They came, streaming down to the Jordan from Judea, Galilee, Perea and
Decapolis, Jewish men, women and children, hoping to hear the word of God. And they saw just what they expected. They saw a wild man, a hairy man, a man straight out of the Old Testament tradition. He was dressed, so Matthew tells us, in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, just as the Scriptures described the prophet Elijah. And what's more, he came out of the wilderness, the barren land between the Dead Sea and the hills of Judea. Prophets always come out of the wilderness. There in the desert, the dryness and the dust, the hunger and the thirst scours the city out of them, the cities and towns choked with commerce and politics, smelling of ambition and compromise, success and failure. Prophets step into our world from outside of time, to remind us of the eternal. And the ones who came to listen were the ones for whom the present wasn't good enough. The ones who came to hear God speak were the ones who wanted something to change.
And they heard what they expected, too. John's message was straight out of the
OT tradition, they might have been listening to of Elijah or Amos or Joel calling for the people to prepare for the day of the Lord. And just as Amos had, John wakes them up to the fact that God isn't going to deliver them from Rome the way he did from Egypt, or during the time of the Judges when all they had to do was promise to reform and God would send them a rescuer. He expects them to change first. Because the day of the Lord isn't going to be a walk in the park. "Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!" said Amos. "Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light." [Amos 5:18] The world is going to turn upside down, and if they're going to survive it, they have to be made ready. They have to undergo some kind of transformation.
The way John phrases it is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." [v. 2] What does that mean? Now, the Greek word for repentance is: metanoia.. This doesn't just mean being sorry. The word means literally to change one's mind. It also means a change of heart and a change of direction. "Repent" doesn't really convey all that, does it. Maybe a more comprehensive English term would be "convert." But that, too, has had a whole lot of baggage added to it over our centuries in a quasi-Christian world, hasn't it. That's why I want to use the word "transformation," instead. It's a word that means to become different in kind, not just in outward appearance, or visible behavior. Or how about just "change"? "Change, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
One of my mentors when I was in training for the ministry had a really nifty gimmick he used to describe what happened to people when they were baptized, but if I tried it here I'd probably be drawn and quartered. He would roll up a newspaper and set it on fire. That was his illustration of what happens when sinful people approach a holy God. Or, to go back to the image of the Day of the Lord, when God appears, mountains melt and people go up in smoke. And so if the kingdom of heaven is drawing near, if John's listeners don't do something drastic, they'll burn up - literally. "One who is more powerful than I is coming .... 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."
Oh - you want to know what my pastor friend Richard did with the burning
newspaper? He had brought a pail of water and hidden it behind the pulpit. Just as the people were wondering when his robe was going to catch on fire he doused the newspaper.
And then he took out a fresh newspaper, rolled it up, and doused it in the bucket
as well. And then he tried to set it on fire. You know what? It wouldn't catch! The
water had protected it from the flames!
And that's what John offered the people. He offered them a way to get ready to
meet God. He knew that they couldn't change themselves; why if the Jewish people had learned anything at all over the past few centuries it was that no matter what happened, everything stayed the same. There's a French proverb that goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." No matter who was ruling, whether it was the Persians or the Egyptians or the Greeks or the Romans - or even the sort-of-Jewish Idumeans - there was injustice and cruelty and oppression and betrayal. So John offered them a chance to change.
How many of them really repented in those long-ago days by the Jordan? We
have no way of knowing. Just like at the Billy Graham crusades, I'm sure many came forward from the excitement of the moment, caught up in the power of the preaching and the enthusiasm of the crowd. We have no way of knowing how many people understood that neither without repentance, baptism was meaningless, and without baptism, repentance wasn't completed.
We don't even know how many people understood that the true baptism was yet
Many people, later on when the apostles were carrying out the Great Commission, told them that they had only experienced John's baptism, not Jesus'. John's baptism was a human event, an event foreshadowing the true baptism that Jesus would bring. And he understood this. He understood that the only way for this radical change, this conversion, this true repentance to take place is if God himself were to bring the change about. That's exactly what God does through the powerful tools of Word and Sacrament.
John the Baptist used them to prepare the people to meet with God. They were
drawn out into the desert, some from many miles away, to hear the words of the living God. And as they listened to John's message, something marvelous happened;“ they began confessing their sins! They owned up to their guilt. That's not something that human beings typically do, is it. Except for the fruitcakes that show up at police stations every the full moon confessing to all the open cases on file, most of us would rather point the finger at our neighbor than admit what we have been up to. Or would do if we had the nerve.
So what prompted them to do it? They longed for something new, something
different, and if God said it had to start with themselves, why, okay, it was worth a shot. And if they were honest with themselves, they knew they had a lot of things to be forgiven for, even if it were something as small as mending a tunic on the Sabbath or as serious as eating oysters. They knew they needed forgiveness.
Most of them, that is. There were a few who came down from the cities who liked
things the way they were. The Sadducees especially were content; they were usually wealthy, and they controlled the religious power of the temple and had the ear of the Roman occupiers. The Pharisees had their own form of power, though, and they were pretty sure that they, with their knowledge of the law, held the keys to heaven and hell themselves. But some of them came down`to listen to John anyway.
You'd expect that John would be thrilled to see the religious leaders show up at the revival meeting. But John's reaction is just the opposite. Why? Because he recognized that the reason the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to be baptized - if indeed they did, many were just observing the phenomenon and wondering what to make of it - those who did mostly wanted to retain their religious power and prestige by going through the motions of repentance in order to bolster their public image.
How could John be so sure? He was certain because these religious leaders held beliefs that made true repentance impossible. The Pharisees considered themselves to be really good people on their own; the Sadducees didn't believe in life after death.
Both groups thought that they already had God's seal of approval since their pedigree could be traced back to Abraham. Neither group thought they needed to change, and if they didn't need to be changed, why, they certainly didn't need a savior!
They didn't think they needed to be forgiven, either... Who could be better than
they already were? They must have been really shocked and offended to hear John's denunciation: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." [v. 3:7-8]. John denounces their empty actions, their false pretenses, and their outright hypocrisy.
In a way, though, John's baptism was easy to accept. We can all find something
in ourselves that needs fixing. Even a Pharisee might remember a time when he
accidentally broke a Sabbath rule. They could get behind the notion that all they had to do was try a little harder. But the repentance called for when Jesus would come, why, that was another matter altogether. Jesus would call for far more than an outward change of behavior, and those who only sought forgiveness and change at that level would balk and turn away.
Jesus comes bearing both water and fire. Only those who are willing to go
through the death to self that the waters of baptism represent are safe from the fire that is the presence of the living God. Only those who are changed from the inside out can bear the fruit Jesus is looking for... the fruit of his love for us, blossoming into love for one another.
How many of you remember the movie Love Story from the book by Erich Segal?
A real tear-jerker, right? The catch-phrase that everyone remembers from it is "Love means never having to say you're sorry." But of course that's not true. Or at least, it's not true if what Jennifer is saying to Oliver is that "love means never admitting you were wrong." If we truly love Jesus, as he loves us, our actions will say, "I'm sorry - I want to be different, I want to be like you," so loudly that we will hardly need the words.