Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
In this story, John says he is not worthy to carry the Messiah's sandals— but of course he is! Jesus didn't belong to the kind of mindset— the kind of Kingdom— that lorded it over people. He accepted all people. He found all people worthy of God's love, and he was "the image of the invisible God," in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." This means God finds us worthy even if we feel unworthy to the bottom of our soul. We are worthy to carry his sandals and much more.
Indeed, when it comes to being found worthy, John was the one who understood that the world was "about to turn" as the hymn puts it. He understood the Messiah was on the way. He came preaching a great hope. He understood the ancient words from the time of the exile in Babylon, words of hope which were spoken at a time when the exiles must have had no hope of ever returning home. He realised it was time.- the time. We read some of the words this morning.
The story of John uses them to say that there will be another return from exile. The Messiah is coming, the time is now.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.... (Isaiah 40:11)
John dresses for the part of a prophet. Any Jewish person in Jesus' time would recognize he was dressed like Elijah, whose devotion for God burned fiercely. There was a time when Ahaziah, the King, had fallen through the lattice work of his balcony, and he was gravely injured. He sent messengers to the God of Ekron, who was called Beelzebub— that can't be good— he sent to ask him, another God, how it would go with his health, and whether he would recover.
Elijah was indignant for God. He intercepted the messengers, and sent them home before they got to Ekron. When Ahaziah worked out who had done this, he sent fifty soldiers to bring Elijah to heel. Elijah brought down the fire of heaven and burned the lot. Ahaziah sent another 50, and it happened again... He tried a third time— slow learner, Ahaziah— but this time Elijah didn't burn the men, he simply came down from his hill, and pronounced a death sentence on the king, who died. (2 Kings 1)
In the traditions of Israel, and in the book of the Prophet Malachi, it said that just before the Messiah came to save Israel, Elijah would return. So when you see a man in the wilderness, who's dressed like Elijah, and who's announcing the Messiah, you know what it means. And John didn't disappoint anyone: the Messiah will gather the wheat and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
That's not all. That stuff about baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire? It doesn't say the Holy Spirit. It says with holy spirit and fire; we overlay the idea that it is The Holy Spirit on the text. One commentator says that what John's listeners would have heard is this:
Fire and Spirit are not two things but one — 'fiery breath'. At the boundary of the new age [— that is, when the kingdom comes], all will pass through the fiery breath of God, a stream which will purify the righteous and destroy the unrighteous. (Davies pp 44-45)
Not an easy time! (See quoted here)
To a point, John was right. He understood the prophets. Jesus says in Chapter 11 that of "those born of women" none was greater than John. John is the last and greatest prophet of the Old Testament. He understood that to live unjustly was destructive.
That to serve the gods of fear and greed would bring a nation down.
That religious piety that didn't result in the healing and inclusion of the blind, and the lame, and the lepers, and the deaf, and the poor, was as treacherous and dangerous and evil, as a nest of snakes; it misrepresented God, just like the snake in Genesis 3 . There was no place for that kind of religion in the Kingdom of heaven.
He was right. There is a kind of burning needed to enter the Kingdom— a purification of the person that we are.
But they was something unworthy about John's message. He thought the fire of the Messiah would destroy people. He thought that those who were unrepentant, and who didn't do the right thing, would be destroyed. He thought that some people are unworthy... And that is the unworthy thought. That is the sin of humanity: to think that some of us are worthy before others, and to put ourselves before others. That's what leads to concentration camps, and walls, and the repeal of many Medivac, and all the other evil and unrighteous heartlessness of our species.
The only thing less worthy than that, is to think that God is like us, and that God does destroy people like we do, and that God says this is a good thing. That is why Jesus says the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John... because if we have been captured by the love of God, and our eyes have been opened, we will know God loves all people, and is working to heal all people, even the ones who give us the creeps, and seem to drip evil. Even near them, something will be written deep in our heart and soul that reminds us they, too, are loved by God.
Christ would rather die than cause someone to be destroyed in fire. And no matter how unworthy our thoughts and actions, God who sees no one as unworthy will wait for us to open our eyes, will work to open our eyes, and will enable us to learn to love and heal.
John was right. The Messiah has come. Now is the time to enter the Kingdom, and be a Christ for the healing of the blind, and the lame, and the lepers, and the deaf, and the poor. (Matthew 11:2-6) There is no better discipleship, and there is no greater devotion and piety towards God, for learning to the bottom of our heart and the depth of our souls, that God finds us worthy, and that God loves even us. Amen.
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