Sunday, February 24, 2019

Fork and Furnace: Sermon on Matthew 3:11-12

The day was a warm one. It was near the end of May or the start of June, and Araunah the Jebusite sat with his sons on a set of wooden threshing sledges that the oxen were pulling 'round and 'round in an indentation carved in the rock atop Mount Moriah. He gazed down toward the south at the walled city. Jerusalem. Araunah used to be a big kahuna there, in the old days. Before David and his Israelites came crashing in and took the city by force. Still, as years had passed, Araunah minded less and less. The Israelites had been kinder to the Jebusites than expected. And Araunah still had space all his own. So here he was, at his threshing floor on the mount on a warm day, his four sons helping him grind down the wheat.

The wheat crackled as the threshing sledge, coated with sharp teeth on the bottom, dragged over it, ripping the grains and the straw, loosening the connections. And so it went for a long time. Araunah and his sons talked about the old days. They talked about the troubles in the land. The plague, mostly. It had just started, but a few thousand Israelites had died, and the epidemic seemed to be spreading their way. Take every precaution. When the threshing seemed at its end, Araunah figured the day was yet young, and they might as well turn to the next job: winnowing. So as his sons led the oxen and the sledges off to the side, Araunah grabbed his winnowing fork, a nice implement perfectly designed to hoist and toss the damaged wheat. Which is exactly what Araunah did. His sons grabbed a few spare winnowing forks and did the same.

They tossed wheat into the air, and being atop a mountain, the wind above was stiff and strong. It carried the lighter bits – the protective outer coating of the wheat stalk – off to the side. But the heavier grains themselves, they mostly just landed back on the bare rock of the threshing floor. Fine way to separate the parts you could eat from the parts you really oughtn't. Separate the wheat grain from the useless chaff. And so, beneath the gleaming sun, they tossed their wheat and let the wind do its job.

Until Araunah heard one of his sons yell. “Dad! Dad! Look!” You see, they were hard at work beneath the gleaming sun. But which sun was suddenly the question. For it looked like there were two, almost in alignment – but the closer one, on further squinting inspection, had the shape of an angry swordsman, looming right over them. A warrior from the sky-realms, poised between heaven and earth, massive beyond compare, with sword drawn and flaring and pointed south toward Jerusalem, waiting to strike – and its feet were so nearly overhead! Araunah's sons, as they saw it through the falling grains from their winnowing, began to scream and dive for the nearest outcroppings, little nooks in the rock. Araunah stood, mesmerized, yet fearing to look lest he go blind.

But he tore his sight away when he heard an approaching ruckus from the south. He looked, and up the hill marched another surprising figure, clad in rough sackcloth, and in his train a line of elders and linen-clad priests. It was David, the king of Israel, the one normally arrayed in gold and fine robes – but not this day. And Araunah was no less flummoxed by a royal visitation than he was by the divine one. For Araunah knew from experience: a king in his power didn't come out to you; he sent word for you to come to him. But here David walked, right toward Araunah's threshing floor. So, disregarding what loomed just above, he ran southward off the rock and fell to his knees, his arms, his face at David's feet.

David, for his part, was distracted. Partly by memories. He was headed, after all, to a threshing floor. As a boy, he used to run around his family's threshing floor near Bethlehem. The same one where his Great-Grandpa Boaz got a marriage proposal from Great-Grandma Ruth. He knew the story of the threshing floor well. But now on his mind was also the present angelic menace looming above. He never should have given the order to recount the available military men in Israel without running it by God first. But this – this he could not bear. The plague had been upon the land, weapon in the hands of a destroying angel. And now the angel was standing in the sky, sword ready to exterminate all Jerusalem in a fell swoop. David had begged God to let the punishment fall on him alone – to make David sick unto death, but Israel healthy. He was ready to die for his people. No sooner had he said that than his prophet chaplain had come with a word – a word to go out to the threshing floor below the angel's feet and worship Yahweh there. So off he went, and other leaders followed.

Araunah was perplexed by the reason for David's visit, but David explained. “To buy the threshing floor from you, in order to build an altar to the LORD, that the plague may be averted from the people.” Araunah was scared, too. If this meant a financial loss to stay healthy, so be it. So he offered David the threshing floor for his own – said he'd even give David his oxen, and the wooden yoke between them, and the threshing sledges, too, so that David had wood to burn and meat to offer. A gift, one blue-blood to another, for the greater good. But David said no. No, his was the sin – his had to be the price. It'd do no good to make a play at religion that cost David nothing. So he hinted he'd be back for the whole mountain later, but for now, he offered fifty pieces of silver for the threshing floor and its contents. Sold. Araunah hoped David's God would be satisfied.

There, in the very spot where Araunah and his sons had been threshing and winnowing their grain, David piled up an altar. He wasted no time. The priests butchered the oxen before their eyes, hauling hunks of meat over to the altar. And they offered it up, a sacrifice, pleading for peace as a messenger of heaven's war loomed ready to strike. Araunah watched, Araunah listened, as there on the edge of the threshing floor, David knelt on the grain and straw and prayed, begging his God to make clear whether it was enough. Araunah's eyes squinted aloft, as the swordsman in the sky took a step back. He readied his sword. But then, a flash! Fire, like a molten liquid, poured down, seemingly from the sun. It streamed through the sky, piercing and enveloping the staunch wind, and landed on the altar, cooking, no, incinerating the meat of the cattle. Offering accepted. Above, Araunah and David watched together as the angel sheathed its sword – and vanished. Araunah's sons and a few elders couldn't help but yell and cheer. For their parts, the two men in the heart of the action breathed sighs of relief in synchronicity. Instinctively, Araunah helped David gather grain off the rock bed – grain roasted already by the intensity of the nearby flames – and carry it to the altar, where the priests added oil, salt, and frankincense. A grain offering. A thank-you to David's God, who turned away his wrath and gave health to the city. Signaled by fire to consume at the threshing floor where Araunah once winnowed, separating the wheat from the chaff.

That's the last story tacked onto the end of Second Samuel. You can read it there, 2 Samuel 24, and its parallel in 1 Chronicles 21. Chronicles makes clear the important detail we might otherwise miss. Later on, David's son Solomon went back to Araunah's old threshing floor, where David's altar still stood. And Solomon made the place bigger. And on that spot, on the threshing floor, that's where Solomon built something great. The Temple of the LORD. Over nine centuries later, an angel came back to Araunah's threshing floor, and passed along a message to a priest named Zechariah. The message was about Zechariah's future son, a boy named John who'd grow up baptizing people in the River Jordan. It was on Araunah's threshing floor that word of his life first came to his papa.

And when John preached to the crowds one day, the crowds were impressed. John seemed the greatest thing around – “among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11) – but John told them that, no matter how impressive he might seem, he was only the opening act before Another who was on his way. John was the messenger, the herald; but the real deal was coming. The Stronger One – that's who John hinted was on his way. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John told the crowd, “but he who is following me is stronger than I, whose sandals I'm not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11a). John wasn't even worthy enough, he said, to be the Stronger One's disciple. Disciples often served their teachers in many ways, but the one limit was, disciples never had to stoop so low as to carry their rabbi's dirty sandals. That was the job of a slave. But John said that even carrying the sandals of the One on his way was a privilege too high for John to aspire to. The gulf between John's greatness and the Stronger One's greatness was bigger than the gap between disciple and teacher, or even slave and master. This Stronger One would be the main event.

And for this Stronger One, the entire world was a threshing floor. That's what John said. Araunah's threshing floor, or one just like it, was going global. And everything and everybody would be like wheat being threshed. Which explains a lot, really. In life, we get threshed. And I don't think the wheat enjoys it. See, when wheat gets threshed, it gets run down, scraped over and over by the sharp-toothed threshing sledge as the oxen pull it 'round and 'round and 'round. To be threshed means to be run down. And that's a pretty good description of life some days – many days. We're wheat being threshed, produce getting run down beneath the sledge. But that is no bug. It's a feature. We get threshed.

