What Are We Waiting For? (Matthew 3:1-12)
Gary Cox, University Congregational Church
Wichita, KS (12/9/01)
A new church year has begun, as we have entered the season of Advent. Advent is the season of preparation, of waiting, of anticipating. And Advent ends when Christmas arrives, symbolic of the fact the world’s waiting for the Christ ended when Jesus arrived.
There tends to be two central figures in Advent: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John the Baptist. Because Mary tends to get a lot more attention than John, and because this morning’s lectionary text is the proclamation of John the Baptist we heard read from the lectern, I decided this would be a good morning to spend some time with John the Baptist.
Before we turn to John the Baptist, however, I want to read part of the Old Testament lectionary text for this morning, because it is one of my favorite Bible passages. The prophet Isaiah envisioned the advent of a future kingdom in which the ideal king would rule over Israel. He said that the spirit of the Lord would rest upon this king, along with the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, and knowledge of the Lord. The day would come, of course, when Christians applied this description to Jesus.
And then Isaiah envisioned what that perfect kingdom would be like. His words came to represent, for countless millions of people of faith, a poetic image of heaven. At a time such as this, when our world is so beset with violence, perhaps these prophetic words of Isaiah will at least help keep our hearts oriented toward faith, and hope, and love:
The wolf will lie with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
When I read the Bible, there are places where I believe the Eternal Spirit of God really is speaking through an inspired person. I believe that is the case when I hear Isaiah’s words, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” and I didn’t want the day to pass without sharing those words with you.
As we turn to John the Baptist, I should say something about the name “John.” There are several people in the Bible who go by that name, and it can be easy to get them confused. There is one John who is the father of (mat-uh-thi’-us) Mattathias, and another who is the oldest son of Mattathias. Those two are found in 1st Maccabees. The father of the apostle Peter is named John. A member of the high priestly family at the time of Jesus’ death is named John. Yet another John—John of Patmos–wrote the Book of Revelation. John Mark is found in the Book of Acts, working with Paul. This is the person credited with writing the earliest of the gospel accounts, known as the Gospel of Mark. The apostle John, known as the son of (zeb’-uh-dee) Zebedee, is purported to be the author of the fourth gospel—the Gospel of John—as well as the books known as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John.
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And last, but certainly not least, we have John the Baptist. So if you have been confused about John when reading the Bible, you have lots of company. But John the Baptist plays a very important and unique role. For one thing, all four gospels consider him critical to the gospel message.
Each of the four gospels has its own unique vision of Jesus, and each proclaims the gospel message in its own way. Matthew begins his account with the virgin birth. John’s gospel places Jesus—the Eternal Christ—with God before the beginning of creation. Mark begins his gospel by introducing John the Baptist, who is preparing the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. And Luke considers John the Baptist to be so important, his gospel actually begins with the story of John the Baptist’s miraculous birth, to his barren mother Elizabeth, and his father, the priest Zechariah.
The story of John the Baptist is the first thing all four gospels have in common. As differently as each of the gospel writers viewed the story of Jesus, they all agreed that John the Baptist was a central figure in the story. And while the details vary, there is an amazing amount of agreement between the gospels regarding the message and activities of John the Baptist.
One thing seems certain. John had a very successful ministry in his own right. He had a large following. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, John was arrested and imprisoned before Jesus actually began his own ministry. The Gospel of John, which has a knack for being different from the other three gospels, says that Jesus began his ministry before the arrest of John the Baptist.
All four gospels agree that the message of John the Baptist can be narrowed down to these words: One is coming who is greater than I. Scholars wonder whether that was really his message, as they speculate about the actual relationship between Jesus and John. Many believe that when the gospels were written some forty or more years after Jesus’ death, there were some people who were getting John and Jesus confused. Each gospel takes great care to clarify the different roles played by John the Baptist, who was a messenger; and Jesus of Nazareth, who was God’s son–the Christ.
Some scholars speculate that Jesus himself was a follower of John the Baptist, and that when John was killed by King Herod, Jesus sort of took over John’s ministry. The story of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil is well known. Could it be, some wonder, that Jesus was one of John the Baptist’s primary followers, and after John’s arrest Jesus fled into the wilderness to escape the persecution of the Romans? Could his temptation have been the possibility of turning away from the ministry and going back to a normal, everyday life?
Well, such speculation is interesting, but it can never be more than speculation. Much of this speculation is driven by the differences in the gospel accounts. For example, if John saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus as he baptized him in the Jordan River, and if John heard God’s voice proclaim from the sky, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” then why did John, after his arrest, have to send messengers to Jesus to ask, quote, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Even if John’s memory was not especially remarkable, one would think he would remember the skies opening up and God telling him directly that Jesus was indeed the one. It’s those types of little problems that make Bible study fun.
It is obvious that John was a famous and powerful character. He is one of the few people in the New Testament that is found in historical accounts outside the Bible. The historian Josephus reported that John was killed near the Dead Sea by King Herod. This little tidbit of historical information has led many to speculate that John the Baptist was an Essene. The three Jewish sects of that day were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Essenes were the ultra-fundamentalist Jews who wrote and hid the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran. They were obsessed with the coming end of the world and the battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness that would bring this world to an end. And they were known for performing a ritual washing in the Jordan River for the cleansing of sins. Sounds a lot like John the Baptist, but again, it’s all guesswork.
