Text: Matthew 3:1-12††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††† W 2nd Sunday in Advent
Out of Your Comfort Zone
††††††††††† In the name of our coming King, dear friends in Christ:† In this morningís Gospel we are subjected once again to the withering gaze and fiery preaching of St. John the Baptizer Ė the man chosen by God to prepare the way for the coming of his Son.† And I think itís safe to say that Johnís very harsh and unsettling method of preparing people to receive the Savior whose birth we will soon celebrate stands in stark contrast to the way we usually think about preparing ourselves to receive the Christ Child at Christmas.† I mean wherever we go these days we see greenery, decorations, and lights; thereíre cookies and gingerbread houses and other seasonal treats; festive music fills the air.† Itís jolly olí St. Nick, mistletoe, candy canes, and ho-ho-ho.† But thatís sure not what we get from John.† No, with him itís the sun-scorched desert; a meager diet of bugs and foul tasting wild honey; rough, scratchy clothes that make your flesh crawl; and words so caustic they blister your skin:† ďYou brood of vipers!Ē †Who is this guy, John?† And why is he such a grouch?† Why is he trying so hard to be for us less the deliverer of the glad tidings that a Savior is coming and more like the Grinch who stole Christmas?† These are questions for us to grapple with this morning.
John was from a Levite family.† His father, Zechariah, served as a priest of the Lord.† And you may remember that both Zechariah and Elizabeth, Johnís mother, were quite old by the time John came around.† To be sure, they had long since given up any hope of having a child when Elizabeth conceived this the forerunner of our Lord Ė making his conception and birth nearly as miraculous as that of Jesus; but then thatís the point:† this was Godís doing.† The Lord was making these things happen.† Everything was unfolding according to his divine plan.
Upon his birth, John became the pride and joy of his parents Ė and the continuing hope and comfort of their old age.† They knew their son was destined for great things.† And as the only son of a priest, itís certain that John would have studied and prepared for the priesthood himself.† I expect that Zechariah didnít give him much choice about it, and that he started Johnís training when he was still in the crib.† But when the time came for John to begin his public service, he took an unexpected turn. †He didnít pursue the same relatively cushy life of ministry that his father had, that of alternately serving the Lord in his Temple in Jerusalem when his division was on duty and spending the majority of the year teaching in a synagogue in his hometown in the Judean highlands.† No, John deliberately chose a much more difficult path.
Why?† I expect it was because he knew that it was his job to prepare the way for the Lord Ė that God had tasked him to get the people ready for Christís appearing; but when John looked around at the happenings at the Temple, and when he listened to what was being taught by the religious leaders, and when he heard the constant bickering and politicking between the theologically liberal Sadducees and their archrivals the very legalistic Pharisees, and when he measured the overall spiritual preparedness of the nation he realized that they were anything but ready Ė and that the religious institutions of the day were part of the problem.
He sensed that a deep seated spiritual stagnation had set in.† Oh sure, the worship of the Lord was still going on.† They prayed the prayers, they chanted the psalms, they observed all the festivals, and they offered the sacrifices; but they had lost the significance of these things.† I mean, when they offered their sacrifices, they had lost the sense that these were sin offerings Ė that Godís Law demands death for sin, but that the Lord in his mercy allowed animals to be substituted Ė that these animals died for us because of our sins.† Instead, they merely thought of them as meeting their religious obligations.† God wants dead animals, so we kill animals for him.† Then heís happy.† So, most of the people were just going through the motions.† They participated in these things with a sort of mindless ritualism.† Their religious traditions had become for them a comfortable habit that really didnít engage their hearts.† It didnít challenge or change them.† It didnít confront them with their sins and their need to repent.† Why?† Because by nature people prefer it that way.† They look for equilibrium.† They want peace and order in their lives; no rocking the boat.† They nurture the notion that Iím good with the Lord, and as long as I fulfill my religious obligations heís good with me.† And so they settle into spiritual routines that gradually become more meaningless and shallow until eventually whatever substance there is dries up altogether.
