A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 3: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent A-1, December 4th, 2016
Not too long ago we had to get a new washing machine. At the time I had an online subscription to Consumer Reports, so I read the ratings and reviews to find the best for the money. Like most of you, we live on a budget, so we try to purchase wisely. Like Goldilocks in the children's story, I tried to find one that was “just right”---not too expensive and not too cheap, but just right.
Did you hear me say that I tried? Like Goldilocks, the Bears came home just when I thought I got it right. The washing machine we bought works, but not as good as our old Kenmore. The new one not only takes longer to wash, it takes more maintenance too. The problem: Since most washing machines today run quieter, they have no agitator, and do not seem to clean or rinse as well as the older ones did. When they took out the agitator, they also removed some of the cleaning power. When we asked about trading it for a machine with an agitator, they told us that, unfortunately, they don't carry them anymore.
BEAR FRUIT WORTHY OF REPENTANCE. (Matt. 3:8 NRS)
Even though you can't find an ‘agitator’ when you need one, we do find one in the Bible, right next to Christmas in today's advent text. John the Baptist is quite an agitator, when it comes to getting us ready for the truth about Christmas. He makes all kinds of noise, moves, and motions about what people are supposed to do and believe.
So think about this: If we want to know what God is up to, and what wants to do in our lives too; or if we want to find what gets us ready for God to visit and bless our lives, then we must let the words of this moral cleaning machine, John the Baptist, wash and agitate in our lives.
Even at Christmastime, this ‘most wonderful time of the year’, as the song goes, we can become soiled from daily living or stained from the dirty deals of life and we can be pull down below the brightest and best intentions God has planned for our lives. But to get clean, or to come clean, we must allow John to agitate us.
This ‘moral’ cleaning machine gets cranked up with three very powerful, but also negative sounding words in today's text: repent (v. 8), wrath (v. 7), and fire (v. 10). Such powerful words used to put the fear of God in people, but now, they just make people angry, upset, or mad, sort of like that powerful picture we saw last spring of two school administrators paddling a 5 and one half year old kindergartener. While paddling is still legal in some states, the whole scenario filmed by the mother, allowed the nation to watch two school administrators trying to force a small child to receive the paddle. The shocking video left us all feeling more repulsed that the child was being spanked than feeling the how incorrigible or undisciplined the child had become. One wise news reporter admitted that it looked bad; that perhaps the child needed other methods, but then she admitted: “There was probably more to this story than was being shown.” Perhaps there was, but the point we need to grasp is that in our extremely political charged world, there seems to be much more concern about “being right” than surrendering to what is right. (http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2016/04/15/school-administrator-paddles-5-year-old-mom-speaks-out/).
We see the same kind of difficult behavior surfacing in road rage incidents around our country. Just before that child resisted a spanking in Georgia, in New Orleans, ex-star football player, Will Smith, was shot and killed in, what seemed to be, a road rage incident. Surveillance videos showed his car tapping the other, then Smith being pursued until words were exchanged, then gunshots were heard. Evidently, if it was like most incidents, both assumed they were in the right, and neither could be convinced they were wrong. It took a gun for one man to prove himself to be the most powerful in the moment. But no matter how ‘powerful’ and ‘right’ be proved himself to be, the shooter, 29 year old Cardell Hayes, was later charged and arrested, and if proven guilty, must pay for his crime. Proving that he was ‘in the right’ will now become the unfortunate theme of the rest of his life (http://www.fox8live.com/story/31727969/football-stars-slaying-plays-out-in-court-of-public-opinion).
Wouldn’t it be better to go through the pain of being in the wrong now, than having to face it after it is when you can no longer correct anything at all? This is exactly the reason John is trying to agitate his listeners straight on. With his prophetic words, strong language, and strange dress and diet, John the Baptist is still trying to get our attention before we would cross that fateful bridge that would lead us into a land of regret and no return. “You don't want to go there,” John is saying. If you don't turn your life around now, you can get to a place you can't come back from. So, John is saying in other words: Turn around! Be forewarned! Don’t get burned? This is the hard, harsh, but necessary strong language of John’s advent rant. John’s stands in the middle of a god-forsaken wilderness, agitating, jumping up and down, waving his arms, trying to get our attention, to get us to turn from this ‘nowhere’ to get to that ‘ somewhere’ God wants his people to go.
