- Isaiah 11:1-10
- Psalm 71:1-7, 18-19
- Romans 15:4-13
- Matthew 3:1-12
You may find the readings, in both CEB and NRSV translations, by clicking this link.
Are you ready yet?
Last week we seemed to have this incredibly perplexing message, with this foreboding sense of needing to be prepared at all times: 36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:36,40-42, CEB)
So, we’ve had a week to digest that Word of God.
Which means we’ve unpacked all of the meaning in last week’s gospel reading as easily as we’ve unpacked those Christmas decorations, right? Never mind those tangled threads of interpretation, I mean strings of Christmas lights…
And now we’re as ready for the arrival of the day the Lord is coming as we are for all that company and those house guests soon arriving, right?
Well, maybe not quite.
A confession of sorts, I’d grown rather accustomed to being an independent family of one. I’ve developed this habit of puttering about my to-do’s for the day, mentally ticking off the boxes of what I have planned to get done about the house and then grabbing purse, keys, slipping on the jacket and shoes, and out the door I went. Just like that.
The last couple of years something changed.
I am now a part of a family of two. And that means that all those things that were in my head, now have to be sorted into two piles: the “just for me pile”, and the “communication is important for supporting our marriage” pile.
And yet, there are days where I putter about doing all the things that on that to-do list, mentally ticking off the boxes of what I have planned to get done about the house, and grab purse and keys, walk into the living room and ask: “Are you ready?” only to be met with an utterly confused face.
Or, we have actually communicated about the day’s plans, and I announce that I am ready to go, only to have to make a pit stop at the loo, and come out to discover my spouse standing at the front door, coat and shoes on, looking slightly amused while asking teasingly: “Are you ready yet?”
The thing about that question is that it seems to only be ever asked by the ones who are ready.
This theme of being ready carries into this week’s Gospel lesson as well, and brings along with it some confusing language about separation to be burned and unquenchable fire.
John the baptizer is everything you’d expect from a stereotypical doomsayer. This fire and brimstone preacher, apocalyptic predictor, oddball person standing in the midst of the people and crying out about the end of the world. And asking all those who are going about their days mentally ticking off their own to-dos: “Are you ready?!”
2 “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 3:2, CEB)
Or, perhaps more familiarly:
2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2, NRSV)
Turn around! Get ready already!
There’s something about John that makes us all a little uncomfortable and curious. John is this wild man wandering about the desert of Judea hollering for people to get their act together and preparing the way.
I often wonder if John’s seeming impatience comes about because he has known who Jesus Christ is since he leapt in recognition within the womb of Elizabeth. He’s known for so long, and grown into this man who is clearly dissatisfied with the current understanding of salvation. Perhaps this is why he is taking up residence near the Jordan river, baptizing the people who keep coming out to meet with him. Continuously baptizing as the people were confessing their sins, according to some translations.
Which, in and of itself, for the Jewish people is not all that unfamiliar. There was a tradition of washing for purification. And baptism was one part of the tradition of forgiveness rituals.
It seems to me that John the Baptizer is offering people a means of grace in the river Jordan.
But the other interesting thing is how John seems to be particularly disgruntled with the religious leaders of Jerusalem. His rather firm opinions of the Sadducees and Pharisees who come out to see him are pointed.
I feel like John is pointing a finger at the leaders and is about to use them as an illustration of what he really means by challenging all of us to repent and change our hearts and lives.
John starts out warning about resting on the traditions of our founding ancestors. It’s not enough to repent, be baptized, and go about the rest of your days, apparently. John charges the people to bear fruit or be burned.
And then repeats himself using another image that I think we get a little confused about.
John announces that the one who is coming after him is going to separate the wheat and bring it to his barn, and burn the husks that remain.
I think, sometimes, we think we’re the wheat in this story. And the ones who aren’t ready yet are the husks, the chaff that gets tossed into the fire than doesn’t burn out. But, to be honest, I don’t think that we are the wheat or the chaff.
Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. 6 If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned.” (John 15:5-6, CEB)
It’s very like what John the baptizer is saying in today’s gospel reading in Matthew.
If we are the branches of the vine, then we are the ones who will produce fruit. Wheat, in our second illustration, is effectively the fruit of the plant. We’re perhaps more likely the straw that carries the fruit until harvest time.
But this is the problem with metaphors and other images in the bible. They are difficult to interpret literally.
So, let me return to bearing fruit and being baptized.
Do you remember that I said it was as though John was offering a means of grace to the Jewish people who were confessing their sins in the river Jordan? I think it is interesting that John is out in the wilderness offering this ritual of baptism to people and helping them find peace within themselves rather than them having to travel all the way to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice at the Temple – which we will soon discover is pretty corrupted and supportive of those who are making money in taking advantage of people.
John is offering this baptism in tandem with repentance and confession again and again and again.
And then John says that someone who is much stronger than him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
And Jesus will offer the world the permanent and forever means of grace through the gift of his life. He will offer the world the source, the roots, the vine needed for all those branches, those people to produce those good fruits of the spirit.
And on that last day that we have no idea of knowing when it will be, Jesus will gather up all the good stuff that has been produced. All that will remain will be useless and unnecessary – not people, but pain, sadness, darkness, and sin. In the advent of Christ, they will be no more. What a hopeful thing.
I think I speak for a number of people who are ready for that kind of peace.
Until that day arrives, we can remember the promise that Jesus came because we need him. That peace of Christ that passes all possible human understanding was breathed into each of us and God continues to love the world so much that we are provided with love, joy, hope, and peace – not just at this special time of year, but always.
Because God does this, we are free to live.
And when we remember that God has it all under control, we become those branches upon branches, trees laden down with fruit, awaiting the coming of Christ.
Are we ready?
Let us pray:
God of peace, who brought love into this world, be the love that dwells between us.
God of peace, who brought peace into this world, be the peace that dwells between us.
God of peace, who brought joy into this world, be the joy that dwells between us.
God of peace, the rock we stand upon, be the centre, the focus of our lives.
- Taylor, Barbara Brown. “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” Journal for Preachers, 1997. Sermon.
- Mark D. Davis. “Barren Roots, Fertile Rocks, and a Fiery Spirit,” Left Behind and Loving It. November 28, 2016.
- Karoline Lewis. “Are you ready?” Dear Working Preacher, Sunday, November 20, 2016.
- David Lose. “The Problem with John,” Dear Working Preacher, Sunday, November 28, 2010.
- Ruth A. Meyers. “Wheat and Chaff,” The Christian Century, November 21-28, p. 17.
- Rick Morley. “Advent 2a Reflection: You’re so Vain,” A Garden Path. November 26, 2013.
- Rob Myallis. “Matthew 3:1-12,” Lectionary Greek, November 28, 2016.
This week’s image is entitled: “John the Baptist in the Wilderness” by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, circa 1490. You can find out more about the art here, and the artist here. This image is public domain, and has been altered for the purpose of this blog.