This was what was happening to Godís people. Even the promise that the Lord would one day send a Savior into the world to redeem them failed to inspire them.† It was more like, ďOh, yeah, sure; wonít that be nice when it happensĒ without any sense that it ever really would.† Johnís own father displayed this the day the angel told him that the time had come.† There he was, praying in the Temple, saying the prescribed prayers that had been offered for countless centuries that entreated the Lord to send the Messiah into the world, when suddenly the angel appeared.† He told Zechariah that the Lord was now answering this precise prayer Ė and the priest didnít believe it.† He demanded a sign that it was true.† Think about that:† thereís an angel standing next to him and he needs a sign from the Lord.† Hey:† how about the fact that thereís an angel talking to you?† You donít see that every day. †But no, so entrenched was he in the notion that the hope of the nation was never really going to be fulfilled and that nothing would ever change Ė he simply couldnít believe it.† So the angel gave him a sign.† He said, since you donít believe the words youíre standing here praying, you wonít be able to speak until the Lord fulfills his word.Ē
Well, that changed Johnís father; but it didnít have much impact on anyone beyond the immediate family.† And so while John would have grown up with the sense that the Lord was now moving to fulfill his promises, it hadnít been impressed on the nation at large.† For them it was all still business as usual, going through the grind, maintaining the status quo, plodding along comfortably in a hope that very few really believed in any more.
††††††††††† John knew he had to shake things up.† He had to do something radically different.† He needed to wake people up and snap them out of their spiritual lethargy.† More specifically, he needed to get them out of their comfort zone.† He needed them to see that they were missing the big picture Ė that they didnít understand what their faith was all about.† He needed them to see a God full of wrath because of their sin and unbelief, a righteous Judge who was coming to destroy the wicked, which included them unless they repented and turned from their evil ways.† He wanted them to see that they werenít keeping Godís commands, and that their smug sense of security because they thought they were fulfilling their religious obligations was built on a lie Ė that while they imagined that they were safe, they were in fact this close to being cast into eternal hellfire.† Only then could they see and appreciate what the Lord was now doing:† sending them a Savior Ė a Savior from their sins.
And thatís why John chose the venue he did for his ministry.† He wanted the people to come away from the luxuries of civilization and the pleasant, breezy climate of the Judean hills on which Jerusalem sat.† He wanted them to leave behind the comfortable, well worn, but misunderstood and unappreciated patterns of their religious rituals. †He wanted them to come down, down some twelve hundred feet below sea level, to the parched desert floor and the brackish water of the lower Jordan. †He wanted them to feel the searing sun and the sandy grit in their clothes. †He wanted their feet to be sore from the long walk to get there.† He wanted them sweaty and stinky Ė the feeling of being dirty and needing a bath. He wanted them to experience a bit of hunger and thirst.† And no, itís not that John enjoyed seeing people suffer; but rather that he wanted their physical discomfort to be for them an illustration Ė or a taste, as it were Ė of what their spiritual condition should be.† †John himself, his appearance and his way of life, was a living picture of an afflicted soul Ė one tortured with the thought of having offended the Lord and fearing his justly deserved punishment; one hungering and thirsting for relief, for a cleansing from sin, for a word of forgiveness, for the righteousness of God.
And whatís most amazing to me is that people came.† From Jerusalem, from all over Judea, from the lands around the Jordan and from Galilee, they came to John.† They allowed themselves to be made uncomfortable, externally because of the trip and unpleasant conditions; but far more importantly internally by Johnís offensive, in your face, ďYouíre a damned sinnerĒ message.† Why did they come?† Well, obviously it was the work of Godís Holy Spirit, thatís the only explanation; but the Spirit works through means.† And in this case the Spirit used the voice of conscience.† Itís that still small voice within the heart that says, ďAll is not well with your soul.Ē† People who practice mindless ritualism, who go through the motions of worship without making any real connection, without really being affected by it Ė they know deep down inside that thereís something missing.† Thereís a longing there to be filled with substance, with truth, with something that satisfies.† And John provided it.† He spoke the unvarnished truth:† the painful truth thatís so hard to hear about sin and Godís wrath and the need for repentance.† He broke people down and left them despairing of themselves Ė in utter fear of Godís judgment.† He did this not to be mean; but to give them hope.† He pointed them to the coming Savior.† He renewed their faith in him.† And so, confessing their sins, they were baptized by John and given a new beginning.
