Matthew 3:1-12 (and Luke 3:1-20)
No matter how you look at it, John was a remarkable character and that’s putting it mildly.
His birth was remarkable. His parents were old and had been unable to conceive a child. Before he was born, an angel appeared out of the blue and spoke to his father – predicting great things about a child that was to be born to him. And when Zechariah seemed a little skeptical, he was rendered speechless. For nine months. If you ever heard of anything so strange.
His appearance was remarkable. About the year 26 A.D. when all the other Jewish men were wearing the long robes and tunics that we see in pictures, John wore animal skins with a leather belt tied around his waist to hold them all together. When good ordinary Jewish people were living in cities or villages, John was camped out in a remote wilderness area on the other side of the Jordan River far from any civilization or any decent roads. When other Jews were eating fish and lamb and bread and dates and grapes and olives, John was eating grasshoppers.
What John said was remarkable – very much like those fiery prophets of hundreds of years earlier who had dire warnings for God’s people. He said to people, “You have forgotten who you are. You have forgotten that you are God’s people. You have forgotten the promises God made to you – to love you and be your God and to care for you. You have forgotten the solemn promises you made in return to God at Mount Sinai – when your ancestors nodded their heads and sincerely promised to obey the commandments God gave them. Shame on you,” he said. “Shame on you.” And he called them to remember who they were and to remember who their God was and to turn around and change their ways. And some of them did, and they confessed their sins and were baptized.
And what he was doing was utterly remarkable, given the time. People of all sorts were streaming from Jerusalem some twenty miles away to hear what John had to say and to walk into the Jordan River with him and be baptized. He was attracting huge crowds of all kinds of people who were listening to what he had to say and believing what he had to say. And that made the Roman King Herod very nervous. That there should be these mass gatherings of Jews in some remote area perhaps plotting some sort of rebellion and overthrow of the occupation Roman soldiers. That made Herod and the other Roman governors and kings very nervous indeed.
So let me tell you a little about life in that place and in about the year 25 or 30 A.D.
We have talked last week about the fact that the entire county was under Roman rule. The citizens were forced to pay outrageous taxes to the Roman government. There were taxes to use the roads as we saw last week and taxes on almost everything else as well. And the tax takers were unethical and they gouged the poor and got rich themselves in the process. There were Roman soldiers stationed all over the country and these soldiers did as occupying soldiers sometimes do – they mistreated the women and threatened the men and they stole food and property from the Jews and demanded bribes. The Romans were foreclosing peoples’ homes and farms and businesses out from under them and leaving families homeless and without an income. What they did was perfectly legal, of course, because they wrote the laws, but it was grossly immoral and they were despised.
But here’s the tricky part in all of this. There were some Jews – leading citizens among the Jews - who were collaborating with the Romans in all this unethical and immoral behavior. Some of them were leading laymen in the synagogue. Others of them were actually priests and religious leaders in the synagogue. The Romans needed their help to keep the population under control. They were the recognized leaders in the Jewish community and they were the only ones who could keep the peace when the Jewish citizens were outraged and things might have gotten to the boiling point. And these religious leaders were desperate to save their own skins in a very dangerous time - so they did what they did. They collaborated with the Romans. We do not envy them. In our story for today Matthew tells us what John said to those religious leaders – these Scribes and Pharisees - when he saw them coming. He calls them out loudly. He calls them a nest of snakes. He blasts these religious leaders because they have not protected the people who should be able to trust them.
And he says to them all: here’s what you have to do. If you have two coats you need to give one to somebody who has none. To the tax collectors he said, “Don’t collect any more tax money than is legitimate.” To the soldiers he said, “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations.” To the religious leaders he said, “Let me see that you have sincerely repented by changing your ways.”
Now I am looking at a group of people sitting in a very lovely sanctuary in a very respectable small city. And I doubt that I am looking at murderers. I doubt that any of you have ever stolen much of anything. I see that you honor God and keep the Sabbath by being here and I have already heard the beautiful stories of how you care for your families lovingly and faithfully. So it’s not so much that we have flagrantly disobeyed those Ten Commandments. It’s not so much that that we are repenting of today. (At least that’s not what I want to talk about today.)
It’s more that we are shamed and pained by the world we live in today. Our world is battered and bruised and it shames us and pains us that we are a part of it. There really are children in our community who take sack lunch suppers home from school every day because there’s no supper waiting for them in their homes. There really are children and adults in this community who don’t have warm winter coats and mittens and gloves. And this congregation responds generously to those needs. I told you a couple of weeks ago now how blown away I have been to see what this congregation does for people in need, and how proud I am to be your brand-new, temporary, part-time pastor. And the Christmas Joy offering is coming up shortly and I bet I will be surprised, once again, at your generosity.
But it is our shame and our pain that there should any children in our community who go home to empty cupboards and no supper. Our world is a place where people are dying every day from preventable, treatable diseases. Our world is a place where terrorist soldiers are coming into homes and abducting and killing civilians and where countless people are simply disappearing. Even today, troops are occupying countries and doing what occupation troops do. Armed men are kidnapping school girls. Refugee camps are overflowing with normal citizens just like us who have been forced to leave their homes or be captured and killed. Our world is a place where children are killing other children and suicide bombers are blowing themselves up in public places and where police officers are shooting citizens. In this country our government doesn’t work and the ones who are supposed to be caring for us are not, and people are suffering because of it. Our world is a place where trash is piling up faster than we can learn to recycle. And none of that is what God intends for us and all of it is painful and shameful to us. And you can add your own list of what we are pained and shamed about. And what we need to repent of.
And it’s all the harder because you and I are not the ones abducting school girls in Nigeria. And we are not the ones who are blowing ourselves up in public places and you and I don’t have the expertise or education for treating or finding cures for malaria or Ebola or cancer.
But we are intelligent, thoughtful people in this world community where those kinds of things are happening. We are the hands and feet and minds and voices of Jesus in this world. And we bear responsibility for what happens in our world.
So we persist. In the tiny ways we can. We do not give up. And every once in a while we persist in large ways.
And today we are reminded of those very brave pastors in Germany in 1934 who openly opposed Adolph Hitler and his immoral policies. They said, and we read it just now: “As a church of pardoned sinners, we have to testify in the midst of a sinful world.”
Sometimes our testimony is very soft. Sometimes it seems that there is precious little we can do or say to have any effect against the sin so far away from us. Sometimes the Powers seem stronger than we are, and larger than we are. And sometimes we are a little tired.
And if you are a little tired, I can understand that. Many of you have carried this congregation through hard times for a long time, and you have done that with unfailing commitment and I can well imagine that you are little weary. You have worked long and hard in this community and done good and spoken in Jesus’ name in ways that have made an impact for good. And it might be that you are little weary of so much well-doing.
So come to this Table for your rejuvenation and your refreshment. Sit with your Savior in the quiet of this sanctuary. Take that tiny piece of bread and that sip of juice. And in that way that I can never quite understand or describe, let them renew you for the work ahead. Remember Jesus’ death and draw on the strength and courage that Jesus provides. And then add your voice and your mind and your hands and feet to address the shame and the pain that we live among. In this world that God created good.