2 Advent Proper A2
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 3:1-12 Sermon
December 7, 2010
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
14 "Rejoice All Ye Believers"
9 "Prepare The Way, O Zion"
4 "On Jordan's Banks The Baptist's Cry"
11 "O How Shall I Receive Thee"
TREASURE FROM UNLIKELY SOURCES
TEXT (vs. 7-10): “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. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.'"
At Washington, DC's Union Railway Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, there was a man dressed in older clothing. He was working as a busker, which is a person we sometimes call a "street musician." He stood there with his violin, and played six Bach pieces for over 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.
At 4 minutes, the violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in his open violin case and, without stopping, continued to walk.
At 6 minutes, a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
At 10 minutes, a 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. Several other children repeated this action, but every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
At 45 minutes, the musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32 in his open violin case.
After 1 hour, he finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all, and nobody expressed any appreciation.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him perform the very same music he was performing outside of Union Station.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in Union Station in Washington, DC, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.
This is an interesting story. Here was one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful and expensive instruments ever made, and what happened? The people looked past everything, and saw a lowly busker, somebody who was trying to scrape together a few dollars by playing music on the streets of Washington, D. C.
They couldn't see past the situation. If they had stopped to listen, they would have discovered that this man was no ordinary busker. And if anybody had knowledge of music or musical instruments, they didn't look close enough to see that this man was a professional musician playing some extremely difficult pieces of music on a very expensive violin.
As we get into our Gospel lesson for today, we are introduced to a cousin of Jesus, a man by the name of John the Baptist. And what an interesting man John was.
John was commissioned by God himself to do his work. He was to preach repentance, and to proclaim that the Saviour was going to be coming very soon. He was the forerunner of Christ, as Scripture says, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord." John was fulfilling prophecy.
For the most part, John's ministry was successful. He was preaching in the desert regions of Judea, and many people were coming out to hear him. He was telling them that the Saviour was coming, and that they needed to be ready. The whole religious world was about to be turned upside-down by Jesus, and God's people would finally see the fulfillment of some very old prophecy, as explained in the Scriptures.
I said that John's ministry was successful for the most part, because in our Gospel lesson for today, we meet up with the Pharisees. The Pharisees would have been well aware of Old Testament prophecy, and the coming Messiah, and the one who would prepare his way.
Now the Pharisees hadn't been present to hear what John was preaching, but considering the immense popularity he had in the region, they certainly knew that he existed. They couldn't just ignore him like they did with the various heathen religions practiced amongst the people, because he was a Jew. He was preaching about the God professed in the Scriptures, which meant that he was getting personal with them. In their mind's eye, he was trespassing in their private religious realm; so they wanted to investigate what was happening.
John was nothing like they would have expected a prophet of God to be. He had no permanent residence, and lived an itinerant lifestyle. His home was the wilderness. He fashioned clothing out of camel's hair, most likely to keep him warm. He had a leather strap around his waist to hold it all in place. He had also taken the Nazarite vow for his life, which meant that he could never shave or have a haircut. It's safe to say that he was rugged and unkempt. It sounds almost like somebody we would expect to be living under a bridge someplace.
And his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. We know what wild honey would be like, but locusts? I know I've mentioned before that the locusts spoken about here were probably not insects, like the cicadas we hear singing in the trees on a summer's night. What John ate with this wild honey was most likely the pods from the locust tree. These pods have a taste something like chocolate, so it wouldn't have been so bad.
However when you take everything into consideration, John had to have been someone the likes of which these Pharisees had never dealt with before. A rough and ruddy backwoodsman with strange clothing and an odd diet--well, God would never send somebody like this to do his work, now would he?
And so they investigate John. They have found out where he was, and they now go and see him. He was stirring up the people, and making a nuisance of himself as far as the Pharisees were concerned. You can bet that they were going to get to the bottom of all this, if for no other reason than to get him to stop this foolish preaching of repentance he was doing. With him out of the way, then life could get back to normal again.
One other thing that we should note, is that they are coming after John without getting the full gist of his message. They assembled whatever bits and pieces they could from the rumor mill, and coupled that with their rather limited contact with John, and went at him with guns blazing.