But threshing is only to make us collectively ready for the winnowing. And John tells us that this Stronger One comes with “his winnowing fork … in his hand” (Matthew 3:12a). That's the tool with which he'll throw every bit of threshed wheat high up into the wind. And then comes the separation. Once things are loosened, the wind can rip apart what's useful from what isn't – the wheat from the chaff. And then the Stronger One will “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12b).

For a long time, prophets had used the image of wheat being threshed to describe the separation of right from wrong, good from bad, chosen from discarded. And in Jewish thought, usually, Israel was the good wheat that got kept, and all the world's other nations were just the chaff that would blow away. In Daniel's vision, after the statue of the world empires crumbles to dust after being walloped with God's kingdom, what happens to those empires? They “became like chaff of the summer threshing floors, and the wind carried them away” (Daniel 2:35). Isaiah tells Judah, “I make of you a threshing sledge – new, sharp, having teeth: You shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them” (Isaiah 44:15-16). And he says that “the nations … will flee far away, chased like chaff on the mountains before the wind” (Isaiah 17:3). For, as the psalm has it, “the wicked … are like chaff that the wind drives away” (Psalm 1:4).

So, leaning on that, the rabbis told a story. They imagined that the wheat-grain and the straw and the stubble were all having an argument about why the world was made, why the field of global human society had ever been sown in the first place. And the straw says, “For my sake has the field been sown.” And the stubble says, no, “for my sake was the field sown.” But the wheat-grain just says, “When the hour comes, you will see.” So, sure enough, after the harvest, the farmer burned up the stubble – only good as fuel, after all – and in the process of winnowing, he scattered the straw as chaff; but in the parable, he “piled up the wheat into a stack, and everybody kissed it.” And so, the rabbis said, it was with the argument between Israel and the Gentile nations. The nations would all claim that they were the meaning of history. But Israel would just say, “The hour will come in the Messiah's future, and you will see.” For when the Messiah came, he'd winnow and separate Israel from the nations, showing that the nations were expendable and useless, but Israel was of lasting importance. That's what some rabbis thought (Genesis Rabbah 83:5).

But they ignored a couple other words from the prophets. God through Jeremiah was speaking to unrepentant sons and daughters of Israel when he said, “I will scatter you like chaff driven by the wind from the desert..., because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies. … Woe to you, O Jerusalem!” (Jeremiah 13:24-27). God through Hosea was speaking about idolatrous Israelites when he said that “they shall be like … the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor” (Hosea 13:3). And given everything John's been saying, that's what he wants to make clear to the Pharisees and the Sadducees and all the Jewish crowds gathered around him: the line between good wheat and bad chaff runs through Israel and through the nations. Plenty from Israel won't make the cut; they'll be counted as chaff. And, John maybe hints, some from the Gentile nations will turn out to be worthy wheat that the Winnower will include on equal terms. Which we know to be true.

Which leaves us with the overall picture. When the Stronger One comes, he'll have a winnowing fork at the ready (Matthew 3:12a). And he'll toss everyone and everything to the wind. Which produces a separation. And there are only two possible outcomes. A neat disjunction will emerge: either wheat or chaff. One or the other. And that leads to two destinations. The good wheat will be “gather[ed] … into the barn.” And that's good. That's a safe place to be. But the chaff – what happens to it? It isn't edible. So it was usually used as fuel for heating. And, John says, that's what will happen to those with no other usefulness to God's kingdom: “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12b). It all comes down to what's useful, what's fruitful, for like John said in another picture, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

And that's the work of the Stronger One to whom John's been pointing. John could only baptize with water – a signal, a symbolic action, resetting people on the right path. But the Stronger One is capable of doing so much more. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11b). At his disposal is the very Wind of God, the Holy Spirit. Prophets had long looked forward to God pouring out the Holy Spirit on Israel. Israel would be broken, Isaiah said, “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest” (Isaiah 32:15). God promised through Ezekiel to “have mercy on the whole house of Israel … and I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 39:25,29). But through Joel, he pledged, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28). That was what Israel was waiting for – that was the sign of their redemption. And who was the one who would pour out the Spirit? God Almighty. Yahweh. The Spirit of God is at no one else's disposal.

And then John comes along and says that the Stronger One will baptize people in the Holy Spirit. He'll be the One who pours out the Spirit. He'll be the One who does what only Yahweh God, the LORD Almighty, could ever do. Which means that must be who he is, for the very Wind of God is at this Stronger One's beck and call. And so he pours out his Spirit, baptizes in his Spirit, does a divine act for God's people – but Israel and the nations alike must repent and be included: This Spirit baptism is available to 'all flesh,' not just one nation. And the Stronger One comes to baptize Israel's remnant and the redeemed of the nations with his Holy Spirit.

But the Stronger One will baptize also with fire. All the world's a threshing floor, and at Araunah's threshing floor long ago, fire fell from heaven and destroyed the sacrifice on the altar. So the Stronger One will also pour out fire from heaven. And it will do what the avenging angel didn't dare. The Stronger One to come will say what Isaiah hears Yahweh saying: “Now I will arise, now I will lift myself up, now I will be exalted. You conceive chaff; you give birth to stubble; your breath is a fire that will consume you. … Hear, you who are far off, what I have done; and you who are near, acknowledge my strength. The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: 'Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?'” (Isaiah 33:10-11,13). The Stronger One pours out a baptism of the Holy Spirit, but he also baptizes in fire – those who surrender to the Spirit and are fruitful will be purified by the flames, but those who ignore the Spirit and remain unfruitful will be devoured by 'everlasting burnings.'

It's a hard truth. I know it is. In our comfortable middle-class American existence, as in every time and place in history, we don't like to admit that judgment is real. We like it in the abstract, when we assume the sword can't be pointed our way. But when it comes close, we get really uncomfortable. We get uncomfortable especially with the language of 'consuming fire,' 'unquenchable fire,' 'everlasting burnings.' Hellfire. But we cannot afford to deny it, or too quickly gloss over it, in an effort to make our message more palatable. The Stronger One will bring a destructive judgment, baptizing the world in flame. And for some, that fire will prove infernal – unquenchable and everlasting, to their continual destruction. That is hell. And such a hell is a real prospect for chaff at the winnowing.

So the only hope is to be fruitful grain. “Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands lest he holds a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil – he will dwell on the heights, his place of defense will be the fortress of rocks, his bread will be given him, his water will be sure” (Isaiah 33:14-16). So said God through Isaiah. The Stronger One comes offering a baptism in the Holy Spirit. And “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Baptism in the Holy Spirit leads to fruitfulness; and being fruitful for God's kingdom enables one to endure through any global baptism in fire. Fruitfulness for God's kingdom leads to the other destination: the barn into which the Stronger One gathers his good wheat, the heights on which the righteously fruitful one will dwell (cf. Matthew 3:11; Isaiah 33:16). Baptism in the Holy Spirit, which only the Stronger One can give us, is the only hope. It's the difference between wheat and chaff. It's the make-or-break issue.

As believers, we regularly cry out the Stronger One's name. We carry it around with us. For John the Baptist paved the way for the Stronger One whom we know as Jesus Christ. And as followers of Jesus the Stronger One, we profess to have received his baptism – a baptism, not merely in water (though there is that), but in the Holy Spirit. That isn't for a special subset of Christians. It's what being a Christian means. As Paul wrote, “In one Spirit, we were all baptized into one Body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). If you have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, you are a Christian, and vice versa. That is the definition. Otherwise – no dice. And being baptized in the Spirit is necessary because it's the only path to fruitfulness, which is the key distinction between wheat that must be saved and chaff that won't be.

So, if we claim to be baptized by Jesus the Stronger One by his baptism in the Spirit, fruitfulness should be the norm, shouldn't it? Fruitfulness should be the norm. The fruit of the Spirit should be everywhere in our church life, our family life, our social life. And we should be the kind of people Isaiah described as able to withstand everlasting burnings and dwell on the heights. Such righteousness, such fruitfulness, should be the norm. And perhaps one reason why we as the apparent church are sometimes so reticent to be honest – perhaps one reason why we shy away from forthright talk about baptism in the Spirit and baptism in fire – is out of a sense of unease with our own fruitless presence in the land. Perhaps we shy away from topics of eternal significance, and promise mere pittances like a 'best life now' or a warm inclusivity or a decent moral code or what-have-you – perhaps we avoid the stark disjunctions of judgment – because we recognize instinctively that our credibility is undermined by our own fruit-starved living. So we paper it over. We don't bring it up. We pretend there is no harvest, no threshing, no winnowing – no barn and no furnace, no Spirit and no Fire.

