Passing through the boundary waters

Matthew 3:1-12

“You sons of snakes!” …one of my favorite lines in preaching. You just gotta love John the Baptist.

Walter Wangerin describes the Baptizer as: “no respecter of persons. He lived dependent on no one’s welcome or anyone’s wealth . . . And he offered Jews a ritual washing . . . a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”[1] And many Jews, it appears, were hungry for this baptism. Ritual cleanliness was (and is) a key component of Hebrew life and faith… not only physical cleanliness, but also spiritual. Back in John’s day, Jews lived in a constant state of preparation for the coming of their Messiah—they wanted to be ready when the time came. Many feel the same way today. John was attracting lots of attention with all of his preaching and baptizing in the Jordan River. The coming of the Messiah had been foretold since the time of the Prophets, and it was not uncommon for itinerant preachers to crop up, from time to time, saying to anyone who would listen: “today’s the day!” So, folks back in the day might be excused for failing to get excited about every new “Messiah sighting.” But there was something different about John. There seems to have been an authenticity to his ministry that was lacking in that of his predecessors. As a preacher colleague of mine wisely observed: “John the Baptist is significant because he is the last in the line of prophets. Although he does not call himself one, John is the embodiment of the whole tradition of Hebrew prophecy. He dresses like Elijah, he sounds like Isaiah, and he stands in the water marking the boundary between the wilderness—and the Promised Land. In all four Gospels, John is in the same place wearing the same clothes speaking the same message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven draws near! Prepare the way of the Lord.’ It doesn’t matter which Gospel you read; if you want to get to Jesus, you must pass by John.”[2]

Snakes get a pretty bad rap in the Bible… from the third chapter of Genesis on. It was the Serpent that seduced Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:1-15). Later, in the book of Numbers, snakes would slither their way into the camp of the Israelites as they traversed the wilderness after leaving Egypt, biting and killing many of God’s “chosen people” (v. 21:6). It should be noted that this reptile incursion was likely connected to the Israelites’ incessant complaints about the quality of the food God had provided thus far during their sojourn, but no matter. People regarded snakes with fear and loathing because they were crafty and carried within them a deadly poison. So, John the Baptizer’s characterization of the Pharisees and Sadducees as sons of snakes! probably stung a bit. The Pharisees and Sadducees were rival sects within the Jewish religious hierarchy, often at odds with one another over the correct way to practice their faith and worship the God of Abraham. The Sadducees were closely aligned with the priestly class and tended to emphasize the centrality of the Temple, along with its rites, services and sacrifices. They ascribed to a strict interpretation of Mosaic Law (the Written Torah) as the best and only way to practice the faith. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were less Temple-centric than the Sadducees and included less-restrictive interpretations of the Torah (i.e., the Oral Torah), as well as the Books of the “Prophets” and the “Writings” within their canon of scripture. Pharisees believed in the possibility of resurrection, while the Sadducees did not. And these were just some of the differences. Perhaps you see parallels in the strife between these Jewish sects during Biblical times… and that of various denominations within Christianity today…? I sometimes wonder why it always has to be either/or. What ever happened to both/and?

In any case, the Pharisees and Sadducees were as curious as anyone else about who this “John the Baptizer” was, and maybe even wanted to get a little bit of a head-start spiffing up their personal purity… just in case this was the “big one.” But John called them out that day at the Jordan, called all of them out for spreading their own peculiar brand of self-serving religious poison to a people whose greatest needs were hope and help and justice. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” said John. You say you want to make up for things done and left undone—you say you want to be washed clean. Well, isn’t that nice. Y’all are supposed to be leaders. Y’all are supposed to be teaching people the way and setting an example of right behavior. And what do you do? You put yourselves at the head of the line. You stand in judgment over your brothers and sisters, and you often fail to practice what you preach. Shame on you! But I’ve got some news for you: All of this beautiful and orderly religiosity you’ve built up for yourselves in the here and now is going to come to nothing. You can’t lean back and rest on your laurels… or your lineage. None of that means anything. What matters is what you are doing today to help bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. If you’re not working to bring help to the helpless, hope to the hopeless and justice to the marginalized, then you’re not bearing fruit. So, you better watch out: “The ax is lying at the root of the trees.” It was no accident that the words put into the mouth of God’s Prophet, John, mirrored those that would be spoken later by Jesus, himself, in the parable of the barren fig tree, when the vineyard owner said to the gardener: “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” (Luke 13:6-9). We must all bear fruit worthy of repentance. Otherwise, why are we even here?

Make no mistake, my brothers and sisters, the kingdom of heaven has come near. No one knows the day or the time, but when it comes, we will be judged by the fruit we bear. If we want to get to Jesus, we must first pass by “John the Baptizer,” who stands in the water marking the boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land. Receiving John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins may not be comfortable for many of us because we have much to atone for, and the Baptizer is “no respecter of persons.” All of our preconceived notions of self-worth and self-righteousness will get us nowhere… except into trouble. So, embrace the “tough love” offered by the Baptizer in today’s Gospel message. Like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the only way we’re going to make it through the boundary waters from where we are…to where we hope to spend eternity… is by relentless self-examination, and the casting away of anything and everything that causes us to falter in our work of bringing help to the helpless, hope to the hopeless and justice to the marginalized. That’s loving God and loving your neighbor…all rolled up into one. That’s what it means to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Step into the cleansing waters of Advent, my friends, and make yourselves ready for that day of days, prophesied by Isaiah in today’s reading from Hebrew Scripture: the day when “we all will see God’s holy mountain, and the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord… as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9).

[1] Walter Wangerin, The Book of God: the Bible as a Novel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 462.

[2] Shawnthea Monroe, “Repent and Reset,” Sermon delivered at Plymouth Church, United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, OH. (Accessed December 3, 2022).

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