But you don't get to where you ‘should’ be going, without going in the ‘right’ direction. You don't start going in this right direction until you get your bearings. And you can't get your bearings, dear friends, until you see exactly where you are headed and admit how you could be wrong, no matter how right you think you are. Who would want to do that? Who would want to admit they could be wrong? And how can anyone like a preacher named John, declare they know which way is right? Think back to that experiment of illusion they used us, as an example teach in school. You cut out a pattern, and each time use the new piece you just cut out, and without realizing it, with each new piece you get further and further from the original cut. So, as that school lesson taught: if you want to stay on course, make only one pattern and use and stay true to that one over and over if you want remain close to the original plan.
John is saying, the Lord has come to turn us back to the original plan: “Prepare the Way! Make His Paths straight! (3:3). You ‘make his paths straight’ because you are standing in the way. God comes to us because we’ve gotten off base, or moved out of the lines that have been drawn. If we will ‘prepare the way’ and ‘make straight paths’ for him, it will cause us to find our ‘rightful’ place. But if we don't turn back (repent), John warns, nothing works out and our lives can become useless, worthless, and too wrong to be corrected. By allowing your life to be agitated by the truth is to find a ‘path’ more important than your own. When you find this ‘place’ you will return to a more refreshing, renewed, and fruitful life. But John’s warning is that you must turn now, you must not wait, or delay, or you can reach the point that is an even harsher place. This is the place we might still call the point of no return.
…FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME (Matt. 3:7 NRS)
Where exactly is that---this place we call the point of no return? Can we name it?
Now, if there is a more unpopular word in the world than repent, it’s John’s next word of agitation: wrath (v. 7). Well, actually in the text this word came first, but we are considering it second, because it’s just too overwhelming to start with. What does John mean when he calls out these religious leaders as ‘snakes and vipers’ asking ‘who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!’ The picture is of poisonous vipers, without warning, being forced out of their dens by a forest fire (NIB). This powerful word ‘wrath’ carries the meaning of indignation and extreme anger. But why would anyone want to promote the idea of a God who still has ‘temper tantrums’? Is this the kind of God we really need to promote at Christmas? It just doesn't sound fitting, does it? There is already too much anger, rage, vexation and violence in our world, right? It’s time to sing, “Joy to the World”, and “Peace on Earth and Good Will” Isn’t our God supposed to be ‘nice’?
But strangely enough, even in the biblical story, when Israel’s God ‘makes his goodness pass before’ Moses, and even will God is portrayed as the God ‘who will be gracious’ and ‘show mercy’ still, Moses cannot see God’s face and live (33: 19). God is good, but he is not ‘safe’, C.S. Lewis said. Nowhere, in the biblical revelation, is God ever portrayed as a God of nursery rhymes who is: ‘sugar and spice and everything nice’ or ‘snips and snails and puppy dog tales’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Are_Little_Boys_Made_Of%3F). When you speak of Israel’s God, right with stories of grace, mercy and goodness, there are also stories of how terrible, consuming and capable of unleashing his wrath, this God of Israel can be.
Here’s a case and point: One of the most intimate, personal, and descriptive biblical portraits we have of God’s personality comes early in Genesis, in God’s relationship with Abraham, whom Scripture, both Old and New, amazingly names as God’s friend (2 Chron. 20.7; James 2:23). In this unusually candid exchange, God has decided not to ‘hide from Abraham’ the ‘thing’ he is ‘about to do’ against the ‘grave…sin’ in cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18: 16-21). But as Abraham begins that is God is preparing to release great wrath and destruction upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham feels the need to intercede in behalf of those good people who might still be living there. Friend to friend, Abraham asks, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are there? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked…..Shall not the judge of the earth do what is right?” (Gen. 18: 22-25).
Hearing this, God answers Abraham’s request, saying that ‘if he finds fifty righteous’ left in the city, ‘he will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ But Abraham keeps asking, “What about for forty-five?....What about forty?...What about thirty?...What about twenty?...Or ‘what about ten?’ Each time, God says, and even if there are only ‘ten’ righteous people left, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it” (18:22-33).
We must be careful when we ‘interpret’ a story like this from the Bible. It is ‘not’ a story you can take at ‘face value’ because if you do, it seems to make Abraham the one who is ‘teaching’ God how to be God, rather than God teaching Abraham. As Jewish interpreters remind us, this story is about growing human moral ‘insight’ into God’s righteous heart. God only destroys these cities because there was ‘no righteousness’ left in them. Thus, it is Abraham who ends up doing the learning, not God (See The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, NY, 1981, pp. 126-127)
But no matter how you ‘slice’ this story, it still doesn’t make God look nice. Especially, when you turn the page in your Bible and watch as God commands Lot and his family to ‘flee for their lives; do not look back or stop anywhere…flee to the hills or else you will be consumed….” (19:17). “Then…” the text says, “the LORD rained down sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven… he overthrew those cities… Lot’s wife…looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (19: 24-26). Next, we come to the next scene. Its early morning and Abraham ‘stood’ in the very same spot where he had most recently talked with the LORD. Now, Abraham looks down where those cities were… and sees ‘the smoke going up… like the smoke of a furnace’ (19:27-28). It all may be ‘right’, but it still doesn’t look very ‘nice’.