But there's a Stronger One – stronger than John, stronger than us, stronger than all the world and its pretended powers and privileges. And the Stronger One is never far from his fork and his furnace. So I ask you, if Jesus were to appear visibly in our midst with his winnowing fork in hand today – if he were to toss us into his winds of spiritual discernment – where would you land? Would there be enough weight to you, enough substance to your lived profession of faith, to have you land back down on the threshing floor? Or would your claims to faith be exposed as insubstantial, so that you're “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14), and so “like straw before the wind and like chaff that the storm carries away” (Job 21:18)? Would you be like a tree worth conserving for fruit-bearing, like wheat-grain worth storing safely in the barn? If so, then submit to the Spirit, lean in to the Spirit, be baptized in the Spirit through faith in the Stronger One who was crucified and lives again, and be fruitful through his Spirit!

Because I promise you. The furnace of “unquenchable fire” points to something real – to judgment that leads to a hellish half-existence, the path to destruction. And so does the barn for the good wheat point to something real – to vindication that leads to a heavenly fullness and, through there, to a redeemed new creation, where our fruitfulness will reap its full rewards a hundredfold. These things are real. And so is the winnowing that makes clear whose faith is fruitful through the Spirit and whose unbelief is fruitless unto fire. All these things are real – every bit as real as the angel and his sword and the plague in the days of David and Araunah. We cannot deny it. We cannot escape it. But there is hope. The Stronger One, Jesus Christ, is ready and eager to save, ready and eager to baptize in his Spirit, ready and eager to see his fruitful wheat flourishing to no end. Trust him. Receive of his Spirit more and more, and be more and more fruitful as the final stage of winnowing draws near. To the Stronger One, to Jesus the Messiah of Israel and the Hope of All Nations, be all glory and honor through his baptizing Spirit – may all the world be a field filled with his fruitfulness, starting here and now! Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Secondhand Holiness? Sermon on Matthew 3:9-10

Haðubrand felt his bones creak as he stood and knelt, stood and knelt, listening to the priest drone on in Latin in the little wooden church. He didn't want to be there. But he knew he had to reconcile himself to it. It was the dawn of the year 786, and Haðubrand was a Saxon tribesman, living in what today we'd call northern Germany. He hadn't grown up in church – unless you count ones he'd torched. So how had he found himself in one now?

If you'd asked Haðubrand, he might have started the story in his teen years, when Pope Gregory III wrote to his Saxon people. Thanks to the efforts of the missionary Boniface, who in southern Saxony had chopped down a sacred oak after challenging their god Thunær to a fight, some Saxons had already forsaken the religion of their ancestors for this Christianity. Pope Gregory wanted them to “walk in him, rooted and grounded and confirmed in the faith, abounding in the works of grace.” He called on them to “depart … from the service of idols, and come, worship the Lord our God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and you shall not be ashamed.” Five or six years after the letter, the Frankish king Pepin invaded Saxony and brought some missionaries behind him. Some Saxons had gotten baptized, mainly out of fear. They didn't think much of it.

Almost a decade passed. Haðubrand and his people had gotten fed up. They'd crossed into Frankish territory and burned over thirty wooden chapels. Haðubrand remembered the flames, the smoke, the plunder. It had satisfied him. But Pepin certainly wasn't happy. With bishops and soldiers, he came into Saxony to wreak revenge, taking prisoners and not leaving until the Saxons took oaths of peace with him – and with his God. So many were baptized. Yet, for a while, for much of Haðubrand's adult life, things kept on as they always had been. He lived the life of a Saxon, served the gods of the Saxons, same as before.

Then came one January, fourteen years ago. Some Saxons had traveled north on an expedition, to help burn down a church built by the English missionary Lebuinus four years earlier, around the time the Frankish king Pepin had died. They had no idea what wrath they were unleashing. For Pepin had left the Frankish kingdom to his aggressive son Charles – we know him today as Charlemagne – and Charles retaliated by invading Saxony that year and burning down their shrine, the Irminsul, the great tree trunk that linked heaven and earth. Haðubrand felt crushed. During the coming years, his late forties, when he could still do some fighting, he tried his hand at raiding Frankish turf and defending against Frankish invaders. But they kept losing to King Charles' armies. In 775, one by one, the Saxon tribes sued for peace. The next year, of course, they all turned back to that old-time religion, and tried to retake all their forts and castles. But they failed, and in terror they surrendered and promised to do what the king said – and be baptized into his religion. And many, motivated by political security, went through the motions and did exactly that.

So it went, year by year. But Haðubrand put more of his faith in Widukind, a great Saxon warrior who urged them to fight on, to resist both the politics and the religion of the Franks. Although Widukind had fled for safety to the Danes, still he inspired his people to fight against Charles and the Franks. The Saxons plundered their way onto Frankish land, they burned churches and monasteries – all they could find. The year after that, the Franks returned to Saxony. Charles recruited missionaries to come convert the Saxons. But in 782, when Widukind came back and riled up all Saxony with him, they fled the land.

Still, Haðubrand had little more fight in him; he laid aside his sword and sæx. His people fought hard, but Charles counterattacked and beheaded thousands of prisoners, and Widukind barely escaped. Three more years they fought. Finally, Charles broke them. And Widukind entered negotiations. Which ended with Widukind, the prophet-hero of the Saxon pagans, being baptized on Christmas Day in 785.

So what choice did that leave the other Saxons? As missionaries flooded in and built churches all over Saxony, Charles passed laws saying that any Saxon who refused to be baptized and attend to Christian rituals would be put to death. So Haðubrand surrendered. That same cold day, a missionary priest submerged him in the nearest river, after he'd sworn the vow: “I forsake all the devil's works and words, Thunær, Wōden, and Saxnōt, and all those fiends that are their companions.” And so Haðubrand was baptized and resentfully began to attend the Mass. In his eyes, and in King Charles' eyes, that made Haðubrand – and all Saxony – Christian now.

But what should we say about Haðubrand and those other Saxons baptized by force of law in those days? Was his heart in it? In being dipped in the river, was he truly placing his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Did it begin, for him, a life of discipleship? And if our answer is no, what might that have meant for his soul?

You see, all Saxony was brought to baptism by terror of the Frankish armies during the war or by terror of the Frankish laws after the war. And some, to be sure, had been taught and persuaded by missionaries either before or since. But in the summer of 792, many Saxons, testing the political winds, abandoned their professions of Christian faith and again tried to rebel. One chronicle tells us, “They demolished or burned down all the churches in their land; they chased out the bishops and priests set over them, attacking some and murdering others; and they altogether reverted to idolatry.” Four years later, one of King Charles' top priests, an advisor named Alcuin of York, wrote a letter to a friend and saw what had gone wrong. And here's what Alcuin said:

The miserable race of the Saxons so many times wasted the sacrament of baptism because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart. … Man is able to be forced to baptism, but not to faith.

And so it was. A couple decades later, there was still a need to convince Saxon nobles to really commit their hearts to Christ, to be captivated by him and desire him. So one poet wrote the Heliand: a collection of songs in the Saxon language, retelling the story of the Gospels in a fresh Saxon way, urging them to live 'with a clear mind' free from divided loyalties. But, of course, one of the first characters we meet in those songs is a man named John, who introduces that message. And here's how the Saxons heard John's story:

There in the wasteland, the word of God, the divine voice of God, came to him powerfully and told John that he was to announce Christ's coming and powerful strength throughout this middle world. He was to say truthfully in words that the heaven-kingdom, the greatest of delights, had come to those heroes' sons, to people, to the soil of that country....