And today, 2000 years later, John calls to us.† He calls upon you and me to prepare for the coming of the Lord.† And, I donít know, maybe that offends you.† Maybe youíre thinking, ďI am ready Ė at least, Iím better prepared than most people.† I mean, Iím here this morning in church where Iím supposed to be.† Iím singing the hymns and worshipping along with the congregation.† In a little bit Iíll be confessing the Creed and taking Holy Communion.† Hey, I even have most of my Christmas shopping done.† I have the bases pretty well covered, donít I?Ē† If thatís what you think Ė or something very much like it Ė then I can guarantee that you donít have the bases covered, and that you are not ready for the coming of the Lord.
Take note that John directs his harshest words to the people who were the most religious.† Why?† Because they were the most comfortable with themselves and their spiritual condition.† They didnít fear the wrath of God to come because they imagined that all was well with their souls.† They were doing the right things.† They were doing everything the Lord required Ė or so they thought. †But they were just going through the motions. †And arenít we the same way?† We stand here and say how heartily we repent of our sins when we really donít mean it Ė and then go out and do the same things over and over again.† We say we humbly plead for the Lordís mercy and forgiveness while withholding mercy and forgiveness from those who sin against us.† And arenít there plenty of times when you know youíre just going through the motions of worship and mouthing the words without really paying attention and understanding or appreciating what it is youíre doing Ė and then you have the audacity to think that the Lord is pleased that at least you came to worship?
Am I making you uncomfortable?† I hope so, because thatís the goal:† to move you out of your comfort zone, because thatís exactly where you need to be.† If not, then you arenít listening.† Youíre not listening to me or to John the Baptizer.† And youíre not listening to the Lord Ė the Lord whose Holy Spirit is speaking to you in a still small voice within your heart telling you that there is something rotten in there:† sins you donít want to admit or confess, sins you donít want to let go of, sins that youíre quite comfortable with and would prefer to continue in.† Listen to that voice Ė that voice crying in the wilderness.† Become uncomfortable.† Feel the heat of Godís wrath.† Sense the uncleanness within.† Fear the Lordís coming judgment. †And repent.† Turn away from your sins.† And then you will be ready and well prepared to receive the coming Savior.
ďHis winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floorĒ, John tells us.† ďHe will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.Ē† Itís a fascinating image that John gives us with which to picture the Lord Jesus and what he does.† And to fully appreciate it, itís necessary to understand that the Temple in Jerusalem was built on what had been a threshing floor. †With our modern methods of agriculture, that may require a bit of explanation.† For a threshing floor they usually selected a flat, stone outcropping on top of a hill or ridge Ė where erosion had washed away the soil and left behind a hard surface less susceptible to erosion.† After harvesting their wheat, theyíd spread the kernels over one of these naturally occurring stone floors and do something to put the grains under pressure.† They might beat them with rods, or have draft animals walk on them, perhaps pulling a wooden sled that squeezed the grains of wheat as it passed over them.† They did this to break up and dislodge the inedible paper-like husk that surrounds each kernel.† And then what theyíd do is use the winnowing fork or shovel to throw the grain into the air, allowing the wind to carry off the lighter chaff of broken husks while the much heavier wheat grains fell straight to the ground.† In this way the wheat and chaff were separated, and the cleansed grain was made fit for use.
This is what Jesus does for us in his Temple Ė here in his church.† We are like the grains of wheat that have been harvested, covered with something unacceptable to the Lord, namely our sins.† And Johnís part is to be the pressure thatís applied.† He puts us under stress and squeezes us until it hurts to break up that comfortable coating of sin we live in.† This is what repentance is.† But then Jesus does his part.† He raises us up and cleanses and separates us from our sins.† Though not stated here specifically by John, Jesus does us by raising us up with him on his cross, where he became the sacrifice for our sins.† Thatís where and how he takes our sins away and destroys them.† And then, having been cleansed, we are fit to be gathered into his barn Ė the place he will keep us for all eternity.
But thatís the final goal.† Until then, the cycles of planting and harvest go on.† We receive the seed of Godís Word, it grows in us and produces fruit Ė and yet, everything we do is tainted by sin.† So we come here to the threshing floor where John does his work of moving us out of our comfort zones and driving us to repentance, and Christ does his of cleansing us from all our sins and giving us new life in himself.† These repeated cycles of planting and harvest, threshing and winnowing, are what keep us ready and well prepared to meet the Lord when he comes in judgment.† So may the Lord Jesus in his mercy continue this work among us from now until he comes.† In his holy name.† Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!