A Sermon/Homily on Matthew 3:1-12

John leads to Jesus in much the same way Yoda leads to Darth Vader. (Go with me on this analogy. Jesus is not Darth Vader.)

Luke Skywalker wants to be a Jedi like his father but he can’t get there unless he goes through both Yoda and Darth Vader. Yoda is a rite of passage that points him to the one person he must confront to be truly considered a Jedi in his own right, Darth Vader (who also happens to be his father). But you get my point, all roads to your own light saber lead through Yoda.

It’s a little like that at Advent/Christmas. We can’t get to Jesus, at Bethlehem, without going to meet and spend time with the wild man Yoda of the Jordan River, John the Baptizer. When you encounter John, you’ll also encounter your Father (e.g. “this is my son, I’m pleased with him, listen to him…)

There are several roads to Jesus at Advent/Christmas.

They all begin in Galilee (the North/Nazareth) and lead to Bethlehem (in the South).

You can’t get to Jesus without going through this encounter first and then seeing Jesus:

Gabriel delivered the message

Jesus’ mother, Mary (an unwed, teenage mother)

Joseph (Jesus’ stepdad, a man doing the right thing)

Mary’s family, specifically Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother)

Shepherds outside Bethlehem

And ultimately:

John the Baptist

You must go through all these people, at some point, in one way or another, to get to Jesus.

Not like obstacles on a quest, but people whose purpose is to help you stay on course.

They play a crucial role in the essential story.

Unless we meet them, hear them, and understand them, when we finally meet Jesus, it’s not the most complete, total, joyous experience it is intended to be.

We may not even make it to Jesus on our own. When we meet these people, they keep us on the right path toward Jesus; they say, “No, you need to go that way; he’s just down there.” Will we listen?

John is the main guy pointing the way to Christ. He is a sign and a symbol. He points to something else and gives directions.

He unmistakably grabs your attention. (e.g., Beethoven’s 5th four opening notes. You know him anywhere.)

When you hear John and John’s message, it can be only John.

He takes the themes and ideas of the ancient prophets, particularly someone like Isaiah, and weaves and into something new and unforgettable. It holds you. Pay attention to what John is saying. Don’t read along with the old scriptures, this is something new. He’s not your grandfather’s prophet. If you want someone to do it “the way we’ve always done it before” John is not your guy.

However, he does have this in common with his prophetic ancestors: he’s not afraid of poking the bear and being controversial.

He purposely offends the religious professionals who trek to the Jordan River to hear him preach.

Self-righteous holy rollers who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.

John attracted people from all parts of society; rich, poor, dirty, clean, women, and men.

What connected them was that the traditional religious establishment rejected them.

You can’t look away from John. You are familiar with his message, but it sounds completely new. You wonder, is it this guy? No, he says, someone else is coming.   

(He wants you to pay complete attention to him.)

So, to review: To get to Jesus, we go through John (and others). John’s message is unique and definable.

Specifically, what’s his message? Repentance. John is all about repentance.

Repentance isn’t just saying sorry or a fancy word for a New Year’s resolution (e.g., a new habit.)

Repentance is a systemic life change. John is talking about altering the entire direction of your life, fully turning from one way or path, and going down a new approach.

Stop what you’re doing, change your behavior, and then start something else in the opposite direction: this is the essence of repentance. Sure, many small factors might lead to such a significant change, but that’s not what John meant.

John asked people to change the totality of their lives and then announce that change before the whole community through an act of ritual purification, what we call Baptism.  

Repentance is not supposed to be easy. It is a living, ongoing, organic process. If we step back and look at the world and think about repentance, it’s overwhelming to consider our collective and corporate sins. So much so that it’s easy to stop and utter a few flowery religious cliches about addressing “global poverty,” “climate justice,” “and racism” and think we’ve done our part to repent for our collective sins. We’ve done nothing at all. That’s the “Brood of Vipers” style religion John is railing against.

If we’re doing it right, repentance should begin with serious self-reflection. “If I’m going this new way, I can no longer be this way or carry these things with me that tie me to this old direction. I need to get certain things off my chest and undo anything that keeps me from turning.”

What do I want to repent of this week (and beyond)?

  1. Some things we need to repent of are personal. Who have we hurt, offended, or wronged? Is there something we need to make right in our personal lives to set us on a course to intersect with Jesus at Bethlehem today, tomorrow, and Christmas eve? Suppose we don’t repent of these minor (or even significant) personal issues. Are we going to be off course, like Magi (didn’t they miss him by nine miles or so?), with gifts intended to be given to the Christ child but constantly wandering around in circles and off course? Kind of like Smoky Bear, only you know what you need to repent from. I can’t tell you what to repent for.
  2. Sometimes, we need to repent of collective sins. Churches and church communities need to repent. We needed to be pointed back toward Jesus. Can you imagine a swimming pool or a river wide enough to fit all of us? Yes, that’s a funny image, but institutions also need to repent. What do we need to repent from? You tell me. I’ve got a few ideas. Nobody’s perfect. We can always be better neighbors and more loving to each other as Christians and our community.
  3. Once we repent, we want to stay repented. That’s the real challenge. You’ve changed course now. What do you have to do to immediately not go back off course? Repentance is not the uttering of “magic words” and expecting our lives to change without work or effort.
  4. Adjust your declination (Magnetic north and true north). If you’re backpacking, that could put you off anywhere from 100 feet to 1 mile off course. Adjust for being on the right spiritual path so you don’t start going further and further off course.
  5. Orient your map.
  6. Find a bearing, take a bearing, and move toward your new destination.
  7. Regularly check your bearings along the way. Make sure you’re still on the right path toward repentance.
  8. Repentance is about checking your bearings and being aware of your surroundings.

That’s how you’ll end up in the place where Jesus is waiting for you to arrive.

If we listen to cousin John and follow his path and instructions, this is how we’ll get to Jesus.

John is our unmistakable compass. He grabs your attention. You know you are listening to John. No one else sounds like John He’ll give us our bearings. He tells us how to repent. What we repent of, the thing we change, that’s up to us. You make that call. The hard work is up to us and will lead us to Jesus. Will we listen? Will we change?