Matthew 3:1-12, “A Crucial Confrontation”
In 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.”
When I was 16 years old, I worked bagging groceries at Food City, a grocery store in Knoxville. I spent my weekends and several week days bagging groceries and doing chores around the store. I liked the job because it was easy and because I made new friends and met a lot of people that I never would have encountered anywhere else. At one point we got a new manager who was a young guy, maybe only 18 years old. One night, he decided to “mess with me” and assigned me all the chores to do even though we had several people working that night. I went up to the manger’s desk and told him that he had to be kidding, and he said, no, all the chores are for you to do tonight. So begrudgingly, I worked hard all night completing all the chores until my back ached, including taking out the trash and scrubbing toilets, and at the end of the night, I found myself sitting outside on the sidewalk in tears. A friend and co-worker saw me and came over to see what was going on- he then confronted the manager who told him that he was just trying to play a joke on me…a joke that turned out to not be so funny. Looking back on that experience, I know that I should have stood up to him more, confronting him in a way where both of our voices were heard and that he would learn that as a manager, it is not okay to “mess with” your employees and overwork them for no reason. A crucial confrontation was needed that night- truth telling on both sides and lessons learned.
If you’re anything like me, you don’t like confrontations. Not many of us do. But sometimes a confrontation is necessary in order to mend relationships, solve problems, and move forward. There is a business book out right now called Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Talking About Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior in which the authors talk about how we can best deal with conflict, confrontation, and how to strengthen relationships through healthy confrontation and conversations. A crucial confrontation then, is to hold someone accountable face to face where both parties talk openly and honestly, problems are solved, and relationships benefit. All of us could probably learn a lot from what it means to have a healthy crucial confrontation.
Today, we could learn a lesson or two from John the Baptist on the importance of a crucial confrontation, because it seems he holds nothing back while preparing the way for the Messiah in the wilderness. Who is this mysterious man who appears in the wilderness looking wild with his camel hair clothing, eating locusts and honey, who is baptizing people left and right, proclaiming a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins? The Gospel of Matthew does not give us much background for John, but Luke gives us a little more of a picture of John before his ministry that gives us a better understanding of John’s importance and purpose. In Luke’s gospel, we meet Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah the priest, who is not able to have children. But in her old age, she is able to conceive with the help and providence of God. When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah the priest, we learn that John will be great in the sight of the Lord, will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and will turn many people back to God. With the spirit and power of Elijah the prophet, he will go before the people to prepare them, to preach a repentance of sin, and to pave the way for the Lord and the kingdom of God.
All grown up and having lived in the wilderness, John is definitely not a warm and fuzzy character in scripture, but he plays a key role in the unfolding narrative of Jesus and his ministry in preparing the people to receive their savior. John did not have an easy life- living in the less than ideal conditions by choice, probably an orphan at a young age since his parents were older in years, and the way in which he died- beheaded by King Herod. John was not afraid of taking risks and speaking the truths of God- after all, he lived his life devoted to paving the way, to teaching people about the need for repentance and forgiveness, to turn away from sin and turn toward Jesus. Some believe that John was part of the Essene community, the monastics of the ancient world- often living in remote locations or in caves, the Essenes devoted themselves to voluntary poverty, prayer, study and writing of the scriptures, and daily ritual cleansings with water to purify the body and spirit. If John was an Essene, it would have been no surprise to his audience that he was proclaiming cleansing of the spirit through baptism.
