WHO HAS THE PROBLEM: JOHN THE BAPTIST OR HIS HEARERS?
Matthew 3: 1-12
(Second Sunday in Advent)
analysis by Bob Bertram


1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" 4Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."


DIAGNOSIS: Washed Out

Step 1-Initial Diagnosis: Repenting, Sort of
At a minimum, the characters in this text who have a problem are John's hearers, and it is with them at least that we hearers are expected to identify. And the most conspicuous problem which both groups of hearers (they and we) have in common is, as Matthew says, our "sins" (v. 6). They knew that, we know that. That's why they went out to be baptized, that's why we're here in church this morning: "confessing their [our] sins," repenting -- sort of.

Step 2-Advanced Diagnosis: Impenitent-Phoniness
But the deeper problem, for those hearers and for ourselves, is that our confessing of sin, our repentance, bombs. It never comes to fruition in "fruit that befits repentance" (v. 8). The reason our repentance fails is that it is phoney. For our real trust, like that of the Pharisees and Sadducees, continues to be in our own religious observances or our religious tradition. "We have Abraham as our father." And if folks like us weren't out here at the Jordan getting baptized, or here in church this morning, what would God do for "children?" (v. 9) So we believe. Or disbelieve.

Step 3-Final Diagnosis: Locked in Impenitence
And where there is no real repentance, the coming Lord and his "kingdom of heaven" cannot enter. As impenitent phoneys, even though we may be baptized, we are for the approaching Lord a roadless, pothole-pocked, impassable wilderness (vv. 2,3). Instead of the coming Lord there will be only "the wrath to come" (v. 7). What's more, telling us that-as John does and as any preacher of Christ must also do at the very least-only makes us worse, not truly penitent at all. NOTE: But now it is John the Baptist, the preacher, who has a problem-no longer just his hearers. And so do we preachers today have the same problem, if we can preach only what John did, only his "brood of vipers" message and no more. For that alone will never evoke genuine repentance. That alone is a baptism of mere water, mere drowning (v.11). On the other hand, however, we dare not preach less than John did, which today is probably our much greater temptation. Really, as the Lutheran Confessions knew, the two temptations-legalism and antinomianism, to preach only the Law and to preach less than the Law-are but two sides of the same coin. John sensed his quandary (vv.11-14). Even then, suspicion persists, Was he himself ever one of Jesus' followers? Until death? (See chapters 9 and 11, specifically the gospel lesson for next Sunday.)



PROGNOSIS: Cleansed Through and Through

Step 4-Initial Prognosis: One Coming After Us
But now how about that One who "is coming after" John, that Jesus for whom John the Baptist is but the advance man? Well, as John tells it, this Jesus will complete in us the penitential project which John himself could barely begin. But what John does not say and what we must supply from the rest of the gospel is that this Jesus can do what he does in us only because of what he first of all does for us: suffer himself to be "cut down and thrown into the fire" on our behalf (v. 10). That, whether John knew it or not, is what makes Jesus "mightier" than John (v.11).

Step 5-Advanced Prognosis: True Repentance
Consequently, what Jesus then does in us is to free us (not coerce us) to do two things better than John ever could: a) Jesus will cauterize away -- "with fire," "with unquenchable fire" (vv. 11, 12) which he himself endured first -- the sin ("the chaff') which John could only dampen; b) Jesus will replace the sinners' mortified selves with new living selves ("the wheat") by means of his "Holy[ing] Spirit" (v. 11). "B" was exactly what John could not provide. But without "b" there is no "a," either. No repentance without faith.

Step 6- Final Prognosis: True Repentants, Truly Absolved
So then, in our overt religious behavior, we still come out to be baptized, to confess our sin, to make public repentance, but no longer as a merely external observance or to perpetuate our religious traditions. Now our repenting -- and our being absolved! -- is a public replay of what Christ himself does both for us in us. Because our doing is first of all his doing, we are as purged of our sin and as revived by his Spirit as he himself was put to death and raised again. As we believe, so we are, both inside and out.

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