Friday, December 14, 2018

Redemptive Roundup (Matthew 3:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke

We are moving thirty years ahead from the Wise-Men’s trip to Bethlehem where they came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus. We find ourselves beside a stream with a man that has taken up the vocation of a prophet, in the spirit of Isaiah and Elijah. He is rough and stern. He demands transparency from those that come to him confessing and demanding baptism of purification. He warns them that the day of judgment is coming but that God is merciful. He goes on to tell them that being a child of Abraham is not enough to escape God’s eventual judgment. God is going to judge us from the heart and not by our ethnicity. He also tells them that one is coming to baptize them with the Holy Spirit which is much stronger and purer than what he is offering. In other words, they are in the vortex, the crucible of danger and they need to repent from their dishonorable ways. John the Baptist proclaims a message of preparation while being a formidable advocate for God and for the coming new world.

Why does Matthew draw us into this story on the heels of Jesus’ birth? It is simple. The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world is now on the brink of becoming real. The child is now coming into his own. He comes to John the Baptist demanding that John would baptize him. But why? Why would the chosen child need baptism? It is a complicated question, but it is a part of his purpose. Jesus is not coming to judge others; he is coming to love and let the love judge the hearts of others. John’s words burn with fear and apocalyptic intention. But when John says, “he will baptize with the Holy Spirit”, he is announcing a different kind of reason for repentance. That reason is that Jesus’ message will burn the hearts of people with his offer of love instead of his message of hellfire. Both have their place but Jesus wants to save people from themselves so they will be able to see God through a different prism.

Jesus’ purpose is to bring redemption to the world. John is rounding up all those who would listen to him. He pronounced a future where God will sift people through his truth and there will be people who will be found wanting. When religious leaders would come he wasn’t really excited. Before they came to offer their repentance he said, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His point was unless you change your behavior you will have no part of this new redemptive world. Don’t count on being a Jew to save you. Those days are over.

This message is a far cry from the stories of Jesus’ birth that are filled with hope. There are no angels announcing “peace on earth” to people of good will in John’s message. Even when he announces “the one coming that is greater than I” it seems as though he is presenting someone who will be more exacting in their judgment on others. But what do the words mean “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Redemption is not complete unless people change. Confession is not enough. By baptizing people in the Holy Spirit Jesus is opening up their hearts through the spirit of truth. The Holy Spirit is truth. What John is getting at and what Jesus demonstrates is the building of a community that is based on humility. The spirit of truth stands before them and they are judged by their own convictions. In this way Jesus’ judgment is greater than John’s. It is also more impactful in the world. By Jesus creating people that stand under their own judgment through the spirit of truth the world then has a chance at peace.

We all know from experience that when we are confronted with the depth of our sinful self, realizing the pain we have caused, we are our most exacting judges. The gift of the spirit is the gift of life because it is the gift of freedom. So John is right that Jesus’ judgment in some way is more powerful. His judgment comes with the possibility of real change in people’s lives and therefore opens up the possibility of the experience of redemption here and now. After all, redemption is the experience that our sins are forgiven. The spirit of truth is not only revelatory but it is healing as well. When the spirit comes into our life we not only hear the words of condemnation, but we hear the words of forgiveness. Thus begins a life of renewal and hope. This is the purpose of the Christ child. He brings peace on earth because he brings truth and forgiveness.

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