“Become clean,” he said. “The heaven-kingdom is approaching the sons of men. Now in your hearts, regret your own sins, the loathsome things you did in this light, and listen to my teaching, turn around in accordance with my words! I will gladly dip you in water, but I do not have the power to take away your sinful deeds so that by the work of my hands you could be washed of your evil accomplishments. … Your minds will long be merry when you forsake the power of Hel and the company of the loathsome ones, and seek for yourselves God's light, the home up above, the eternal realm, the high meadows of heaven! Do not let your minds doubt!”                                                                              
(The Heliand, Song 11, trans. G. Roland Murphy)

Don't let your minds doubt. For the past several weeks, we – like those Saxons, perhaps some of our ancestors, hearing those words twelve hundred years ago – have been trying to grapple with John the Baptist's preaching and example. And it hasn't always been easy. John was a challenging sort of man. He doesn't just tell us what to do. He does more than that for us, better than that for us: He raises questions we have to answer; and in the wrestling, in the answering, we learn what to do in a way that doesn't just pass in one ear and out the other. Because we have to come to it ourselves.

Nowhere is that clearer than in his confrontations with the Pharisees and Sadducees. We heard last week, if you were with us, about how this was probably an official delegation, coming from the Jewish Supreme Court, to inspect John's ministry and decide if any action needed to be taken to crack down on him. These Pharisees and Sadducees assumed that they had no personal need of his baptism, no personal need of what it represented – that they were there to offer a solution to Israel's problem. But we heard, last week, John tell them that they were the heart of Israel's problem – and they needed to radically convert, turn to God as fresh people, and let God begin growing a life of fruitful gratitude out of their hearts (Matthew 3:8). Nothing less would do.

For John told them they were “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7) – a poisonous presence in the bosom of Mother Jerusalem, and imitating their venomous father, the devil (cf. John 8:44). And, needless to say, that did not resonate with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their first instinct is to answer back that they have an honorable father – no one less than Abraham is their father (cf. Matthew 3:9). And in the Pharisees' and Sadducees' eyes, that makes all the difference – and it means they must be safe.

It might at first be a bit hard to follow their reasoning. Why does it matter if they're descended from Abraham? But it helps to know that there were strains of Jewish thought where the merits of Abraham – the goodness and blessing he acquired – was passed on to his Jewish descendants, and served as sort of a buffer for Israel to make God overlook some of their personal unworthiness. So, for instance, one rabbi is recorded as saying that, because Abraham was so faithful that he cut the wood to sacrifice Isaac, God rewarded his faith by one day cutting the sea so that Israel could escape from Egypt. Abraham's faith became merit passed down to the nation. Another rabbi said that, because Abraham was so faithful that he saddled up his donkey to fulfill God's will in taking Isaac to be sacrificed, it counteracted the time centuries later when Balaam the pagan prophet saddled up his donkey to try to go and curse Israel. Again, Abraham's faithful obedience became merit that, when passed down to Israel, became a buffer to keep them safe and in God's good graces (Genesis Rabbah 55.8). Some Jewish traditions held that Israel would have their sins ignored by God out of love for their father Abraham, and one rabbi even said: “Notwithstanding all the follies that Israel commits and the lies that they utter in this world, Abraham is of sufficient merit to win expiation for all of Israel's deeds when they are scrutinized” (Pesiqta de Rav Kahana 23.8).

So that's what John is calling out in the Pharisees and Sadducees – that line of thought, that attitude. They were thinking, in effect, that what John was saying to them didn't matter. Israel didn't need his new fresh start; God's people weren't in any real danger of destruction. Abraham was their shield. And so Pharisee and Sadducee alike didn't feel they had to sweat it so much. In effect, what they were saying to John was that they could get away with outsourcing the faith business to Father Abraham – that, because Abraham was so faithful and they had Abraham as their father, they would be the heirs of his faith, they would reap the benefits of all the merits he earned, and so they could safely skate into salvation on Father Abraham's coat-tails, as it were. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug – look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you...” (Isaiah 55:1-2).

But the problem, as John sees it, is that these Pharisees and Sadducees aren't exactly chips off the old block. If “Abraham [their] father” is “the rock from which [they] were hewn,” nonetheless they don't look different from your run-of-the-mill pebbles you could find anywhere in the world. “If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did” (John 8:39). “Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). A link to Abraham – the very thing the Pharisees and Sadducees were hanging their whole hat on – was something commonplace. And so the Pharisees and Sadducees vastly overestimate their bargaining power; they think they have more to bank on than they do. Isaiah's words on looking to the rock were for Israelites who sought the Lord – but these Pharisees and Sadducees were so convinced he'd been found for them, that they themselves were not seeking. See, they can't get away with outsourcing their faith.

And neither can we. Not any more than the Pharisees and Sadducees refusing John's baptism. Not any more than defeated Saxons reluctantly accepting baptism out of fear. Like Alcuin said, it's all pointless without “a foundation of faith in [our] heart.” Personal faith – faith that links my heart to God, your heart to God – cannot be substituted for trying to tie something else to God and outsourcing the faith business to that thing. And yet 'nominal Christianity' – that is, Christianity 'in name only' – is exactly what we get when we try to outsource the faith business. And it is the greatest plague in the churches of our land today, and maybe – though God forbid it – a danger for some of us here. “Even now, the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10).

Because, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, some of us might try to outsource faith to our ancestry or heritage or upbringing. “I must be a Christian, because my mama was a Christian and my papa was a Christian; grandpa was a Christian and grandma was a Christian. So that must make me a Christian. I was raised that way, so that must be what I am.” Don't you know people who think that way? That they were born into a Christian family, so that makes them Christians; their parents believed, so they assume they themselves believe? I've met plenty. But it just doesn't work like that. Because my dad's faith can't save me, and my mom's faith can't save me, and my upbringing can't save me, and yours can't save you, either. God is able from these stones to raise up kids of good Christian families. There's no safety in that for you. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our environment, to our nationality. “I must be a Christian, because I'm a citizen of these United States of America, and America is a Christian nation, and so as an American, I must be a Christian, and since I belong to 'one nation under God,' I must be safe, I must be okay.” That was the way it was sometimes in the Middle Ages – “I belong to such and such a people-group, like the Franks or Saxons; that people-group is Christian; therefore, I am Christian, and I must be safe, I must be okay.” And you'd think we'd know better, but we still sometimes go around assuming that being an American makes us better Christians than if we were Russian or Venezuelan or French or Liberian. We still hang our hats on America and all its assorted mythologies, as if they were what saves us. But you cannot safely outsource your faith to your country – belonging to a 'Christian nation' (if there were such a thing) would carry no weight in God's sight. He is able from these stones to raise up American citizens. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our words and propositions. “I must be a Christian, because I agree with the sorts of things good Christian teachers say. They tell me that God exists, and I agree with that; they tell me that Jesus was the Son of God who died on the cross and rose from the dead, and I agree with that; they tell me that the Bible is from God, and I agree with that. So because I agree with all those sentences, I must be a Christian; and since I agree with those sentences, I must be safe, I must be okay.” That has so often been what we think it means to be a Christian – acknowledging some facts. And, to be fair, you couldn't claim to be a Christian without seeing those truths. But they aren't enough. If you believe those things, “you do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble” (James 2:19). God is able from these stones to raise up people who nod at all the right strings of letters and spaces and punctuation marks. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our membership status. “I must be a Christian, because I got wet that one time. I must be a Christian, because I said a prayer one time. I must be a Christian, because my name is on the church records as a member of this congregation. I pay my dues, my name is on the list, I went through the necessary actions to join, so I must be a Christian. And since my name is on the list, I must be safe, I must be okay.” As long as we can truthfully put in our obituaries, 'So-and-so was a member of this church,' we might figure that's what will decide our eternity. But the church record books have no particular standing in God's court – they're pale imitations at best of “the Lamb's book of life” (Revelation 22:17). God is able from these stones to put names on our church's membership rolls. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our attendance or our activity. “I must be a Christian, because here it is, Sunday morning, and I'm in a pew, just like most Sundays. I must be a Christian, because I try to treat other people well, I try to be nice and follow all the rules. I must be a Christian, because I want to be told how to be a better person, and then I try to do it, I try to be a good person. And since I'm here in the pew and I try to do nice things in life for my country and my family and my neighbors, I must be safe, I must be okay.” And that's what we do. We put in our hour on Sunday morning, we lead a nice and conventional middle-class American life, and we figure we're good, because why wouldn't we be? It's not like we're sinners in need of a real Savior, right? Or so we think. But attending Sunday worship services can only help you grow when there's something alive in you to grow. And too often, we're prone to assume there's life in us without checking. We assume that activity means life. But it doesn't. The Pharisees had loads of religious activity, but inside were full of dead men's bones (cf. Matthew 23:27). The Saxons submitted to going through the motions of religious activity, but inside nursed paganism and rebellion. And for all our attendance, for all our religious activity, for all our moral contributions to the community, we may be full of nothing but death if we do not personally have Jesus Christ alive in us. If he's alive in us, he'll be active, no doubt. But we can attend and be active and yet have no safety. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