Who needs a God like this? Who needs a God who is ‘gracious’ and ‘merciful’ upon WHOM HE WILL BE gracious and merciful, but sometimes appears as a threat, a terror, someone to fear or respect, even by those he calls and loves. With a friend like this…who needs enemies? Who needs a God, whom the prophets declare will hold people accountable, will hold cities accountable, will hold nations accountable, and will even hold his this whole world accountable when the ‘outcry’ of ‘sin’ (18:21) becomes so great it ‘reaches his throne’ (Gen. Rev 8.3). Do we want to stop, pause, and contemplate, with John the Baptist, and especially at Christmas, a God who can and does get ‘angry,’ threatening his ‘wrath to come’ upon those who refuse to do his ‘will’?
Sometimes, there are those both inside and outside the Christian faith who say, this is not the kind of God we serve. This is the God of the Old Testament, but it’s not Jesus. This angry, forceful, demanding, angery God sounds like Allah, who orders his faithful to murder all infidels, but it’s not the true God. And since there is so much religious anger, rage, and confusion in the world, let’s just get rid of this image altogether, of a holy God who threatens ‘wrath to come’. Let’s just move on to this nice, warm, Christmas message of ‘peace on earth’ and ‘goodwill’ to all, and forget God’s wrath altogether. Doesn’t that sound like a ‘plan’?
Well, maybe there is too much anger and rage in this world, or maybe there’s not enough of it, at least not in the right way when we or the world needs it.
During the past very strange political season we just finished, presidential Donald Trump made a major political point out of being angry. Even if you didn't appreciate his rough, critical, or outrageous style, he said, and many agreed, that he had some very good reasons to be ‘angry’ at what goes on in our own country and world. “Of course I'm angry,” he said. “Things are not right and somebody needs to be angry enough to fix them.”
While we may not agree with his tactics, and surely, ‘two wrongs can’t make a right’, Donald Trump runs up against something ‘deep’ within us, when he says that some things are worth getting angry about. What if the world had gotten angrier at Hitler earlier? What if the world forgets to be angry at what a Hilter or Stalin did to people?
Oddly, as it may sound, there can be some good things about a God who cares enough about what happens to us, or what we do, that he gets angry, unleashes his wrath when wrong goes on too long. The Scripture does remind us that even as it is the LORD’S nature, to be ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, …forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” we also read, in the very next line, that this gracious, loving, forgiving God “by no means clears the guilty, but visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34: 6-7). The point is not a capricious, impulsive, unpredictable anger, but God’s wrath is a very ‘predictable’ (to come), righteous, controlled, and specific anger toward sin, injustice, rebellion and unrighteousness that has gone on far too long and has gone on too long. Most importantly, John’s warning points out that God’s wrath revealed as, controlled, because it is still ‘to come’ and is still negotiable, avoidable, and could be prevented. John also points out that God’s wrath is very specific, being aimed at the ‘brood of vipers’, the religious leaders, ‘Pharisees and Sadducees,’ who were threatening, challenging, and corrupting the very ‘way’ and ‘truth’ of God (vs. 7). What we must keep in mind, is that God’s anger not specifically aimed at normal human failure or mistakes (God is slow to anger), but God’s wrath is aimed at the failure of humans to acknowledge and obey the ‘truth’ of God, in such a way that they threaten God’s rule and righteousness. For you see, God’s wrath, is not anger for the sake of anger, but it is anger for the specific, holy, purpose that must be turned against those whose own version of rightness becomes so corrupting and destructive, that it threatens the foundations of justice and righteousness God intends for the world.
Part of the message of Advent, and Christmas, is that God will only allow injustice, greed, hate, and the rebellion of this world to go ‘so far’. God has limits. In Jesus Christ, God has revealed his desire to save, but this Jesus is also sent into the world to become the world’s final judge, not judging the world from the heavenly position of a throne, but judging the world from the lowly, most humble place of a cross. In Jesus, ‘the wrath to come’ has not changed, but ‘the wrath to come’ has been revealed, as a judgment based upon God’s love, that will be the foundation of God’s final judgment on the world, and each human soul (Roms. 2:16).
