A Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12
We’re getting closer to Christmas and folks are starting to get more into the Christmas spirit. I’ve started getting Christmas cards from friends who live in other states. The Christmas parties are starting, too, which brings a great time to reconnect with old friends and make some new ones.
Have you ever noticed at parties that, most of the time, one person will emerge to be the one who really stirs up interesting conversation. Maybe they’ve been up to something fascinating, or maybe they’re just a bubbly, charismatic type of personality. But usually there is someone who, from the moment they walk in the door, the conversation energizes. You know– there is someone who is the “life of the party!” Typically, you’re glad when that person comes and you’re sad when they leave, because everyone had a great time while they were there.
John the Baptist… is not that person. Certainly, John the Baptist is the guy who ruins your Christmas party, right? He probably hasn’t bathed for weeks. He’s made his own clothes, and not well. He always immediately launches into conversations about religion, not exactly coming across as “tolerant” as he talks about repenting, fleeing the wrath to come, axes, and unquenchable fire, nevermind calling people a “brood of vipers!” He would undoubtedly trigger memories of encounters with the worst of street preachers, and folks whose cars sport a bumper sticker which says, “turn or burn.”
As we read about John the Baptist this morning, it feels a little bit like reading the Grinch who Stole Christmas. Here we are, having a good old time singing about “Come thou Long expected Jesus” and “Emmanuel,” and John walks in, and you want to cue that record scratch sound effect.
The funny thing though, is that, if you think about it, John is actually on a mission to get people into the Christmas spirit– maybe not in the way we usually think about it, but he’s getting people to prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus.
To me, perhaps the most surprising thing is that, for all of his rough packaging, people don’t seem to be the least bit deterred from coming to him to be baptized. His reputation for being a party pooper precedes him, and yet when he throws a repentance party, everyone comes. Matthew chapter 3 says, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
John must have touched a nerve of the Jewish world at the time. John comes dressed like the prophet Elijah, and to some degree he acts like the prophet Elijah, who lived some 800 years earlier, willing to go toe-to-toe with the predominant religious system of the time.
But even beyond the Elijah vibe, people would have understood the significance of John being at the Jordan River. The Jordan was the place where the exodus from Egypt ended, following 40 years of wilderness wandering. God had delivered his people from slavery to the Egyptians. Crossing the Jordan, they made their final exit from slavery and entered into the land God had promised to give to Abraham’s descendants: “the promised land.”
As John baptizes people, he brings them through the water of the Jordan, symbolizing that God is re-doing the exodus story. John is announcing the beginning of a new exodus, the beginning of the end of their slavery, not to Egypt this time, but actually to sin itself.
John says, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” In other words, “I baptize you as a sign that you’ve changed and that you’re committed to change… that you’re turning from all the bad stuff in your life.”
You know, we’re all a little bit like sponges, absorbing the liquid we’re in, if you understand what I mean. Before we change our lives and come to Christ, we’re, well, kinda like dirty sponges. We’ve absorbed lots of bad stuff going through life. We’ve made decisions that hurt others. We’ve turned our backs on God. We could really use to be cleaned, inside and out.
Repenting and being baptized symbolizes being cleansed of all that dirt. And that’s wonderful news. Imagine taking a muddy sponge and plunging it in a river. In order for it to be cleaned, it has to be squeezed. It has to be emptied out in order to be clean. It has to be squeezed so that it can be filled with clean water.
But here’s the thing that continues to amaze me. God doesn’t just want to clean us out. God wants to fill us up with something better. John says, “after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
God wants to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, and John says Jesus is going to be the one to do that. Jesus will be the one who will plunge us spongy people into the depths of God’s own love so that God’s love will be in us and we’ll be in God’s love.
But before we’re filled with God’s love, we need to be cleaned. And actually, before we’re filled, we need to be emptied. If you want to be filled with God, you have to be emptied. And being emptied always requires a squeeze.
The bad news is that the squeezing part is rarely comfortable.
The good news is that many of us are feeling squeezed in a variety of ways already. Perhaps, through that squeezing, God is priming you for something new to come your way.
Do you feel like you’re being squeezed? Why not see that as an opportunity to grow in your faith? God can use a hard season of life to prepare for Jesus to come into you by the Holy Spirit in a fresh way. In fact, the more empty you feel, the more ready you likely are to receive from God.
I think that there is a broader spiritual principle here, as well, that applies to our church. You might have noticed that our church has been squeezed this year. Many of you are still grieving the end of Pastor Mark’s 20 year ministry. That’s far from nothing. Many of us expect church to be one of the very few dependable and unchanging things in our lives. I think that’s why change at church can be so disorienting, or even frustrating.
(If the following analogy doesn’t work for you, just let it role right off!) Five months into my pastoral ministry here, I think some folks are waking up and realizing that the honeymoon is over, but the marriage needs to go on, if you know what I mean. It’s never fun that the honeymoon ends. But when it does, that’s when the real growth in relationship begins.
That’s also when the real work is needed. I’m going to keep striving to glorify God and to love and serve this congregation to the best of my ability. Let’s recommit ourselves in this occasionally stressful time of the year to pray for one another. As always, I need and deeply value your prayers.
If you haven’t felt squeezed by the transition, that’s wonderful. It’s not actually a requirement! But if you have been, then know that if you’re faithful to God through it, you are positioning yourself to receive a great blessing on the other side.
We’ve got so much to be thankful for as a community. We’re adding new members today. There’s an adult baptism today, which is wonderful. God is moving among us in ways that not everybody gets to see.
Being emptied doesn’t tend to feel good. People who are repenting tend to feel like dirt. That’s why they used to put ashes on their heads. Being under pressure is no fun. But the promised land is ahead. Because after the emptying squeeze comes the release and the filling. Will you let yourself get emptied so that you can be filled?