John really comes out swinging! He appears in the wilderness ready for a crucial confrontation with anyone who would listen- by standers, onlookers, Jews, non-Jews, those participating, those not participating, and of course, the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Some probably looked upon him with awe, some probably laughed and thought he was crazy, some might have run into the water to be baptized, while others were more hesitant. When the Pharisees approach the waters for baptism, John calls them out for their false piety and their unwillingness to practice what they preach. He accuses them of talking the talk but not walking the walk. He implores them to realize that simply being a Jew descended from Abraham is not enough- they must recognize their sin, they must confess that they have not made room for repentance and truth, to admit that they have been stuck in their ways and have closed their ears, eyes, and hearts to the messages of God- only then will they truly be prepared to welcome the Lord in their midst. John the Baptist confronts them and calls them out on the harsh truths that they have been unable to see for themselves. Did they listen? Did they respond? We are not told, but we do know that Jesus continues to confront them on many of the same issues throughout the Gospels- they are unable to see that Jesus brings a message that will turn the world upside down- they are unable to receive the truth because they cannot see beyond their own piety and “the way things have always been.” They are not open to hearing something new and life-giving.
John’s crucial confrontation with his hearers and the Pharisees still applies to us today. He was especially hard on the religious leaders, but those standing by on the shores of baptism also heard a message in his confrontation- that we are being called to repent- to confront our sins and turn toward Jesus. John is trying to make it easier on us by preparing us for what is to come- the waters of baptism are cleansing, smooth, refreshing- but the one who is to come baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and fire- awakening our senses beyond anything we have ever experienced before- we must be ready with open hearts to receive him.
Perhaps our crucial confrontation during this Advent season is about the ways in which we have turned away from God and have not walked the walk as disciples of Christ. Perhaps a crucial confrontation will come in the form of mending a broken relationship with someone or confessing your mistakes to a friend or family member. Perhaps it is telling someone a difficult truth out of love or concern. Our crucial confrontations also bring us face to face with God and evaluating how God’s grace can change our hearts and lives so that we continue to become better people. When we open ourselves to the sometimes difficult truths about our faith, when we confess our sins and imperfections to our loving God, we open ourselves to receive the promise of unending love, grace, and mercy that flows through us like the waters of baptism.
And finally, a crucial confrontation might be the one we need to have with ourselves- when we come to terms with the ways that we have not lived up to our full potential as human beings, the ways in which we have been selfish, prideful, or hurtful- the ways in which we have let someone down- the ways in which we have let God down. In fact, the most crucial confrontation is the one we have with ourselves- the one that is helped, shaped, and mended by God’s grace.
Corey and I recently found out that a friend and classmate of ours from seminary has been incarcerated for a crime. At the time of his arrest, he had a wife and two foster children, and was serving as pastor of a church. We were in shock upon hearing of this news, which came in the form of a letter that he had written to his seminary friends. When I opened it and began to read, I was amazed by what he said about his sorrow for what he had done and that in the midst of hitting bottom- in the midst of thinking he was done with God, he was surprised to find that God was not done with him. That no matter what, God gives us the opportunities to come back to God, even in our darkest hour, even in our deepest despair, even when we confront our own mistakes, our own evils, our own sins. He wanted his friends to know that if anything, he is a cautionary tale to all of us- that we must remain vigilant in our choices, our lives, and our ministries so that self-deception does not become overpowering. Instead, we must lean on one another for help and support, and through the grace of God, be alert to those crucial moments where we must choose in which direction to go. We must be able and willing to confront the weaknesses in ourselves before it might be too late.
At the heart of the Advent story, we hear John the Baptist, the wild camel hair wearing locust and honey eating preacher, proclaiming a message of repentance, forgiveness, and mercy as he prepares the way for Jesus. He calls each of us, then, to a crucial confrontation with our own sins, mistakes, and wrongdoings. Wild John can be difficult to accept- he’s strange, maybe scary to some, and surely a mystery to all. He brings a shocking and challenging message, but provides us with a crucial confrontation that can change our lives forever, if only we have ears to hear and receive it. Our challenge then is to respond with acceptance rather than fight the confrontation or avoid it altogether. Our challenge is to open our hearts to receive the message with grace and to respond with the way we will go about preparing ourselves for the kingdom of God. So will we confront John? Our own sins? Each other? so that we might begin to prepare the way for the Lord, cleansing our lives, souls, and selves to be ready to accept the forgiveness that he offers as we are called to prepare the way on this Advent journey. Amen.