When we think back on Jesus, we often think of Jesus as being meek and mild. Those are not adjectives we would apply to John the Baptist. He seems to have been the original fire and brimstone preacher. Imagine yourself in first century Palestine. You’ve heard of this wild man preacher who lives out in the wilderness, living on a diet of insects and wild honey. You and a few friends don’t have anything to do, so you venture out to get a first-hand look at this guy everybody is talking about. Hey, they didn’t have college football back then. What else are you going to do on an autumn afternoon?
When you see him, he’s wearing a camel hair coat and a leather belt. He hasn’t washed or combed his hair anytime in recent memory, and he’s standing in the Jordan River holding people under water as some sort of ritual cleansing. And he looks up at you and shouts (I’ll quote from the Bible the words he said to one group who approached him,) “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance. Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees; and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!”
And you say, “Hey, there wasn’t a game on–I just thought it was a nice day for a walk…”
Well, even as John was doing everything possible to scare people into the faith, he was carrying with him a very important message. To paraphrase, he kept saying, something’s about to happen—something wonderful—I don’t know exactly what it is, but God is going to do something great. Be ready—get ready! And wait, just wait.
Of course, nobody really knew what they were waiting for. They assumed the long awaited Messiah was coming, but it is no surprise that when people saw Jesus, they did not believe he was the one they had been waiting for. The Messiah was supposed to be the great king who would establish God’s rule on earth. The Messiah would re-establish the Davidic kingdom, and restore the glory of Israel. For first century Jews living in that part of the world, there was little doubt about the mission of the Messiah. He would be the one to overthrow the Roman government. He would be the great military ruler who would chase the Roman soldiers out of Israel and rule with the same power and might that King David had a thousand years earlier.
So if you asked a first century Jew what he was waiting for, he would have told you, and it would not be anything at all like Jesus of Nazareth. I suppose the question we have to ask ourselves today is, what are we waiting for? Especially in this season of Advent, which is dedicated to waiting, what are we waiting for?
There is a theological idea that is relevant to this discussion, called already but not yet. “Already but not yet” means that we have already been given what we are waiting for. God has already acted decisively in this world by coming into this world through Jesus Christ. But God’s purposes in this world have not been fulfilled—not yet.
I’ve always liked the “already but not yet” theology. I find it very comforting. Because of the already—because of God’s love as expressed through Jesus—we have nothing to fear. God has already acted, and at any moment in our lives we can, in the beautiful poetry of the 17th Psalm, “hide in the shadow of God’s wings.” At the same time, I like the “not yet” part of the equation, because if means we have a reason for being here. There is work to be done. God’s kingdom has been started, and its completion is assured, but we are now in the process of building it. It’s not a finished product—not yet.
In the season of Advent we are drawn into the “not yet” side of things. We wait, we anticipate. What will happen next? What is God doing in the world? What is God doing through you and me? And it is good to ask those questions, because we can never know for sure how God will act in the world. For those of us who believe God acted when the divine nature was revealed through Jesus, we got a real surprise. It would be natural for us to think God’s power would be like ours: militant, coercive, destructive. That’s how we human beings have typically defined power. But God’s power was none of those things. God’s power came through love.
At Advent we usually think about how Jesus came into the world, but let’s remember for a moment how he went out of it. Let’s grant for this discussion that God’s divine power could have been revealed however God wished. When Jesus was nailed to that cross, most of us would think the ultimate display of power would have been for God to send down something the equivalent of an atomic bomb to incinerate all those who committed that atrocity. That would have been an awesome display of power.
Instead, God’s power was revealed with the words, “Forgive them.” And I would say to you that those words were more powerful than any atomic blast the world has ever seen.
And so in this “already but not yet” time we have been given to share we really have nothing to lose. We have been granted God’s love and forgiveness, and given a kingdom to build. One thing that seems clear to me is that we will never build the kingdom on our own. We human beings simply cannot shape this beautiful blue and green planet into the fullness of God’s kingdom. There will always be those who despoil the planet out of greed; there will always be those who oppress the poor for the benefit of the few; there will always be those who would rather harm and destroy than heal and build.
And we will never coerce those people into the kingdom. Our only hope is to love them into it. We always have to remember that the kingdom is already here—its just not finished. Jesus saw the kingdom everywhere he looked. You can hear his frustration, tempered by his gentle love, when he said the kingdom of God is among you, but you do not see it. You have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear.
I believe we build the kingdom with every charitable deed, with every word of kindness, with every act of love. Our church—we do so much good in this world. The people of this congregation support this church with great generosity. And both individually and together, the people of this congregation impact our community in more ways than most people outside our congregation would imagine. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t learn about some good cause that one of you is supporting with both time and money, and true to the Christian principle of doing your good deeds quietly and not for show, I learn about your acts of charity and kindness from some third party.
And as for our work together, well, consider all you do. The Legacy Fund, which is going to be doing good things in this community long into the future; the work the Outreach Board does on a regular basis; the thoughtful gifts of the Women’s Guild; the important work of the Deacons, the Trustees and the Music Board; our great children’s program–I am happy to say our congregation is an active force in building the kingdom.
I like to think that we really understand what Jesus meant when he said the kingdom of God is among us. Because the kingdom of God is here, but we have to envision it with our minds; it’s here, but we have to claim it with our hearts; it’s here, but we have to shape it with our love. The kingdom is ours for the building. And God is always ready to guide us, working with us, working through us. And perhaps God is looking at the whole of humanity at this very moment, ready to do the next great thing, and asking that question that rings of the Advent spirit: What are we waiting for?