Sunday, January 27, 2019

People, Get Ready: Homily on Matthew 3:1-3

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'” (Matthew 3:3). That's how he saw himself. John, who came baptizing. Can you picture John? A shaggy man, unkempt hair and rough clothes, foraging for food in the mornings and evenings, smoking bees out of their hives for wild honey, catching locusts with his bare hands, and by day shouting his message to whatever crowds would come to him? A voice roaring loud in empty places.

He took his cues from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her hardship is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. … Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11).

The message was, God was coming. The people were in exile, the people were in need, but God was coming to take control. God would come to rule, God would come to repay, God would personally be present to be the Good Shepherd of his people, and everyone would see his real value, his glory, put on display. That's what the kingdom of God is all about: God's arrival to rule and repay and shepherd. But things needed to be ready. No one wanted the kingdom to show up and find that they weren't included. Nobody wanted their lives to be a stumbling block in God's path; for God to come to repay, and find that their repayment was payback for their sins.

John wasn't the only one out in the desert trying to live out Isaiah's prophecy. There was another group – maybe John knew them – living at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. And in their writings, they applied the same verse to themselves that Matthew associates with John the Baptist. But when they used it, the idea was that people joining their movement would “withdraw from the habitation of unjust men,” go into the wilderness to Qumran, and devote themselves to Bible study, and that was how they'd prepare the way of the Lord – by withdrawing from society to study the Bible, and leave society to its own devices (1QS 8.13-16).

John had a different thought. He didn't want anybody to be left out – that's why he was preaching out in the open! His whole life was devoted to sharing the message. And when he heard about valleys lifted up and mountains made low, uneven ground becoming level and rough places becoming smooth, so that a straight road for the Lord would pass through the wilderness to the Land, he knew it meant that the spiritual terrain of Israel itself had to be transformed. Study couldn't do that. Sacrifice couldn't do that. Conventional piety couldn't do that. Civility and decency couldn't do that.

And so John called for people to radically turn to God, as radical as if they were foreigners hearing the story of God and his people for the very first time, as if they were strangers meeting God afresh. That's why he had them go out in the desert, on the far side of the Jordan River, and then pass through into the Promised Land all over again. John rewound the clock. And while it was customary for Gentiles converting to Judaism to be baptized, cleansing themselves of impurity, John insisted that Israel needed the same treatment – they'd become dirty strangers in God's sight, and had to be drastically converted into a New Israel, fresh as newborns, sweeping away every obstacle that might resist the kingdom.

That's what John meant when he “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (Matthew 3:1-2). The kingdom was about to start arriving, because God was about to move in, and John insisted they should receive him with honor and be ready to meet him. So they needed to repent, to return to their first love and first calling, to start with a clean slate, even if it meant acknowledging themselves as outsiders and then moving into their own home as guests and tenants instead of rightful owners. They needed to go back to the beginning, needed to undertake the hard work of preparation, needed to break their own society down to the ground and let God rebuild it. Because with God so close to moving in and grabbing the reins, who could afford to not be ready? So John preached tirelessly in the wilderness of Judea, 'til he saw the One of whom he spoke.

What about us? We know that, in John's lifetime, the kingdom of heaven did begin to breach the walls of our world. We know that God did move in. Not in the way anyone expected. He came to rule from a throne of wood and nails, wearing a thorny crown. He came to offer atonement. He came to gently shepherd all those who humbled themselves to be his lambs, forswearing their thoughts of deserving to be repaid with good. He came to begin bringing the kingdom. And now we wait for the kingdom to be uncloaked. But the kingdom hasn't withdrawn. It's just undercover, and infiltrating slowly. Jesus is continuing to move in, through his Spirit inhabiting his Body called the Church. Have we any less need to hear John's message than they did then?

For we might need to repent. To return to our first love and our first calling. To start with a clean slate, even if it means seeing ourselves, not as privileged insiders, as beacons of civility and decency, but as miscreants who need to shape up and move into our own homeland as sometimes unwelcome guests. We might need to go back to the start, to break down the calcified habits and stale traditions we've built up and let God rebuild what we mean by 'church,' what we mean by 'religion,' what we mean when we say our own name. For our spiritual terrain needs to be transformed. The kingdom of heaven is every bit as much 'at hand' now as it was in John's day. And so he says to us, “Repent … Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:2-3).

Are we lifting up the valleys? Are we lowering the mountains and the hills? Are we leveling uneven ground and smoothing out the rough spots? Are we preparing, making ready? Are we preparing our church now, and our neighborhoods now, for the arrival of Jesus in it? Because, ready or not, here he comes. People, get ready! O church, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). Amen.

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