THROWN INTO THE FIRE. (Matt. 3:10 NRS)
This threat of the final ‘wrath to come’ should be at work in us now, to challenge and change us for our own sake and for goodness sake, but don't let you guard down, just yet. Don’t start to ring your ‘jingle bell’ until you let John's words agitate you once more.
The final word we must hear from John is the strongest of all. He tells his own people, those who are coming to change, and those who are refusing to change: “The ax is lying at the root of the trees’ and every tree that does not fear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (3:10).
Here we come to the word no one wants to acknowledge, that the one who no longer bears the right kind of spiritual fruit, who is no longer willing, or able to bear the fruit of change, turning, responding, repentance, which is the ‘good’ fruit of flexibility and sensitivity to God’s rule and truth, which God’s moral reality requires in us, that when this can no longer be found in us, this ‘tree’ will be ‘cut down and thrown into the fire.’
Of course, who wants to talk about our moral responsibility or our limit as human beings. And who wants to talk about the fact that if sin, rebellion, or evil has corrupted us, that we become a threat to God’s goodness in the world. And of course, the only kind of ‘fire’ we want to think about at Christmas is the warm fire we sing about where we can ‘roast’ our sentimental chestnuts’. Who wants to be threatened with the reality of God’s cleansing, purifying, fire of justice and judgment? No one wants to hear about this, except for the people who are ‘the last, the least and the lost. Those who already find themselves at the bottom of the heap, or who really care about them, they are the ones who want to hear about John’s threat of justice and judgment, because they are suffering, praying, and hoping that somehow, somewhere, someone, will do something to answer the great injustice that is being done to them. These folks who are humbled and hurt, want the fire of judgment, truth, and righteousness to come. They are hoping for nothing else, because God’s coming judgment is their only true hope.
The hope of the coming ‘fire’ of judgment is sort of like the story of the lady, they put on the twenty dollar bill this year, Harriet Tubman. She was an abolitionist, who was called the new “Moses” who helped thousands of slaves find freedom from their unjust conditions. Much of the story of what she did on the eastern shore, has been hidden away, collecting dust in some library, forgotten by adults, only being told as a story for children, until recently the United States Treasury decided to put her face on a Twenty, replacing the honored place of the Southern Slave owner, Andrew Jackson. Now, a lot of people still don’t like to see “Truth coming marching” like this, just like most slave owners did not want to have the ‘fire’ of judgment come down. But if we mistreat, misuse, abuse, and go against God’s love for every person and every life, God’s fire of justice, righteous, and judgment will come down.
But here, right in the middle of the ‘fire’ John threatens, we see something else. Notice that is not only a fire that burns and destroys, but it is also a fire that burns and purifies. “I baptize you with water for repentance…but one who is more powerful…is coming.” (3:11). I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” “…He will gather the wheat…but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (3:12).
When we were living in Greensboro, Teresa wanted to plant a decorative tree beside the house, where we removed some pines. I was away at the church office, and suddenly she told me to come home. She was crying, almost hysterically, saying something about ‘blowing up’ the whole neighborhood. I hung up and drive home. When I got there she was O.K. The firemen were there. They were digging up the natural gas line, she had struck with the shovel. The gas pressure sent her flying backwards. Fortunately there was no fire. There was, however, a terrible smell of ‘rotten eggs’, the smell that add to odorless natural gas to warn of its explosive dangers. Instead of being the require 18 inches, this line was only buried 4 inches, due to the roots of the pine tree that was once there when the line was run.
Now, this is not all the story. Just a year before, right near where that ‘gas line’ ran, there had been a yellow jacket nest, in a hole in our yard. The yellow jackets threatened me when I was mowing, so I decided to pour gasoline down into the hole. In order to make sure I had killed them I, I wanted a while, then I threw a match down into the hole. BOOM! It looked like a cartoon where the grass raised up on the ground. Now, when she hit that gas line, I suddenly realized just how close I had been to really blowing up the whole neighborhood. FIRE!
What I want us to learn from John, is that there is a fine line between the kind of ‘judgment’ that gives you a second chance to learn your lesson, and the kind of ‘judgment’ that comes and you have no second chance. I also want to you realize that the determining factor, between the kind of judgment that purifies you, and the kind of judgment that destroys you is your willingness to rightly respond to God’s truth, when it is being revealed. John says to us, this Advent, like most every Advent: Now, you are alive. You have your chance. Take it. Turn, don’t get burned. Don’t let life ‘burn’ you, but let the fire of God’s truth, whatever he reveals, burn into your soul right now, so that you will not ‘blow up’ the true ‘joy’, the real ‘peace’ and the lasting ‘hope’ God has come to give us, through the goodness, grace, and judgment revealed in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.