For here's the thing: Not one of those is a substitute for personally having “a foundation of faith in [your] heart” – not one of them. Not your upbringing. Not your environment. Not your agreement. Not your membership. Not your attendance. Not your activities. You can have all those things and not be okay. Not if the center of who you are isn't linked to Jesus. Not if your trust isn't in him and your loyalty isn't with him. Because what saves us? Nothing and no one but Jesus Christ – “there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:12). And if each of us is not personally united with him by faith in the heart of who we are, faith that leaches out into all areas of our lives, then what makes our condition any different from the refusing Pharisees or the reluctant Saxons?

For, as Paul the Pharisee came to realize, Abraham is the father precisely of those who imitate his faith – he is “the father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11). So we must have Abraham-style faith: trust in the God who speaks life where only death was possible, trust in a God of resurrection. On such a God, each of us must lean; in such a God, each of us must hope; to such a God, each of us must turn. We must stand in personal union with Jesus Christ through a foundation of faith in my heart and your heart. We cannot outsource it. There is no other way than faith that unites us personally with Jesus and all he's done and all he is. And nothing less will do, for there is no such thing as secondhand holiness, no such thing as safely outsourced faith.

So I ask you, church, each of you: Where is your heart? Do you “seek for yourself God's light,” as the Saxon Gospel poem said? Is it “in your heart” that you take action, and not just in outward motions or outsourced functions? Are you yourself personally committed to Christ – to “walk in him, rooted and grounded and confirmed in the faith, abounding in the works of grace”? Is faith a personal thing to you – not privatized, but involving an encounter between Christ and you, rather than Christ and something else?

I hope that none of us here are outsourcing our faith, like some Pharisees did. I hope that none of us here are reluctantly going through the motions, like some Saxons (and Franks) did. I hope that each of us here is a disciple, personally invested in Jesus Christ from the core of our hearts. Because if you trust in him with all your heart, if you live from a faithful heart as his disciple, then you are safe – and more than safe. So let us be true heirs of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful, and live out our salvation – for “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Snake-Spawn: Sermon on Matthew 3:7-8

Murmurs rumbled throughout the ornate chamber with the two doorways. It was the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple complex, with one door to the inner court and one to the outer. Within the room, seventy-one elders in their soft, supple robes tried to hew to the rules of decorum as they argued and disputed. In the heart of their arc, high priest Yosef ben Kaiapha – 'Caiaphas' – tried to keep order among his party, while the quite older man, stern Shammai, aimed to do the same among his, with aid from his sometime rival, gentle Gamaliel. The Great Sanhedrin, Supreme Court of the Jews, wasn't always easy to keep working smoothly. So many dignitaries were there. Representatives of all twenty-four priestly courses. Elite scribes and teachers of the law. Former high priests, even, like Yosef ben Kaiapha's father-in-law, Hanan ben Seth. Those two, Annas and Caiaphas, seemed inseparable. The issue that had arisen among the court today was how to handle a particular innovator, an alleged prophet out in the desert, whose popularity was on the rise. Few in the assembly gave much credit to the likelihood of his actual validity, but more to the point was how dangerous he might be, this Johanan of the Jordan – this 'John.'

Clearly, someone needed to investigate – to gain an eyewitness perspective on the affair and report back. But deciding who to send from among their number... well, that was a harder matter. Hence the subdued bickering. For there were two factions perpetually wrestling for control of the court, and had been for over a hundred years. On the one hand were those called the Sadducees. Annas, Caiaphas – their sort. The Sadducees were aristocrats, blue bloods, dealers in the status quo. Moneyed interests, they tended to be. Sticklers for reading the law as-is – if you can't prove it from the plain words of Moses, it's inadmissible. So much of what most Jews expected after death – the Sadducees couldn't find it in Moses, so down the tubes it all went. And then, on the other side, were the Pharisees, carriers of unwritten traditions they claimed stretched through Moses and the other prophets, letting them flexibly apply the law to new situations. They loathed the status quo, under the Roman thumb, but had a vision for purging the nation. If they could build such a broad buffer around every rule in the law that following their program would preserve one from sin, and if they could persuade all Israel to join their program, then a sinless day might come, proving they at last deserved deliverance and blessing from God. All they needed was for the rest of Israel to get with their program.

Well, someone needed to investigate John. And clearly it wouldn't do to have just Sadducees go and return and give a Sadducee take on it. And clearly it wouldn't do to send Pharisees alone. So a tense truce was struck, and a joint commission – Sadducees and Pharisees, not so different from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, bickering and grasping for power endlessly – well, such a joint commission was appointed.

In time, off they went. Out of the temple precincts. Out of the city. Out through the footpaths. Out to the bank of the Jordan River. Slipping in among the crowds. They tried somewhat to blend in, to not be noticed too readily. But members of the Sanhedrin – tall, striking – well, they tended to stand out above the rest. But they had a place to watch John – who by all rights should've been accepting his priestly duties in the temple, as a son of Zechariah and thus a member of the priestly division of Abijah – watch him rave and listen to confessions and take people out across the river and bring them back through, baptizing them by... by what authority? That, maybe, was all the question.

This is where Matthew lets us in on the action. He tells us that, as the crowds from “Jerusalem and Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins,” so John one day noticed “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism” (Matthew 3:6-7). The phrasing is deliberately different. A large group of Pharisees and Sadducees – who were rival factions in politics and religion alike, and probably wouldn't have tended to mingle except on official business – had arrived, not to be baptized, but at the site where he was baptizing others. They had infiltrated the crowd of earnest hearers, so a less discerning person – and maybe quite a few in the crowd were so – might've thought that they were there for the same purpose, with the same motive. But no.

No, these Sadducees, these Pharisees, none of them had come with any thought of actually ever participating in what John, the camel-hair-clad, locust-and-honey-eating renegade son of a priest, was up to. None of the members of this Sanhedrin delegation had a sense of personal need. They were not beggars, not supplicants. They were not seeking such a radical renewal, not out to humble themselves. They came as judges. They came to observe and evaluate, and then to go back home and render a verdict and decide whether action might need to be taken to put an end to John's career.

As we find out throughout the rest of the book, their verdict wasn't a positive one. “John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'” (Matthew 11:18). “John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:32). They didn't place much stock in what John was doing, these elite Sadducees and Pharisees.

Now, for most of us, if the big-shots come to see what we're doing, we might try to make a good impression on them. Might tidy house. Put on our best suit. Keep a firmer grip on our tongue. Put our best foot forward. If you're under observation, that's a common way to react. But John has other ideas. See, the first thing out of his mouth when he sees them is to call them out. These are the men who are there to perform an official evaluation of him – but John insists on giving them a harsh dose of reality.