John wasn't going to have any of this. They weren't going to get him to back down from doing God's work. So he goes right for the jugular, right from the start. Verses 7-8 of our Gospel lesson record John's words: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance."
John's metaphor is well-placed. These Pharisees were no better than a bunch of snakes, looking for somebody to attack and release their venom. They could say all of the right words, but their lives were anything but God-pleasing. All of their self-righteousness and pietism might have been impressive on the outside, but on the inside they were, as Jesus puts it in Matthew chapter 23 verse 27: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean." You can be certain that John agreed with that assessment.
John was also talking about a rather unpopular subject. The condemnation of sin is not what most people like to hear about. We can all turn on the TV news and see many examples of sin. There are robberies, burglaries, murders, rape, vandalism, and the list goes on. We can hear about all of that, shake our heads, and go "tsk, tsk, tsk...such sinful activity! What's this world coming to?"
And it's true. None of us have really done anything to rate exposure on the news. And so when it does happen, we look at those who perpetrate such crimes with disdain. It was just 3 years ago that the horrible shooting occurred at the Von Maur department store in the Omaha Westroads. It was a shocking situation that took us all by surprise.
It's one thing to look at the sinful world, but it is quite another when we are asked to look within the depths of our own soul. So when John is preaching, he gets deep down and personal with everybody. And that's an area where the Pharisees just didn't want to go.
John was very good at doing this. If we skip ahead to Matthew 14, we can read the account of John before King Herod. Herod had wanted Herodius for his wife, however she was married to Herod's brother Phillip. So, Herod had Phillip killed so he could have Herodius for his own wife.
John calls him out on this, telling him that what he did was not only unethical, but also unlawful. Even though Herod was fascinated by John and wanted him alive, Herodius was furious. She schemed to have John killed, and succeeded by having his severed head delivered to Salome on a platter.
None of us really appreciate having our sins brought to our attention. It's unpleasant, it's uncomfortable, and it's usually embarrassing. I don't think that any one of us would like our souls bared for all to see. I know I wouldn't.
But the reality of sin is only part of what John was preaching. John wanted people to be ready for the Saviour, the one who would come after him, the one who would pay the price for sin so all of humanity could stand before God cleansed of the rot that sin has created. The focus was not on John, but on Jesus; and John was pointing the way of faith that would mean a blessed eternity for all believers.
This was a message of love and hope. Instead of approaching life with a resignation of despair, a person could now have a bright horizon ahead. That's what faith in Jesus Christ does. If a person looks at the end of a life that has been filled with unrepentant sin, then the future only holds fear and eternal death. However when a person comes to Jesus in faith, they will know without a doubt that all of their sins have been forgiven. They will know that a future life in heaven is an absolute guarantee. John's message was to bring people to know their Saviour and welcome him into their lives.
At the beginning, I shared the story about Joshua Bell, one of the most gifted violinists in the world today. Standing out in public at Union Station in Washington, D.C. he was regarded as nothing more than a common busker, even though he was flawlessly playing some of the most complicated music on a very expensive instrument. The people tuned out the beauty of his performance because they just couldn't get past their preconceived notions about him being a street busker. So the talents of this very gifted man fell on deaf ears. It was something beautiful from an unlikely source.
John was also an unlikely source. He was unlike any of the religious people of his day. He didn't live in an ivory tower; instead he lived in the wilderness. He didn't wear the accepted religious garb; instead he dressed in camel fur fastened by a leather belt. He didn't feast on the fatted calf and drink expensive wine; instead his diet was locusts and wild honey.
But the words he had to say were beautiful. The Messiah was coming, the one promised from long ago. This Messiah would bring to pass what the prophet Isaiah says in Chapter 61 verses 1-3: "1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor."
And so, in your own lives, prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight to your heart. Don't shut him out. Experience the love, the hope, the forgiveness, and the new life he offers. Hear the words of the Gospel that proclaims the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ.
And always remember to share the faith that you have. Maybe people will think of you as an unlikely source sometimes, but just remember you have something beautiful happen that Jesus has done for you. This eternal hope is for all who believe, but especially for you.