In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to 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 he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
“No, get out of my house and don’t come back until I say you may!” Her eyes flashed as she spoke these words to her son. She was not without her reasons. He was addicted to drugs and, like many people suffering with such an addiction, he had disappointed, betrayed, and stolen from her. Still, I thought it was a little harsh. But she knew what she was doing better than I did at the time. Not only was she protecting herself, but she really did have his best interests in mind. She was looking for results, or as John says in this passage from Matthew, “fruit in keeping with repentance.” She knew that acceptance and forgiveness given to the impenitent is far worse than rejection and isolation. Such forgiveness affords neither the forgiven nor the forgiver a blessing, only greater suffering to come.
All the Gospels, Matthew included, indicate that the crowds that flocked around John the Baptist were noteworthy. “Jerusalem and all Judea” had come to hear what this strangely dressed and wild-eyed preacher had to say. Even the religious leaders had found their way to the Jordan to hear him. But what they heard! John’s words to them are fierce and terrifying. Yet, I sometimes wonder what he would say to us in our comfortably middle-class Christianity. Does your heart burn for justice for the oppressed? Do you mourn the sins of your own life and home? Have you assessed your life and undertaken the arduous fight against temptation and sin?
I know I have not. I am too comfortable with the state of things. My life is relatively comfortable, and the problems of the poor seem far away from me, at least far enough that I do not have to think about them often. I have learned to cope with sins, both my own and those of the people close to me. Like many, I am too willing to put off until tomorrow the hard work of being a better human being, a better Christian, a better follower of Jesus. I seem to say, “Not today, John. I have a meeting to attend and there is a great show on Netflix I really want to see.” Yet, Christ comes to clear the threshing floor. All my sins will be swept away with the other chaff and detritus of this broken world. I had better get used to being separated from them. It is time to start practicing lest I embrace them too tightly and get swept away with them.