John yells out that they're all – Sadducees and Pharisees alike, these members of the highest court in Jerusalem – that they're a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). And I'll give you a hint: that was not a gentle thing to say. If little John had said it to the neighbor boy, his parent's might've tried to wash his mouth out with soap. But the insult found its mark. And John wasn't wrong to say it – two times in the next few years, Jesus would call the Pharisees the exact same thing: “You serpents, brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33; cf. also 12:34). Sadducees and Pharisees both prided themselves so much on being good. They both prided themselves so much on being clean. After all, priests had to maintain their ritual purity, and Pharisees anyway were obsessed with spreading strict observance of purity laws even among commoners. Both parties were focused on squeaky-clean living. And John goes and calls them filthy animals, not fit for any lawful use. Snakes were hardly kosher. Instead, they reminded everyone of the one in the garden who slithered on forbidden trees. The Sadducees were proud of their priestly ancestries, and in fact one main function of the Sanhedrin was to scrutinize prospective priests' family trees to prevent any less-than-noble heritage. The Pharisees were proud of their fathers, from whom they handed down traditions linking them, generation by generation, back to the days of Moses. But John says he's sniffed something rotten in their background, Sadducees and Pharisees alike, for it's the Snake in the Garden to whom they bear the most family resemblance. And indeed, Jesus would later say to maybe some of the very same Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires” (John 8:44). Of the enemies of Israel, it was said of old, “their wine is the poison of serpents and the cruel venom of asps” (Deuteronomy 32:33). The tribe of Dan, disinherited by Jewish tradition for total corruption, was described by Jacob as “a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse's heels so that his rider falls backward” (Genesis 49:17). And the Sadducees and Pharisees have become such poisonous enemies of God's people.

But what John called these elite inspectors was so much more cutting than that. For he didn't just say 'snakes.' He said 'vipers.' And when most people in that time thought about vipers, there was one popular rumor that always came to mind first of all. A Greek historian, centuries before, had spread a story that baby Arabian vipers were born by chewing their way out of their mama's womb, devouring and killing her in the process at the moment of their birth. So when John – and later Jesus – calls this crew a “brood of vipers,” it's one of the harshest insults there is. It insinuates that these Sadducees and Pharisees are mom-killers. They're spiritual matricides, the real murderers in the bosom of Mother Jerusalem, who devour her guts and leave a corpse in their wake. The Sadducees and Pharisees are all upstanding citizens, the cream of the crop; they have never in their lives considered themselves as having anything to do with whatever's wrong in Israel. But John accuses them of having everything to do with what's wrong in Israel. They are the violence ripping apart God's bride from the inside-out. They are the death of her. So when John comes to point the way to life, he can't point to the programs of the Pharisees or Sadducees, but away from them. For from them flows the poison that outrages God and will call down Elijah fire. Their tradition, their pretense, their pride – it's the new Baal priesthood, the new work of Jezebel, and this whole place is a Mount Carmel waiting to be scorched.

For they are the violence. They are the poison. They are the corrupting impurity that slithers and gnaws. They pretend to be so great, but they're “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28). And so John asks them sarcastically: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7). See, showing up on Jordan's banks, filtering in among the crowds, they look the part of those who know there's fire on the way. They look like they know what's coming. But they're clueless and in denial. If they want a real clue, they need to repent and bear fruit (Matthew 3:8).

The Pharisees and Sadducees would have objected to what John called them, what John told them. After all, the Pharisees and Sadducees both aimed to follow the Law of Moses. They had different ideas of what that meant, sometimes, but they surely considered themselves as devout, Torah-observant Jewish men of the highest caliber. They weren't out drinking and partying, weren't out brawling and vandalizing. Each one was circumcised in the covenant of Abraham, each one kept to a life of moral rigor, each one was religiously scrupulous. They had the best of works just flowing out their ears! So what are all these works, if not good fruit?

But John would've seen right through that. You can have all sorts of pretty finery, you can be upstanding, you can have society-approved achievements... and it can be a pile of splinters of lifeless construction. But fruit is organic. It grows from something alive. In this case, 'repentance.' And we talked the other week about what a strong word that was for John. 'Repentance,' in his mouth, means a radical turn to God, as if meeting God for the first time as a complete outsider and then being drastically converted and brought into the Land of Promise for a fresh start. And to that end, before they could start again and regain healthy covenant standing, people in the crowd had to openly accept responsibility for Israel's problem and give a list of evidence, confessing the sins they themselves had committed that had contributed to the darkness. They had to name their own reflection as the shadow blocking Israel from God's light. And then they had to admit their estrangement, do an about-face, and let John wield the power of God to symbolically exclude and include them.

And none of that was something the Sadducees or the Pharisees were willing to do. Because they could never see themselves that way. They were too invested in how good they thought they were, how pure they thought they were, that the notion of humbling themselves to convert to their own religion was just absurd. But only from repentance, only from conversion, does the right fruit grow. The right fruit has to grow out of a heart that has taken a cold, hard look at itself; realized its desperate need; turned toward God; and called out for grace. The right fruit is the fruit of conversion. And someone who really got John's message, who stepped out and in again, would be overawed. Everything about Israel's faith and life would seem shiny and new. They'd approach everything with a dewy-eyed gratitude, because they'd see more clearly how dank and dark the alternatives are. And for that reason, none of the works of the Sadducees or Pharisees can be “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Because theirs is not a life of gratitude – at least, not for the right things. For what kinds of prayers might they pray? “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). And that's fruitless.

John invited members of the Jewish supreme court, it seems, to renounce their status and their self-conceptions, and to see themselves as the ones who should be on trial. But they couldn't bear to accept that ruling from John. They felt themselves good. They felt themselves confident. They felt themselves apart. So they were there to observe. And they were there to investigate. And maybe they might even softly approve – perhaps, after all, this message could help improve the rabble in need of its help. But they were hardly there to join.

And then we come to us. Ourselves. And too often, professing Christians have continued the legacy of those Sadducees and those Pharisees. We have seen ourselves as upstanding religious consumers who, at the most, just need some management tools. We consider the problems facing the church, or the problems facing the country, and it scarcely crosses our minds that the heart of the problem might be us. We've at times loved to see others get brought from vice toward virtue. But we consider ourselves already virtuous, hence in no need of being converted. And so it's easier for us to judge our neighbors for not measuring up to us. It's easier for us to see others out there as a social contagion – a criminal element in society, or a depraved element in society, or a simply lower-class element in society – and consider ourselves the ones innocently injured – burdened, really – by being tied to them by the social contract.

And so, when it comes to John's message, at times we can stand on the banks of the Jordan... but why? What for? Do we come as participants or as mere observers? Friends, it's so easy to come as mere observers, there to consume and evaluate. Many throughout history have done it every Sunday, after all. It's easy. Sit in a pew, watch the show, instinctively grade it, then go out for lunch. That may be our default setting.

And a Sadducee or Pharisee could manage the same thing. For that's essentially what they did when they came to John. It didn't much matter if they gave him a bad grade or a good grade. What matters is that they left unchanged. They left unrepentant. They left unbaptized. They came as observers, they left as observers, they never became real participants in what had happened. And when we encounter God's work and remain observers throughout, the same is true of us. Do we come as participants or as mere observers? Do we come chiefly to judge or chiefly to join? Are we snake-spawn in the church, snake-spawn in the country, or will we be converted into something fruitful?

It's not enough to be upstanding. It's not enough to be decent. It's not enough to be moral. It's not enough to be productive. It's not enough to show up. The Sadducees did that. The Pharisees did that. And then John called them mother-killing viper-babies in Satan's image, asked them what they were doing there as if trying to escape from the judgment God was sending on their account, and called them to be converted and come to life and bear real fruit for a change. Real fruit – not just the mechanical motions of morality, but the living texture of a life of humble gratitude, like a convert seeing the world with fresh eyes after a clear glimpse of the darkness within, newly committed to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

No, it isn't enough to come as an observer. It isn't enough to hear a thought and chew on it. “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). We have to come as participants. We have to join and personally apply it. Or rather, we have to come to God again and again as beggars, laying nothing to our credit but what he'll give us, nothing to our credit than the cross and risen life of Jesus Christ our gracious Lord. Nothing to our credit but the good news announced to us. Nothing but the gospel of the grace of God, which comes to us as to a brood of vipers but makes us sons and daughters of God – not so that we can kick back, not so that we can become passive observers, not so that we can be religious consumers, but so that we can come as participants who stand by grace alone, who look at the world with fresh eyes, and who bear fruit from a thankful heart of true repentance. What will you be?

