Creekside Church
Sermon of December 8, 2019

"Left Behind"
Matthew 3:1-10

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning! We are continuing our Advent series Ready this morning, by reading Matthew’s account of John the Baptist -- everybody’s second favorite New Testament prophet -- John is preparing for Jesus’ arrival by appearing in the Judean wilderness with unkempt hair, wild man clothes and a locally sourced diet of insects and honey. And he has a confrontational message for the crowds who come to see him. He says, “The kingdom of God is like a nudist colony. Before you can get in, you have to leave everything behind.” Those are not actually the words of Matthew chapter 3, but you have to admit, it’s a pretty evocative image, and not that far off of John’s intent. John was a colorful character who certainly knew how to galvanize a crowd.

Before we look at what John actually said, it’s good to have a bit more context for who he is. He’s Jesus’ cousin, and he’s older than Jesus by maybe six months or so. We’re told in Luke’s gospel that when Mary was pregnant with Jesus she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt with recognition of the unborn Messiah. That was John. John’s conception and birth was its own wonder in the neighborhood: Elizabeth was way passed childbearing age and her husband Zechariah was speechless -- literally struck dumb -- throughout the entire pregnancy, and named John by writing on a tablet what an angel had told him to say: His name is John. What a story! The folks in the Judean hill country couldn’t stop talking about it.

But Luke chapter 1 verse 80 (it’s a looong chapter) gives a very interesting finale to John’s childhood. It says, “The child [that is, the child John] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publically to Israel.” That is, until the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when John would have been about 30 years old. He was in the wilderness all that time? What were Elizabeth and Zechariah thinking -- sending their miracle child away to spend his life in the desert?

The biblical record -- and John the Baptist appears in every gospel -- does not say directly, but leaves plenty of clues about John’s pedigree and preparation to be a prophet. The Essenes were a monastic group which lived and studied the holy writings in desert isolation -- these were the folks who created the Dead Sea scrolls. There was another Jewish sect called Nazarites who were holy warriors who consecrated themselves to the work of God by abstaining from many kinds of food, alcohol and sexual relations. They believed that uncut hair and beard was a sign of God’s power: if you remember Samson from the Old Testament, he was a Nazarite. Samson’s power from God was physical strength in battle; we’re told that John became strong in spirit.

All of this -- the uncut hair and the wild clothing and the restricted diet -- all of this would have registered immediately with a Jewish audience before John ever said a word: this man is a prophet. There hadn’t been a prophet in Israel for a couple generations, so it was certainly worth the trip to the wildness to take a look. But John is not the main event; he’s the warm-up act for the Messiah. John’s message is about how we are supposed to prepare for the kingdom of God and be ready for the Messiah -- and it could be a rough ride.

Some of you may be familiar with the title Left Behind -- either as the book series by Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins about the apocalypse and the end of time, or in my case growing up in the church in the 1970s as a movie series designed to scare the hell out of youth so they would accept Jesus Christ. I still remember the theme song from that movie; it haunted my middle school years (ask me after the service) But that phrase and the idea of being left behind come directly out of Matthew’s gospel, especially chapter 24. Our theme for Advent and being Ready is rooted in the parable Jesus told in Matthew 25 about bridesmaids being ready to welcome a bridegroom and his new wife. But let’s circle back to Matthew 3 and the message of John the Baptist. If you accept my kind of tongue in cheek characterization of the kingdom of God as a nudist colony, then it might be worth our time to consider what we might need to leave behind in order to prepare for Jesus’ coming. What we need to leave behind may not be primarily stuff: such as clothing and other things which we own. I believe that most of our stuff is value-neutral -- neither good nor bad -- but our attitude toward our stuff is another thing entirely. In fact, John the Baptist’s message of preparation has everything to do with our attitude about ourselves, other people, and God. What do we think we’re entitled to, and what are we willing to give up?

John’s message, like that of the Old Testament prophets before him, is a call to change our ways, to head in a different direction, to repent. I don’t think repentance has ever been a popular message, but repentance is particularly out-of-style this Christmas season. Whatever side you are on in the current political climate -- and you almost certainly have a side, because nobody seems to be neutral -- whatever side you are on, the one thing we can all agree on is that the other side is wrong. There’s a lot of trash-talking and mud-slinging, but I haven’t heard anyone confess that they are wrong; that they need to change what they’re doing and head in a different direction. If you are a person who is never wrong, who has nothing to confess, and doesn’t need to change anything, God bless you. I think you’re kidding yourself, but God bless you. For the rest of us, there’s a need for confession and repentance. This was John’s mission for preparing the people of Israel for the coming of their Messiah; repentance is woven into our preparation for the coming of Jesus into our world and into our lives.

It’s a tough sell, frankly. I can sense some mental eye-rolling. Repentance is not an activity where you put on your favorite Christmas CD and your fluffy slippers and get a cup of hot cocoa, “Honey I need to get that repentance done this afternoon!” It’s much more pervasive and much more difficult than that. Repentance means making an honest assessment of ourselves: not just where we excel, but where we fall short; repentance means making an honest assessment of how we relate to other people: do we treat them the way we’d like to be treated? Or do they have to just get over it, because that’s how I am? And finally, and most importantly, repentance means making an honest assessment of our relationship to God. Are we doing what God wants us to do? Do we even know what that is? How could we figure it out? These are questions we need to be asking ourselves not just during Advent, but throughout the year. You may be wondering, what does this have to do with Christmas? What I really need is a couple more hours in the day -- how is repentance going to help me get the house decorated or the cookies baked or the presents purchased? And you know what? Repentance isn’t going to help you with those things, because that’s no why Jesus Christ came. Those are all fine things, but they’re not the reason God sent his Son to be our Messiah and Savior.

I hope you have been reading the Advent devotionals by Frank Ramirez. There are still a couple of copies if you haven’t gotten one yet. The reflection from this past Thursday, December 5, was so good that I want to share a part of it with you. Frank is talking about nativity sets, and that if we had only Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth, they’d be pretty simple: there would be no shepherds, sheep, angels, or a manager. Hardly anything about Mary, Joseph in the shadows, the wisemen arrive later. Just Jesus. Matthew’s nativity is pretty much a bare stage with nothing else to distract us from Jesus. Those ancient roads on which the prophets traveled led to Jesus. John the Baptist quoted the prophet Isaiah about the way of the Lord and the need to repent and get on the path which leads to Jesus. Those are the roads on which we still travel today, trying to find paths which are straight enough that we can see where we’re going; trying to clear away the obstacles which obscure our vision and block our way. I talked last week about the work of Advent as changing from one state to another -- going from being asleep to being awake, or from not pregnant to pregnant. John the Baptist calls us to go from self-focused to God-focused. Repentance is about taking ourselves out of the middle of the nativity scene. It’s an awareness that although our needs and our agendas may be valid and important to us, they are not the point of Christmas. Our most important preparation for Christmas is to point ourselves toward Jesus; to leave behind the things and the attitudes and the grievances which rattle and clank around us along the way. The path to Bethlehem may not be an easy one -- it can be hard to leave things behind -- but we need to be able to and travel the way of the Lord, we will find Emmanuel, God-With-Us, because what we are looking for and what God wants for us will be the same thing.


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