Matthew 3:1-12 12/5/2010
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 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.” ’ Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Are you familiar with good news/bad news jokes? Like, the good news is that the United Methodist Women voted to send you a get-well card. The bad news is that the vote passed 21 – 20. Or, the UVa women’s basketball team finally won a game. The bad news is, they beat the men’s team. Or, the Church Council voted to send me on a trip to the Holy Land. The bad news is, they’re waiting for the next war to make the reservations.
In the joke format, the good news comes first, then the bad news comes as a humorous surprise. That’s how a joke works: the story takes you down a familiar road with a predictable conclusion, but, at the end, delivers an unexpected twist that shocks us into laughter. The gap between what we expected and what we received is what’s so funny.
The Christmas story doesn’t begin, however, with good news. The bad news comes first. The end of the world is at hand. God’s judgment is descending on all flesh. John the baptizer adopts the model provided by prophets like Jeremiah, who publicly smashes pottery, wears a slave’s yoke, and buys property just before the fall of Jerusalem, or like Hosea, who marries a prostitute who represents Israel’s faithlessness. John moves to the wilderness, wears animal skins and eats insects, to portray the coming destruction of Jewish society. He calls people to turn their lives around, and to be baptized, which heretofore had been a conversion ritual for Gentiles who were rejecting their old ways of life and embracing Judaism. Repent. Confess. Unquenchable fire. This is not good news.
Every Christmas, we want to hear the good news. We want to hear the stories about angels and shepherds and babies in feeding troughs. But who needs a Savior when there’s nothing we need to be saved from? The folk singer Arlo Guthrie put it well in his own twisted logic: you can’t have a light without a dark to put it in. If the world passes through Christmas without any transformation, it’s because if there’s no bad news, then there’s no good news. If there’s no sin confessed, there’s no sin forgiven. If there’s no death, there’s no resurrection. If there is no defeat, there is no victory.
Matthew says that people from Jerusalem and Judea and all the region along the Jordan were going out to the wilderness to hear John. You and I live in the wilderness, too, don’t we? There’s a wilderness in your home, a wilderness in your pew, a wilderness in your heart and head. When we are honest with God and with ourselves, you and I are surrounded by howling winds of sickness and death, wild animals of fear and despair, deserts of a broken economy and damaged ecology, darkness of family chaos, and the soaking, cold rain of injustice. False prophets abound, who tell us that if we will only think correctly, or vote correctly, or try harder, or eat better, or buy more, then all will be well. But no amount of thinking or voting or buying will help us avoid the wilderness. Israel had to go through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land; Jesus had to go through the cross to get to Easter. And, John the baptizer tells us, there will be no Savior unless we confess what we need to be saved from, not least of all, ourselves.
That’s why the bad news comes first in this story. That’s why the baby will be born elsewhere if we don’t name the garbage in our lives and throw it out to make room for him. The wheat seed is useless unless it’s separated from the chaff, which is the shell.
Jesus can’t save people who don’t need saving. Jesus can’t forgive what won’t be confessed. The light can’t shine without a darkness to put it in. So, this morning as you come to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, own up to your own wilderness. Confess your brokenness and sin. Surrender your doubt and your unbelief. Throw out the trash, and make room for God to change you, because there’s no good news unless the bad news comes first.