I remember seeing on TV, a little while ago, a documentary about a group of troubled and troublesome teenagers who had been packed off somewhere in the US to a boot camp experience in the desert. I was just a little bit interested in this, for two reasons – firstly because it kind of appeals to the notion of getting tough on antisocial young people, make ‘em squirm a bit and see how they like being on the receiving end for a change – and certainly this group did it tough under the watchful eye of a deeply unpleasant sergeant-major type who made sure they went to bed exhausted every night and didn’t have time to complain about all the creature comforts they were missing out on – but secondly because I knew about a very different kind of experience in the desert – the desert as a place of spiritual connection and retreat, a place of silence and refreshment – and so I wasn’t too surprised that after a few weeks of digging latrines and missing out on showers these surly young people started to change with the rhythms of the desert, to adjust to the vast emptiness of the landscape and to let the silence soak into them. Paradoxically, the desert as a place of contraction and deprivation becomes an opportunity for renewal.
So here’s John the Baptist again, looking and sounding as grumpy as ever – maybe something to do with wearing the same scratchy camel hair shirt year in year out and eating grasshoppers – every year we go out into the desert to be confronted by him, and he’s got a list of complaints about us and he’s not putting it in very nice language. Every year, we march into the desert to do boot camp with John.
Matthew’s got a problem with John the Baptist, I think. For the people Matthew is writing for, the problem isn’t his rough appearance and even rougher language – the Jewish historian Josephus who is writing around the same time also says John is wildly popular – in fact John’s funny clothes and his outlandish diet were a real plus, because that’s just what Elijah was like, and the popular tradition is that Elijah is coming back to announce the coming of the messiah – so for Matthew describing John the Baptist like this is a shorthand way of saying that John is here to set the stage for the long-awaited messiah.
That’s not Matthew’s problem. Neither is it a problem for Matthew’s audience that John the Baptist is talking tough about repentance. John the Baptist is a good, old-style fire-and-brimstone prophet – just the charismatic sort of character we’ve waiting for, and frankly we’d be disappointed if we didn’t get a bit of a bollocking. John the Baptist is denouncing evil, that’s a prophet’s job, and just as long as he’s not pointing directly at us, we’ll cheer him on. If he wants to tell important people and religious folk they’re a bunch of hypocrites, well, that’s a prophet’s prerogative really.
That’s not the problem. It’s clear enough why everyone flocked to this weird character out in the desert. It must have been top notch entertainment, if nothing else. But why Jesus? We know from Mark, and Matthew repeats the story, that Jesus comes to John for John’s baptism of repentance. That’s the awkward bit, for Matthew. We know that Jesus is baptised by John, in fact quite a few scholars believe that Jesus may even have been a disciple of John out there in the desert but that somewhere along the way they parted company.
That’s Matthew’s problem – he needs to make sure we understand that John is just the signpost, Jesus is the destination. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that not all John’s disciples became followers of Jesus and there’s just a hint of some friction between them. In fact there is still a sect today in Iraq called the Mandaeans who believe John the Baptist was the Messiah, not Jesus. So Matthew emphasises John’s insistence on repentance, and he makes John the Baptist say some of the same things that Jesus says, for example later in the gospel we hear Jesus himself calling his opponents a brood of vipers (ch 12) and Jesus says the same thing about bearing fruit worthy of repentance. But there’s one very important difference between John the Baptist and Jesus. They agree on a lot, they certainly agree about justice and they agree about accountability. But they’re saying something different about hope.
Because Jesus, I think, has bought into the impossible vision of Isaiah – the section we read this morning probably goes back to the time of exile – the time of national defeat and the destruction of the Temple itself - and it says, look, something new is coming out of this disaster, even though the tree has been cut down there will be a new shoot, and a new branch that comes out of the old stump. Isaiah is telling us that we can trust God to bring new life out of our disasters. Living in a time when absolutely everything is defined by military power, Isaiah believes in the possibility of a world that knows how to live in peace, a world where things are ordered right way up, where God is at the centre and all the nations see themselves in relation to God’s way of doing things and God’s priorities.
You might think this is a utopian vision. It doesn’t work like that in the world we live in, it didn’t work like that in the world that Jesus and John lived in either. The paraphrase of Isaiah’s vision that we heard this morning rubs it in – here’s a vision of the world as it never has been and is never likely to be, at least not in our time. So the gospel of Isaiah is the triumph of hope over experience – if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the dream of peace, then that’s going to transform the world we live in.
John’s vision is a bit more hard-headed. None of that feel-good stuff – for John the kingdom of heaven comes with an axe; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is going to get chopped down and thrown in the fire, the chaff is going to get burned up. John sees his own job as giving fair warning, one last chance – get baptised now and mend your ways because the one who is going to carry out this punishment is just around the corner – it’s a violent and scary vision of God’s future and a bit later on in Matthew’s gospel we hear that John began to have some doubts that Jesus was really up to the job.
Because Jesus doesn’t behave the way John says he’s supposed to. Jesus doesn’t condemn anybody to eternal fire, Jesus doesn’t come with the winnowing fork in his hand and he doesn’t sweep away the wicked as John said he would. Quite the opposite. Jesus goes to his death with words of healing and forgiveness for those who arrested and condemned him, and instead of dealing death to others Jesus accepts the violence of others and draws new life from it. Have you ever heard real fire and brimstone preaching? The sort that scares you into repentance the way John the Baptist is doing here? You’d better repent because Jesus is coming back, and boy, is he mad. But here’s the funny thing – that’s not the way Jesus talks, Jesus is not a hellfire and brimstone preacher – Jesus never talks about cutting down people like trees and destroying with fire, instead Jesus talks about the sort of transformation that works slowly from within like a tiny seed that grows into a massive tree - Jesus teaches the way of wasteful and utterly indiscriminate love that transforms both the one who loves and the one who is loved. Jesus demonstrates radical acceptance, which is about recognising the humanity and the value of those who are worthless in the world’s scheme of things, in fact, Jesus preaches not the way of punishment but the way of forgiveness.
Does that mean Jesus isn’t talking about repentance? Does that mean Jesus is going to let us off going to boot-camp, we don’t need to follow Jesus into the desert? Not at all. Jesus certainly does talk about repentance, and he agrees with John the Baptist that repentance has to come first, before we can hear the message of God’s love. Both Jesus and John take us into the desert of repentance, the difference is that when we go into the desert with Jesus we find that the dry grass and the bare stumps of our lives burst into new growth.
Right now, we’re two weeks away from Christmas. Sixteen sleeps to go before we experience all over again the miracle that God can think of no better way to show us how much God loves us than by coming to share the mess and heartache of human life with us. The miracle that God’s own life is joined to ours through thick and thin means that God’s knowledge of us does not condemn us. Being human means always having something to say we’re sorry for, it means always having some layers of self-deception and dishonesty to peel back before we can be ready for the joy and new life that God is aching to share with us. That’s why Advent is always the time of being called back by the Church into the desert, into boot camp. The time of waiting for God’s grace is necessarily the time of repentance, the time of being honest about ourselves and of recognising all the ways in which we have denied the gift of God’s life intertwined with our own. When this morning [at 9.30] we baptise Hone, who is too young to know the grown-up reality that life gets murky sometimes, that we do lose our way over and over again – we’re going to claim for him the connection between repentance and hope that’s the key to human flourishing because it reconnects us with the rhythm of God’s own life.