Matthew 3:1-12 – The Second Sunday of Advent – for December 4, 2016
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, ‘Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!’” (Matthew 3:1-2)
The sun slumped in the west, an orange smudge across the darkening sky. Below him, the water flowed, a soothing melody as it meandered south. Settled on the riverbank, John stretched his legs and took a deep breath. He felt grateful the day was ending.
He was exhausted.
Every morning a crowd came to the Jordan. Several of them would inevitably argue with him. Several lingered at the edge of the throng, with faces like bruised fruit, already convinced nothing could save them from more misery. Many came every day, and were baptized every day. This group troubled John, as he heard them—again and again—pleading for forgiveness. After their confessions and immersion, they scuttled back to their homes, no different than cockroaches fearing the light. They would sin again. Screwing a neighbor’s wife. Stealing a poor man’s coins. Lying or cheating and a moment later overwhelmed with regret . . . and then returning to the Jordan.
Earlier today he’d preached about chopping at the roots of the tree, destroying those who did not bear good fruit.
Maybe tomorrow he would refuse to baptize some of his repeat customers.
And yet he recalled that a few would always—after his reminder of a powerful and jealous God—stumble into the Jordan and into his open arms. These few were longing to be healed and whole. These few sensed the meaning of true forgiveness and true humility and true mercy. When they surfaced from the river, the Jordan’s water sluicing off their faces, their cheeks remained wet from their tears. They wept with joy. They wept, believing that Israel’s God was far stronger than the Romans, or any human empire for that matter.
Thanks be to God for the few! How each one energized him! They were blessings from God that John gave back to God.
Still, he was exhausted.
As the sun vanished, the first faint stars salted the night sky. John didn’t move. He had no idea where he’d sleep tonight. Yesterday and the day before one of his followers had invited him to his home. But right now, John wanted to be alone. Frankly, he was glad when the crowds dispersed and his disciples all returned to their families. Why not doze here at the river? Though hungry, he had no desire to eat. And though weary, he doubted any real sleep would come.
His mind never rested.
In the gloaming, he studied the sturdy outline of the huge poplar tree nearest the river. While baptizing the day’s last person, John’s attention had been distracted by a child—perhaps a boy of ten or eleven—standing at the trunk of the poplar and mimicking chopping motions. Mimicking John’s fearsome words: every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.
At least a child had listened to him!
Wouldn’t God soon judge these sinners and find them unworthy? Wouldn’t God’s righteous anger finally and furiously strike these wasteful, hurtful, prideful humans unless they changed?
And yet what if he was wrong?
He pictured the boy again. Chopping. Attacking. Destroying. It was pretend . . . or was it?
And then wept.
Though his head felt heavier than a boulder, he angled his gaze upward, to the newborn stars shimmering in the darkness. One star sparkled, the brightest jewel in the early evening, seemingly perched on the tallest branch of the immense poplar by the river.
For eternal seconds, the star glittered, as if a spark igniting the tree with a heavenly glow that promised deep warmth and deep hope. John, fatigued a moment before, felt refreshed and renewed.
He witnessed. He marveled.
And then it became just a star. And the tree was only a tree.
On the Jordan flowed.
John remained alone.
Tomorrow, more would gather at the river, seeking John’s wisdom.
Heal us! Save us!
The only message he knew was to judge them, to believe that his anger might stir change in their fickle, sin-filled hearts.
With tears drying on his cheeks, John wondered again about the heavenly star and earthbound tree. They seemed to signal something more, something far beyond his warnings that he couldn’t yet grasp.
And might never grasp.