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Desert Life: Sermon on Matthew 3:4-6

When it came to his enemies... one down, one to go. And he hadn't really had to lift a finger. Not that he took a great deal of satisfaction in any of it. He hadn't orchestrated this. He'd only said what his God told him to, and the rest had followed. Over a year earlier, Ahab, the mighty king of Israel, had gone into battle alongside his ally, Jehoshaphat, the king of southern Judah, against the Aramean king. The prophet Micaiah had warned Ahab not to, but Ahab was not one for listening to prophets. That was the problem. And Ahab had gotten himself shot through by an Aramean archer. They'd brought him back for burial, washed his bloody chariot by a pool in Samaria, and just as he'd been warned, dogs had licked up the blood (1 Kings 21:17—22:40).

His wicked queen Jezebel was still around. But she'd become the queen mother. One of her several sons, the hapless Ahaziah, had risen to the throne. But he was loyal, not to everything that made Israel Israel, but to all the things that made Ahab and Jezebel worthless to rule. Ahaziah “served Baal and worshipped him and provoked the LORD, the God of Israel” (1 Kings 22:53). During his days, Mesha, the king of Moab, had gone into rebellion against his Israelite overlords. Served Ahaziah right. And then, one day, pagan Ahaziah took a tumble from his rooftop to the ground below (2 Kings 1:2). Broke some bones, sustained internal injuries, had to be carried into a bed. He'd sent messengers to go seek a prophet's word to reassure him he'd be okay.

But he wanted a prophet for a Philistine god, the kind of god he liked, not the kind of God that had ushered his ancestors out of Egypt or shown them love. He didn't want the real God; he wanted a fly-speckled fraud. He sent his messengers on the way down to Ekron. But they didn't make it. A man intercepted them, scolding them all for abandoning Israel's covenant God. And the man promised that King Ahaziah would die. When the messengers came back, all they could do was say what the threatening man was wearing: “a garment of hair, with a belt of leather around his waist.” And Ahaziah had been around long enough to know it could only be one man: Elijah the Tishbite (2 Kings 1:1-8).

So the injured king, angry and desperate, sent a military unit to go drag Elijah down from his hill and force him to make a personal appearance. Elijah declined. And not politely. No, Elijah declined by promptly calling fire down from heaven, which devoured Ahaziah's soldiers. So Ahaziah sent another unit. And Elijah called down more fire. And so Ahaziah sent another unit. But instead of demanding Elijah's presence like the two who came before him, the third unit captain just begged Elijah to spare his life. So Elijah turned to the nearest angel, got confirmation he'd be okay, and went with them. Just so he could give the exact same message to Ahaziah that he'd given before – nearly word for word. And it came to pass. Ahaziah died (2 Kings 1:9-17).

Not long after that, Elijah took his disciple Elisha on a road trip, as it were. Down south. First to Bethel. Then to Jericho. Then to the banks of the Jordan River. They wanted to cross, so Elijah took off his hairy outer cloak and rolled it up and wapped the surface of the water with it – and just like that, the flow stopped and parted and they crossed over, out of the Land, reversing the journey of Joshua and the Israelites long ago. And then fire fell from heaven one more time – but not to destroy. No, fire fell from heaven like chariots and horses, all ablaze, and they whisked Elijah out of sight, from earth to somewhere else (2 Kings 2:1-14).

Through the years, prophets and rabbis and sages wondered what purposes God might still have for Elijah or for his legacy. The prophet Malachi explained that, before God's return in the fires of judgment to destroy evil on the Day of the LORD, Elijah would be sent to God's people, to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers,” so God would see something in Israel worth sparing (Malachi 4:5-6). In coming centuries, rabbis speculated just what Elijah might do when he came back. Some thought Elijah would use his prophetic wisdom to settle all their thorny questions about the Bible that they couldn't figure out how to answer. Some thought he'd use his prophetic wisdom to judge court cases. Some thought he'd re-establish the tribes of Israel, either sorting out messy marriages or reviving the records of family lines. Some thought Elijah would come to “compel insiders to become outsiders and outsiders to become insiders.” Some thought Elijah would come to establish peace on earth. Some thought Elijah would come to invite everyone to God.

Over eight centuries after the chariot of fire came down in the desert spaces near the banks of the Jordan to pick Elijah up, up, and away, a rather younger man – maybe 32 or 33 years old – came to a place like that. And his name was John. He came as a hairy man, a wilderness prophet, in a camel-hair shirt and a leather belt. In short, he came dressed like Elijah famously dressed (Matthew 3:4). And Jesus explained that this man, this John, was the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14) – the one Malachi talked about. John was the 'Elijah' of Malachi, sent to a wayward nation to call them back from going the way of Ahab and Ahaziah, one and all.

And, you know, John, walking the world in Elijah's shoes and Elijah's demeanor and Elijah's role, seems like he should have been an unattractive figure. Austere. Stern. Gaunt. Shabby-looking. Maybe frightening. What kind of breath do you think you'd have if you ate nothing but bugs and raw honey every day and had never seen a tube of toothpaste before? What aroma do you think you'd have if your only pair of clothes involved a shirt made of camel hair, and you were constantly getting it wet? And if a man were walking around today with that kind of breath and that kind of smell, refusing every meal that wasn't bugs and raw honey, with hair never cut and doubtfully combed, and he applied for a role preaching in just about any church in this country – how many do you think would give his application much thought before filing it in the little bin with the black disposable lining? When I was in college, there was a time some of my peers nicknamed me 'John the Baptist' – after all, I had hair past my shoulders, an austere demeanor, and a fiery and confrontational style. (I hope I at least dressed better and didn't have locust breath.) But if I truly looked and behaved like John the Baptist, what are the odds I'd be in this pulpit right now? Too often, we mentally domesticate John, the shaggy fellow preaching outdoors with a locust leg stuck in his teeth and flecks of honey stuck in his bushy beard. Who wants to listen to that guy – who wants to come close, to do anything but step to the other side of the street from him? The desert life wins no fashion contests, curries no favor, offers no opportunities for advancement.

But, Matthew tells us, John was paradoxically attractive. The crowds flooded out to him, from Jerusalem the great capital city, from the whole land of Judea, and even from Herod Antipas' dominions of Perea and Galilee. And that's very strange. There was something about John that drew people to him. I'm sure some initially went because he was a curiosity, a tourist stop – “Everybody, come get a look at the Astounding Preaching Hairball!” But then they heard his message and were hooked, like they'd forgotten what reality was, had learned to live off of simulations and counterfeits, until John force-fed them a taste of the real deal and their long-dormant appetites and tastes reactivated with a bang (Matthew 3:5).

In a world of pampered religious aristocrats, the priests and elders in their great finery, the Pharisees were well known and respected for their upright simplicity; but John was more self-denying than the hardiest Pharisee or even strict Essene. John was a wilderness prophet, true to Elijah's style. John lived fully 'off-the-grid,' as we say these days. We rely on other people, to some measure. When we want to eat, we go to the grocery store. We buy food that someone else butchered or cultivated or picked, and that still someone else shipped there, and that still someone else stocked there, and that still someone else will take our money in exchange for. Even if just in that, we rely on people – not to even mention the people who paved the roads that take us to the store that people built, using the gasoline that still other people refined from crude oil that yet other people drilled for. If we're paranoid enough, we might try to get 'off-the-grid' – get out into the woods, become self-sustaining on the land, no connections to public utilities.

But John took it so much further. So far that he wouldn't even accept food that he himself grew. Only food that no one provided but God, food that all John had to do was gather, and not a morsel more. And so, for the sake of total reliance on God and total communion with God, John gave up every creature comfort and every life's pleasure that could've been his. He never said every member of God's people would be called to such extremes of asceticism, of self-denial. But he served as a prophetic reminder of how far the range extended in that direction, how possible it is that our call is further in his direction than what we're prone to live, in our fancy connected houses with plenty on the table and plenty in the closet. And in his desert life, in his cashless existence, in his self-denial, he identified radically with the poor and the outcast. There's scarce a refugee or peasant or needy person in the world, be it city or desolate countryside, who owns truly less than John had. He lived like the utmost extreme of poverty, identifying with their pains and struggles. The prophet of the poor.

