. The 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 told the Jews that God could make children for Abraham out of rocks. He could do the same today, make Christians out of rocks. Look around at us sitting here on a sleepy Sunday morning, and you might think He already has.
And that’s just the thing. Like the Pharisees, most of the time we are just content to sit around like rocks of righteousness, solid in our salvation. Yet even when the Bible calls us “stones” in I Peter 2:5, it says we are living stones. If we have truly entered into the kingdom of God, then we will be alive, alive and growing, and, John says, producing fruit. “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance,” is what he told the Pharisees and Sadducees in verse 8.
Monday I flew to Chicago to help write a new position paper on the Bible for the Covenant Church. In it we say that Covenant people read the Bible in a number of important ways, faithfully, communally, intelligently, charitably and holistically. But to that we add a commitment to read the Bible for transformation. We believe that reading and listening to God’s Word will change us. One of the most important lines in our paper, and I can say this because I didn’t write it, is “We do not just read the Bible. The Bible reads us.”
This morning as we read John’s interrogation of the Pharisee’s and Sadducees, we need to let his words leap off the pages of this Book and interrogate us. They did not get to pass verdict on John. He passed a verdict on them. Nor do you and I get to pass verdict on what we read and hear from God’s Word. It passes verdict on us. And we are guilty.
What are we guilty of? What were the Pharisees and Sadducees guilty of? What can good people who Abraham as their father, or Jesus as their Savior possibly need to repent? Maybe only one thing. We need to repent our righteousness.
No, the way to quit being a Pharisee is not to suddenly become a tax collector, as in Jesus’ parable. John is not asking good people to repent of the good things they really do. Despite his appearance, he’s not some first century hippy inviting us out for a liberating romp that thumbs its nose at conventional society and morals. You won’t be any less of a Pharisee by deliberately sinning and making yourself less righteous. As Karl Barth implies, being a Pharisee and proud of it is bad enough. Being an immoral, sinful Pharisee and proud of it is worse.
John did not ask good people to become sinners. He asked good people to remember that deep down, in our hearts, we are and always have been sinners. When I say we are guilty of our righteousness, it is our righteousness we are guilty of. John calls us to repent of self-righteousness. What John wanted from the Pharisees was not to quit doing good, but to quit pretending to be good. The axe was at their roots because they needed new roots, not in themselves, but in God, ultimately in Christ and His righteousness, rather than their own.
The first time Beth and I went to Greece we applied late for our passports. A few days before departure, we were still waiting for our passports to come in the mail. Frantic phone calls determined that Beth’s passport was in the mail but my record could not even be found. Expecting to get up the next morning for a long wait in line at the passport office in downtown Chicago, we came home the next to the last evening and found both passports in the mailbox.
My relief turned to dismay when I discovered that they couldn’t find my record because my name was spelled wrong: Stephen S. Bicynskyj, a “C” instead of an “L” in my last name. It wasn’t a big deal, especially with a name like mine, but I was worried.
We called our travel agent for advice. He said, “Don’t do anything more, don’t mark in a correction, don’t offer an explanation, don’t try to fix it. Just hand your passport to the agent.” Yes, it’s wrong, but don’t try to make it right yourself.
We got off the plane in Greece. I pulled the passport out, praying. The customs agent looked at me and glanced down where it seemed to me that “C” was flashing neon. He looked at me again, laid down my passport, picked up a stamp, and “Bam!” it went. I was in, admitted to the country. It might be a different story now, but the same thing happened coming back into the U.S. I made it in because I had not tried myself to make it right.
The kingdom of heaven is near. It’s so near you don’t have time to fix your faulty passport, to correct all the errors on your entry papers. The only hope for entry into the kingdom of heaven is God’s gracious stamp of righteousness from Jesus. The only way to mess that grace up is to pretend we are something we are not, that we are good without it, that somehow we deserve to be in God’s kingdom. We’re not giving up on righteousness, we’re giving up on self-righteousness.
In verses 11 and 12, John told the Pharisees that he was baptizing with water, a sign of sins washed away and a new birth into a new way of life, but One more powerful was coming who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. They would be like wheat and chaff thrown into the wind by a threshing fork. The good wheat would be gathered in and the chaff, the useless, inedible husks, would be burned. That chaff is not only sin, but all our attempts at our own salvation, our own goodness. The same grace which forgives and burns away the sin in us also wants to burn away our self-righteousness.
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 on such a bulb and it glowed for more than forty hours. In the next decade he tried more than 6,000 different natural materials to find a carbon filament with the longest life and brightest shine possible.
Christian life is like Edison’s experiments. Jesus pours into us an amazing grace, 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, rendering His verdict. 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.
It’s like the meltdown I told you about in our electric oven the Sunday before Thanksgiving. When I took the back off our stove, I discovered that not only had the element burned up in blazing sparks, but the shorted current had fried three feet of connecting wire. I had to put in both a new element and new wire.
The grace of Jesus Christ is too much to be contained in our pretensions to be good when we are not. It will burn up all false pride, all self-righteousness. And when it does, then new and better materials will be given to us. Jesus will show us ways of living that really can carry the current of His grace.
John the Baptist speaks his unexpected verdict. 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 accept that verdict, then the grace of our Lord will flow in us, not to burn, but to shine.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj