So, today I preached for the first time in class. It was pretty interesting. We don't just get up there and preach. We have to write an exegesis paper that shows how we come up with our interpretation and making a claim based on the text. We have to provide an outline of the sermon as well as a manuscript. This is something I've NEVER done before. So, I thought I'd try something new. I preached right from the manuscript. I didn't EXACTLY read, but I pretty much did. I tried to be as engaging as possible, and I think I was.
I also tried something else different... and if you're interested in the sermon, here it is. This is just further proof that I'm a heretic. (By the way, feel free NOT to read it too)
TEXT: Matthew 3:1-12
YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! … Wow, what an opening. I can’t imagine that one would elicit much of an offering from that sermon. Those are such harsh words, so jarring to our ears. I’m sure that immediately upon hearing them, some people completely tune out. I’m equally sure that no upstanding homiletics preacher living today would encourage anyone to open their sermon in such a way. Yet in the gospel of Matthew those are some of the very first words that we hear from the mouth of John the Baptist. Here is this man, this prophet, this latter-day Elijah inducing hordes of people to come into the wilderness to be baptized. They come confessing their sins. They come presumably from Jerusalem, Judea and from all of the surrounding region in order to hear from this man, to be baptized by this man and in some special way to hopefully be changed.
So who is this man in the wilderness? Not a great paragon of the establishment, not a lofty political leader or a wealthy patron of the arts. He is not an eloquent poet or proponent of philosophy. It is instead a man wrapped in camels hair and a leather belt. One who eats locusts and wild honey. And his message… his message is “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”. But what does this mean? So we listen in, we strain our ear to hear what this man with the enormous following will say… And what are his next words? What does the writer of the gospel of Matthew put on the lips of John? It is a proclamation of judgment! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
In some ways, this tends to remind me of my last sermon to my home church while I interned prior to my senior year of college. It was couched in different terms, it began with my personal excitement of something new to come, but it could hardly be missed that throughout the entire sermon I was calling the congregation to the matt. I remember talking about it with friends and family afterward and how they chuckled at how unmistakably clear I was in the pulpit, how I had essentially let them have it…
Here in Matthew, that is exactly what John is doing to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came for baptism. He was pronouncing judgment on them, he was calling them to the matt. He called into question the heart of what they believed when he proclaimed that God could simply raise up stones to be children of Abraham. Even more, he was calling these religious leaders out to bear fruit, because if they did not, there would be a great judgment – fire would await them.
As we hear this proclamation here at Princeton, as we who are ‘religious leaders’ listen in on this message, I don’t know about you but I cannot help but feel a little twinge of guilt. It is hard for me to divorce myself from John’s message knowing that like the Pharisees and Sadducees that he protested against, I too have a certain amount of religious authority, I too feel a certain calling to lead, I too seek to one day teach and preach in the name of God. And in some ways, it is me, it is us that John points at when he proclaims this judgment. We who would seek to lead are together with the Pharisees and Sadducees in John’s sights when he proclaims this.
But what is more interesting than this verdict of judgment that John lays at the feet of the religious leaders, is what precedes it. Not the description of John’s dress or his diet, but the quotation that the author uses to introduce John. It is from Isaiah 40 what is understood by Biblical scholars to be second Isaiah. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” To understand the full weight of this however, it is necessary to start at the beginning of this passage in Isaiah 40. To the first hearers of this gospel, probably Jewish Christians sometime around 70CE, they would most likely be aware of the context of this passage. It begins “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” It goes on to say “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.”(Isaiah 40:1-2)
This prophecy, originally given to a people in exile, seeks to offer grace and peace to a people who have suffered greatly. It is not meant as condemnation. It is not meant as judgment or warning against something to come. It is not a call to repentance, to deeper devotion or to the casting off of any particular practices but a message straight from God, a message of grace. It is comfort to a people impoverished in spirit. And it is this message that precedes the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, which the writer of Matthew’s gospel quotes to introduce John.
It is a message of comfort that precedes John’s introduction and description. It is a message of comfort that precedes John’s judgment of the religious leaders. There must be a message of comfort that we hear too. In Isaiah the message is comfort in the wake of suffering, comfort in the wake of a great trouble, a great penalty that has been paid. How many of us need to hear that same message today? How many of us need to be reminded that despite the dark days that we have been experiencing, the hand of God is extended to us even now not in punishment but in comfort, to wipe away all our tears? How many of us, suffering from secret pains of loneliness, depression and worry need to be reminded that our Lord wishes to speak tenderly to us? Tenderly as a mother comforts her child? Here the tenderness of God is seen and heard in the prophet Isaiah and it is the gospel of Matthew that also proclaims this tenderness, this call to comfort, if more subtly.
But the message of this passage of Matthew, as it is not entirely about judgment, it is equally not entirely about comfort. Yes, John’s description is preceded by a reference to Isaiah’s prophetic comforting of Israel, but this does not eliminate the fact that John does call out a very harsh and bitter word to these religious leaders. It is not here abrogated because of this allusion to comfort. Instead, John’s proclamation of judgment is instead informed by this allusion. Instead of being a simple call to repentance or warning of judgment, to the astute reader of Matthew there is a dialectical quality about this passage that speaks very profoundly to the human condition – the human condition then and the human condition today.
If you will permit me, I’d like to reread some of the passage from Matthew in a way that is infused with this passage from Isaiah. In so doing I would like you to feel the tension between the prophecy of judgment and the prophecy of comfort, the prophecy of wrath and the prophecy of peace, that of anger and of hope.
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God
Bear fruit worthy of repentance
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins
Do 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.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Even 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.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
The uneven ground shall become level,
And the rough places a plain
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.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
And all people shall see it together
For the mouth of the LORD Has spoken
His 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.
Interestingly enough, both of these passages come to the same place but by different means. While Isaiah finds itself at the mouth of the LORD, God’s glory revealed, Matthew’s presentation of John’s message also drives us toward God in His impending judgment. Both of these – comfort and judgment are the twofold prong that propels us toward God – in Christ. Because in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is who John is ushering in.
Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is near.
Comfort … and Judgment.
In this tension, we find ourselves literally – in the gospel of Matthew – face to face with Jesus...