Yes, John was an ascetic amidst the pampered and the paupers. And, in a world of feel-good pieties, John was a fearless truth-teller – just like Elijah had been. Elijah hadn't cared what Ahab or Ahaziah wanted to hear. He had no interest in what message might be profitable. He took no thought for how to most gently and winsomely couch what he had to say. He was direct and to-the-point. Elijah announced harsh truths. And so did John. His was a message of judgment and repentance, 'turn or burn.' He offered hope, to be sure, but hope discovered on a rough road. Others in his day – they proclaimed messages of self-satisfaction or self-commendation. Some thought that everything was fine as it was, that the status quo was tolerable. Some thought that they had a quick and easy program for making Judea great again, through certain ritual or legal actions, and then God would act in predictable and controllable ways. But John was about the skies and the sands, the flood and the flame.

Today's religious and cultural atmosphere, at least as much so as in the age of Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, is rife with ear-tickling pleasantries. Ours is often proclaimed as a “post-truth culture,” from the halls of power politics to the media broadcast centers to the pulpits of the mass antichristian anti-sanctuaries to the endless cycles of rumors for the rabble. It's all ear-tickling. We hear a tale that we think confirms our preconceptions about how good we ourselves are, or how bad our opponents are, and we accept that as 'true.' We hear a tale that challenges our preferred narrative, and we reflexively denounce that as 'false.' The terms, as we see them, need have no significant relation to reality. It's all about maintaining the narrative. It's all about massaging the ego. It's all about feeding the desires full of advertising and artificial emotion. That's not just a liberal thing. That's not just a conservative thing. It's an American thing. It's a global thing. You'll find it as perilous among self-proclaimed patriots as among hardened anarchists and communists. You'll find it in gossip at the local diner, and you'll find it in the saccharine siren-songs of the trendiest pseudo-church. We have plenty of pundits who deceive themselves into thinking they're truth-tellers. But we have a dearth of honest-to-God truth-tellers.

But John was such a truth-teller, speaking forthrightly about sin and repentance, about damnation and salvation, not exempting himself, not holding himself out above everyone else, but cutting away every temptation to power and making himself a slave of his message – and of the Divine King whose messenger he was. And what was John's trumpet-blast of truth? He could have called down fire, like Elijah did. Elijah seemed to be calling down fire left and right, sometimes. But John said the fire was already on its way down. He wasn't the match. He wasn't the lighter. He wasn't the ignition. He was the alarm. And loud he'd sound, loud he'd sound, 'til all Israel had just one choice to make: knowingly heed or knowingly disregard.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to issue a public invitation: Turn to God, decisively and drastically. He told them there was no other way to do it than by becoming outsiders and then insiders all over again. So I guess you could say he compelled an Israelite remnant of insiders to become outsiders, then compelled these newly minted outsiders to become insiders. And so, like Joshua and the Israelites with the ark of the covenant and like Elijah and Elisha with the rough and scratchy cloak, John the Baptist took a micro-Israel under renewal through the waters of Jordan to the banks of the Promised Land.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, with prophetic wisdom to see into each person's situation and give them counsel. He told tax collectors to scam no one (Luke 3:12-13). He told soldiers to bully no one, extort from no one, gripe about their lousy pay to no one (Luke 3:14). He told the next-to-poorest peasant, a man with two shirts to his name and nothing more, to give the spare shirt to the bare-skinned fellow shivering down the road; and he told those on the verge of poverty to feed the still-hungrier with every morsel they could manage to keep alive without (Luke 3:11). And John had the credibility and moral authority to speak those words, given the desert life he led. For his desert life was a source of power.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to restore whole generations to covenant faithfulness, to a return to the Israel they should've been. He came to restore them by turning their hearts to one another, by giving them a common focal point: the God of Moses, the God of Sinai, the God of the Covenant, who was on his way to do a new thing. And so, to turn generations back to God, to restore them to healthy covenant standing, to make them ready to meet their Maker with a messianic face, he invited people to confess their sins and be baptized.

It sounds so simple. But it wasn't easy. When Matthew describes people as “confessing their sins” and being “baptized by him in the river Jordan” (Matthew 3:6), the word carries the sense of an open declaration. An act done without holding back. No reservations. No resistance. Just an honest admission that they were as guilty and impure and alienated as the most distant foreigner. Just a public statement that they accepted responsibility for Israel's problem. That they, and not the supposed 'villains' of the other factions in public life – they, and not some scapegoat they or their leaders had chosen – they, and not fate or chance or the logic of history – no, that they were what was wrong with their world. And then naming concrete ways that that was so – real things that they personally had done. Not a list of problems of their neighbors, from which the confessor could stand aloof. But their real own dirty laundry, brought into the open, displayed not with pride, not with defiance, but with true contrition. Confessing their sins. Dredging them up to the surface. And then, and only then, getting the bodily surface washed to start society over again from its birth.

In John's eyes, you see, there can be no renewal apart from vulnerability and honesty. And real vulnerability, real honesty, mean confession. Confession is what the desert life is all about. The desert life is the freedom to be unveiled, to be unmasked, to scream our shame in barren places – to hear all the most uncomfortable truths spoken aloud in our own syllables, in the most clarifying air. And so John called Israel to confess their sins. It's a wonder to me that people listened. That people did. But they did. They came to hear John. They felt the impact of his message. They encountered reality at last. They laid aside their pride and their defenses, they spurned the paths of self-satisfaction and self-justification, and they identified their own reflection as the blurry shadow blocking Israel from the light. They named their wrongs, keeping nothing in reserve under wraps, and named them as wrongs to be regretted and repented. They let John cast them as outsiders, treat them as foreign beggars, and then let John seize control and wash them clean and restore them to the Land like days of old. And if the way home meant coming close to bushy hair, disheveled clothes, burning eyes, locust breath, so be it.

And then there's us. Confronted with this wild man, this locust-breath man in the camel-hair clothes, this new Elijah for a new season of darkness – what should we do? What can we possibly take from him? We can learn to appreciate John the Baptist. He cannot be tamed. He cannot be sanitized. We've often tried to do that. But the wild man breaks through. And he points to a wild Christ. So must we. And if we have to get wilder to do it, so be it. If we have to set aside some creature comforts to better point to Christ, so be it. If we have to live more like poor and homeless exiles, so be it. If we have to live in less dependence on the safety net of society and in greater dependence on God, so be it. If we have to spend some time in the desert, so be it. Let our lives and words point to a wild Christ – wild with holy love.

And to do that, we need first to confess our sins. We need to stop pointing so many fingers at the evil out there, and start seeing our own reflection as the shadow. We need to name our own wrongs as wrong, holding nothing back, and admitting that, if we're to stand again after our fall, it can only be by grace. We need to confess our sins. And we need to recollect our baptism. Like those who heard John's message, we once had to be reckoned as full outsiders before, again by grace, we were brought through the water into the land. We had to be born again, regenerated through the washing with water by the word. There was no other way. And the Body of Christ is our new Israel; God is all our promise, and to him must you turn. The decisive act in your life was the day someone took you through the water, stood you back up as a spiritual Israelite in covenant with God through Christ, and told you to go conquer the worldwide land through the gospel. Because that, and nothing less, is what your baptism meant and means. Live by it, in the city or the desert, on the farm or on the road.

And then commit yourself to the truth. Ours is a good truth to tell, though – told well – it flatters none, least of all ourselves, but surely not those who yearn to be married to Death by the ministrations of Sin. But commit yourself to truth and only truth. See and tell, not the news of the hour, not the spin of this or that faction, but truth you've seen and known. And above all, the truth of the gospel – of Christ crucified and risen and coming again, the Christ who yearns to divorce us from Sin and Death so we can find a better Bridegroom in him. The truth, in short, that you confessed at baptism – that truth, do tell, tell always, like Elijah and John, no matter the Ahabs and Ahaziahs of the day. Only repent and live by faith in the Son of God – to him be the glory forever!