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Reversing course in discourse

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Theme: Reversing course in discourse

Let us pray.

Most holy, Lord God, thank you for raising up charismatic people who change people’s lives; may John the Baptist give us heed for us to turn to you, for you are a lover all, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

People went out into the wilderness to receive a baptism for the forgiveness of sins by John the Baptist. People wanted to make amends for the wrongs they have done. And as I say over and over again, we care called to love God and love our neighbor. This is basic, but difficult. It is made all the more difficult when the clergy fail to do this and fail very publically.

As most of you know, Prince William and Kate Middleton announced their engagement recently. They (or the palace) later announced that the wedding would take place in April at Westminster Abby.

Pete Broadbent, the Church of England Bishop of Willesden in northwest London made the following remarks on his Facebook wall: “I don’t care about the Royals. I am a Republican. There more broken marriages and philanderers among these people than not. They cost us an arm and a leg. As with most shallow celebrities they will be set up to fail by the gutter press ... I give the marriage seven years.” (Reuters)

Apparently, someone forgot to warn the good bishop of the wrath to come. There was a hew and cry from all quarters of the UK. Last Monday, Bishop Broadbent offered an apology. He decided that it was unwise for him to post his opinions on the internet. Facebook is not the same as a cocktail party. What is posted on Facebook stays on Facebook for everyone to see and read.

The bishop said, “I have conveyed to Prince Charles and to Prince William and Kate Middleton my sincere regrets for the distress caused by my remarks and the subsequent media attention about the forthcoming Royal Wedding. I recognize that the tone of my language and the content of what I said were deeply offensive, and I apologize unreservedly for the hurt caused. I wish Prince William and Kate Middleton a happy and lifelong marriage, and will hold them in my prayers.” (Reuters)

The bishop was later suspended by the Bishop of London. It is somewhat ironic that the bishop’s big boss is technically Queen Elizabeth. It is also ironic that the English public holds the royals in higher esteem than the Church of England.

I wonder if Bishop Broadbent is sorry enough to receive a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. I think he is sorry for what he said and the hurt it caused, but he never apologized for the content of what he said. In this way he resembles the religious authorities who go out to see John the Baptist.

Matthew is preparing the readers of his gospel to hear of Jesus’ ministry. The introduction of Jesus’ ministry begins with John the Baptist. John is preaching or proclaiming to anyone who happens to be in the wilderness to repent.

It is interesting that John chooses the wilderness to do his ministry. People don’t typically go to the wilderness, voluntarily. (If you go with me to the Holy Land in May, you will see how stark the wilderness is.) There are few if any plants in the wilderness. Since John is baptizing people, he needs water. So he sets up shop near the Jordan River.

The Jordan River is a modest stream of water where it is green near the river. It is a very narrow strip of green. Beyond it, there is nothing – miles and miles of nothing. The river sits at the bottom of a wide river valley and is not visible until you get close to it. If someone didn’t know it was there, that one would despair of ever finding water. It is a barren place.

John has a very basic message for those who care to see him in the wilderness, a difficult and chancy journey, “Turn around from your wicked ways, because the kingdom of heaven is coming soon.” The translation of “near” is unfortunate. The Greek implies a time that is close.

There is a sense of urgency. Time is running out. If you want to be right with God, repent, turn your life around. The word we translate as repent means to literally turn around. Turn around from the life we’re living to a life where we walk toward God. John is telling people, “Do it now.”

Then Matthew supports the theological contention he is making by quoting from the prophet in Isaiah 40:3. Matthew is saying that the voice Isaiah was talking about is John the Baptist. Handel also quotes this part of Isaiah in The Messiah. In chapter 40 of Isaiah, the prophet is comforting the exiles in Babylon and says that the voice in the wilderness calls out to make the paths straight for them to return home to Judah and Jerusalem. John is making a straight path for people to repent and be ready for God’s coming.

Matthew describes John’s clothing. It is like that of a Jewish ascetic. He looks like a repentant nazirite. A nazirite is a Jew who is dedicated to God. The prophet Samuel was a nazirite. John’s diet is consistent with that of a nazirite.

Well John created a stir. People risked going through the wilderness to hear what John has to say. They repent. They are baptized or literally washed in the Jordan confessing their sins.

John caught the attention of the religious authorities. You know religious authorities. Their main job is to keep the status quo, to make sure that the practice of religion is done the way they say it should be done. That what is said is done the right way. Not all of this is pejorative. It is important to respect tradition and make sure the message is consistent. But sometimes preserving the tradition becomes preserving one’s status.

When the religious authorities, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, appear on John’s turf, John is not nice to them. He calls them children of snakes. In other words, they are not good enough to be called snakes. John asks them how they were warned to come out there to repent. Only I don’t think they were there for repentance. They were there to rein John in.

John then tells them what they need to do before they are forgiven. I mean, John has the guts to tell the people in charge of the Jewish religion what their penance is going to be! Their actions need to meet their words. And if they use Abraham to prove their special status with God, well, children of Abraham are a dime a dozen.

John now seems to direct his comments to the wider audience before him. Inspired by the presence of the religious authorities, John tells people to bear worthy fruit. In other words, make our actions increase God’s message in word and deed. And if we fail to do so, there will be unpleasant consequences.

John tells them that what he is doing is nothing compared to the one who is coming after him. John is not worthy doing menial labor for the coming one. The coming one will not use water for baptism. He will use fire and the Holy Spirit. He is going to separate the good from the bad and then destroy the bad.

Now after John said these things, I would suppose that the line for people desiring baptism was long. Fear is a motivator. An unquenchable fire doesn’t sound pleasant. Did the religious authorities seek baptism? I doubt it, especially after John’s tongue lashing. I don’t think John ever expected them to be baptized. Fear didn’t motivate them, because they discounted John’s words.

If you were like me, you were baptized so young so as not to remember it. And some people, especially grandparents, want me to baptize children so they won’t go to hell. Fear still works. But that is a bad reason to be baptized. We should seek baptism to begin a life of dedication to God. And we do that by loving God and loving the people around us and those not around us. We should do it because we want to return and reflect God’s love for us.

We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of oral discernment; that our words are gracious and that our actions follow suit, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Text: Matthew 3:1–12 (NRSV)

3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”a 3 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.’ ”

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 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? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 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. 10 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.

11 “I baptize you withb 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 withc the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 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.”

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