This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Second Sunday of Advent. The gospel text was Matthew 3:1-12.
Oh, here we go. It’s the second Sunday of Advent, two and a half weeks until Christmas, and so of course whom do we meet? Mary and Joseph? The angel Gabriel? Nope. John the Baptist. Every year. Hairy old John the Baptist, wearing his camel hair, eating his bugs, and shouting at us all, “Repent, you bag of snakes!” Yeah, Merry Christmas to you too, buddy.
But then again, John wasn’t always yelling at people. At the beginning of the story, he was positive and hopeful. He challenged people, all the people of Jerusalem and Judea to change their hearts and minds, which is what repent means, because God’s kingdom was coming!” And when they came out to him, they confessed their sins to him, And he baptized them, so they would be ready when the kingdom came. That’s actually kind of nice.
But then John’s style changed, because then came the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And John had something special for them. He still called them to repent, to change their hearts. But he didn’t believe that’s why they were there. He shouted at them. He called them nasty names. He warned them that the ax is coming that will chop them down. That Jesus would come for them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
So the question is: which of John the Baptist’s messages is for us? “Come and get ready for the kingdom! Come on in, the water’s fine?” Or, “Who do you think you are, you brood of vipers? Get out of here!” The question is, are we like the Pharisees and Sadducees?
Well, let’s discuss who those two groups of people were. The Sadducees were the religious elite, the high priests, the professionals who made their living in the Jewish faith. They were, in essence, the clergy. They were the ruling class in the temple hierarchy, they were tempted to believe that they were God’s special people. That God gave them their position and their glory because they deserved it. They were always tempted to believe that God needed them more than they needed God. Which was really a way of saying they were better than God.
And then there were the Pharisees. Now, the Pharisees were not clergy. But they were super-religious lay people. Pharisees knew every commandment, every rule, every jot and tittle in the law. And they followed it, to the letter. They washed their cookware in very specific ways. They didn’t touch certain things or certain people. They were scrupulous in everything. And they didn’t do anything on the Sabbath day except go to worship and complain about their neighbors who broke the laws. And they were tempted to believe it was their hard work, and rule-following, that made God love them. And that made them better than everyone else.
So the Pharisees are tempted to believe they are better than other people, and the Sadducees are tempted to believe they are better than God. These are the people who are scolded by John the Baptist. The religious arrogant. The faithful leaders and faithful followers who are constantly tempted to follow only themselves. For as different as the Sadducees and Pharisees were, and for as much as they despised each other, they had that in common. They were both tempted to trust only in themselves.
And I will be honest. There are times when I do the same thing. There are times when I feel like I’ve got everything figured out, and I don’t really need to ask for God’s help in something. And there are times when I really feel superior to other people. I don’t know if you hear yourself in this story or not, but I do. And I think I understand why John had to speak so directly, even offensively, to these religious types. Because it took that much to break through to them. Oh, it was easy for John to convince the average folk. Just tell them that God loved them, that they were important, and that what they did was important. That was great news to them. They were so happy to know that change was possible, that they could be saved. That they could be loved. They understood the grace they were receiving. But the folks who were already super-religious? They had to hear, in no uncertain terms:
“Hey you! Yes, you! What makes you think you’re ready for God’s grace? You think you already have it? That you deserve it? You can’t purify yourself, you know. Do you hear me? You can’t do it yourself. But the one who is coming can. The one who is coming will burn away everything in your life that keeps you from him. And you’ll have to let go of a lot, you know that? You know that this is about trust, right? Trusting not in yourselves. Trusting not in me. But trusting in the one who is coming.”
And the message of Advent for us, I think, is the same message. Because I think that sometimes we are the simple folk who just need to hear that God loves us. God does, you know. I just want to remind you of that in case you’ve forgotten. God does love you. But sometimes, we are the Pharisees and Sadducees, the ones who think we’ve got this religion thing all figured out, the ones who start feeling smug that we know all about God and have God in a box. Advent reminds us that the one who is coming will baptize us with fire. The one who is coming will produce good fruit in us. The one who is coming will move heaven and earth to reach us. Will tear apart anything standing between us, even if what stands between you and him is you. The one who is coming, the one we are waiting for so expectantly, so impatiently, so joyfully, is everything. And the fire of his baptism is the light of the world.
Christmas is coming. Christ is coming. Your salvation is coming. Mine too.