A Voice Still Calling in the Wildnerness
John the Baptist was one of the most significant Bible characters. To begin with, he is mentioned more often in the gospels than any other character except Jesus and his inner circle (Peter, James and John). OK, I grant the point that he isn't mentioned much (or at all) after the gospels. But then he does receive a rather ringing endorsement from Jesus, "Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matt 11:11). John was the "voice crying in the wilderness" who prepared the way of the Lord (Matt 3:3), essentially developing a large following who would then become followers of Jesus (John 3:30). But we learned in in our reading today from Matthew 3, John was not ONLY concerned with gathering a following:
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (Matthew 3:7-9)
That seems harsh, doesn’t it? John is finally ready to hit the big time and attract a following among the religious leaders who have the influence to put his ministry on the map. The problem was that these religious leaders were coming to John either simply out of curiosity or to participate in the outward ritual of his baptism. They were more concerned about their status ("Abraham as our father") than they were with humbling themselves before God. So John lets them have it with both barrels. He calls them a "brood of vipers" and he then demands that they produce the fruits of repentance before they are baptized. John's message had been summarized as "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matt 3:2). Before these religious leaders could participate in the kingdom of heaven, they had to humble themselves and repent.
So why didn't they? Why was repentance such a problem for the Pharisees and Sadducees that John blasts them like this? Simple: they didn't think they needed to repent! After all, they were the holy and chosen ones who carried the traditions of the fathers. They weren't perfect-- only God is perfect-- but they were the faithful ones with the right morals, the right religion and the right rite. No shaggy-bearded, camel-hair-wearing bug eater was going to tell them that they had to repent!
Rule of Thumb: Any time you hear Jesus (or in this case John the Baptist) talking to the Pharisees, pay attention— he is talking to you! Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we come with a received religious tradition that assures us that we have the truth, are accepted by God and are the children of God (which trumps being the children of Abraham any day of the week and twice on Sunday). It is that tradition and that identity that can make it hard for us to realize when we need to repent and change. For example, why were so many white churches so slow on the uptake to realize their need for change during the civil rights movement? Well, it never dawned on them that racism and segregation was something that they needed to repent of and change. Some still don’t realize that and a lot of other things as well. It’s not that we aren't willing to repent—we haven’t gotten nearly that far. We haven't realized that we are even being called to repent! Just like the Pharisees and Sadducees.
God is calling us to the kingdom of heaven today, but that invitation still comes with the challenge to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” We cannot be pen to the voice of God unless we are willing to repent and then live repented.