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 ax 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.
John the Baptist is someone who we are not given much information about in scripture. He will appear in the Biblical Narrative, say a few words, and then disappear before coming back and saying a few more things. From birth to death we are not given a full biography of John the Baptist. What he taught, who he taught it to, or how he ran his ministry. The only thing we know is that whatever he did it must have worked. Whatever it was he did, he was immensely successful at it.
Despite the little bit that is written about him, the biblical text and other ancient texts give us a good idea of who he was and what the general work it included. John the Baptist firstly was non-sectarian. He was not a part of the Temple Sadducees or the Teaching Pharisees or the Monastic Essenes, he existed in a space betwixt and between all of them. Not only did he stand out in this way, but he is the first person in history to be given the title of “Baptizer.” Not only this but he created the concept of “Baptism,” by transforming existing Jewish and Greek which were repeated for the sake of ritual purity into a declarative act of repentant reorientation.
His washing was not just a means to becoming clean, but a moment to commemorate something new was happening. That the baptizand had died to this reality and was born into a new one. John’s baptismal ministry gathered a group of disciples who appear throughout the Gospels. Sometimes they worked alongside Jesus and his disciples, sometimes arguing with them.
The strange thing about all this is that, though John was Jesus’ cousin, John never really interacts with Jesus. They usually sent messengers back and forth, and the text following today’s scripture, the baptism of Christ is the only time scripture records a face to face conversation between them. John and Jesus, two distinct separate messengers working toward the realization of God’s kingdom.
Next week the scripture tackles the differences between the two an what that means for us, but today we will talk about the similarities. How John sets the precedent for Jesus’ ministry and our own. John’s ministry was radically inclusive. He preached a message that managed to reach people where they were. He was so effective in his speaking that no matter how he got it out there, people from all over Judea were willing to come out and see him. Judea was not very large, smaller than most states, but to travel from one side of it to the other would be a trip of days if not weeks. People were willing to uproot their lives to hear the message and receive the Baptism of John.
This message, far-reaching as it was, was simple – “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” We’ve talked about repentance before, we spent a whole month on the concept. We understand the idea that we reorient ourselves toward God. That we reorient our vision of the future to be in line with the goodness that God wants. It is the transformation that comes with the renewing of our minds so that we can become good and do God’s good work. That is the essence of repentance.
If we go a step further I would say that most of us, except in moments of intense doubt or despair, feel as though we have room to grow and are capable of growth. That something can push us to grow by the Grace of God and that we can attain something beyond our current state. With this confidence of self and of God’s goodness, we have a sort of assurance. Here is the question though, is that assurance of God’s grace and our hope of growth just for people like us? Is it only for people in circumstances and situations and churches and pews and denominations like ours? Has the Kingdom of Heaven drawn near to a select few or to all people?
John answers this question in ministering to two groups – the crowd who we can assume were likely peasants farmers or other laborers from throughout the region, and distinct from them the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups controlled, on one hand, the religious instruction of the people and on the other the religious rituals of the Temple. Abundance and necessity, power and powerlessness, potential for action and inability to act met on the banks of the Jordan that day. In the way that Matthew writes a potential confrontation was set up. “John saw that many of the Sadducees and the Pharisees were coming to see him.” The moment they are set apart is the moment we know something is about to happen to them.
Many times in reading this we put ourselves in the place of the repentant crowd, watching on as the Pharisees and Sadducees are made an example of, but today I want us to take on the role of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Imagine that you have heard the preaching of this man that you come out from Jerusalem and step into the muddy waters of the Jordan to see him. Moving through a crowd of people you hear dialects and smell smells that you have never seen before. You walk between crowds of people who society tells you are all beneath you. You walk to see a preacher who your fellow leaders in Jerusalem have decreed a dangerous revolutionary. An apocalyptic preacher who only could cause trouble for someone in power like you.
But you know the power of this man’s preaching because it made a Pharisee and a Sadducee go up to see him. Two people who could not agree on anything religiously suddenly agreeing that this man was worth listening to. Imagine what it must be like then when this preacher you have come to see, looks at you from across the crowd and starts yelling. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come?” And if it wasn’t bad enough that he insults you and calls you a snake he accuses you of not really being invested in what you’re doing. “Do not presume,” As I am assuming you are, “to say, “I am a child of Abraham because God could rise up children to Abraham from rocks if God wanted.”
Now step away from that time and place and join me back in the here and now. Reading this text I find myself asking a question, which rocks are John pointing to? Is he pointing to the memorial stones down the Jordan at Schechem, can God raise up children of Abraham from the past? Is it to the rocks of the Temple, can God raise up children to Abraham through religious devotion? To the pebbles under his feet, is he recalling Genesis? Or is he pointing to those around him, to the crowd and to the Pharisees and Sadducees, saying, “From these stones, God could raise up children to Abraham.”
The Gospel does not use any special word here to indicate a metaphorical or literal meaning. It does, however, use the same word for stone as Greek translations of the Ezekiel do in describing our hearts before God transforms them. “Hearts of stone,” transformed into, “Hearts of flesh.” So we see that while John is critical of these people he is still looking beyond their present state to what could be. That God could take even a literal rock and turn into a child of Abraham is a statement of God’s incredible power and grace not a statement about Humanity’s inability to meet expectations.
If the message is that a stone can become a child to Abraham what does it mean for a flesh and blood person if they are willing to take the leap? This is not to say that John is minimizing his criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees or that the wrong they have does not matter. John is clear in laying out the stakes. The people must, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” No free pass is given simply because you apologize to God or anyone else you have hurt, but if you are sincere in your commitment to change then the Kingdom cannot be denied you. If we are people who believe, who speak our contrition and act out our penance then the Kingdom is opened to us.
Yet we so often read this scripture as if it ends with John warning the Pharisees, “Bear fruit or perish.” Yet if we read the text honestly we see that his following statement does not change direction. He is still speaking to the Pharisees when he says, “I baptize you with water for Repentance, but the one who comes after me is mightier than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John gives correction to the Pharisees and Sadducees but he also gives them hope. “Your present is not the endpoint of your life and even I, John the Baptist, am not the fullest version of myself I could be. But I lead the way for one who will transform all of this.”
Let us return now to the Pharisee walking toward John. Having been insulted, accused, and told to straighten up you are now dipped in the Jordan. You are told those words, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” Now you hold in yourself the hope of the coming Messiah. As you leave the river, the Grace of God literally dripping from your clothing. Ask yourself one simple question, “Can I deny others what to me has been so freely given?” Let that question lead us, shape us, transform us in how we give Grace to the world around us. – Amen