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Hope from a strange place | Matthew 3:1-12
As we begin our second week of The Gifts of Christmas we come to the gift of hope, something offered from an unusual character and place in our text. John the Baptizer came to the Judean Wilderness, an area of desert land between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, a rocky, sandy wasteland with little to no life. He was known as the baptizer because of his practice of baptizing those who chose to change the direction of their lives and follow God in the way John was preaching.
While Jesus would later go to the people, John preached in the wilderness with the expectation that the crowds would come to him. He was quite a character, wearing a camel hide, leather belt, and living off a diet of locusts and wild honey. I imagine his to have been the sort of preacher or prophet who was no nonsense, not the sort to suffer fools.
John was believed to be a fiery preacher whose manner was like prophets of old like Elijah, a comparison that is intentional. We can see this in the aggressive nature of John toward the religious establishment when the Sadducees and Pharisees come to be baptized. Some of them he is rebuking them for making baptism a religious trend, just going along with the crowd; some, for coming to see what John is doing so they can find a way to denounce him and be safe in the eyes of the Roman Empire. No rabble-rousers here. If you look at the story of John the Baptist and that of Elijah and Ahab and later, the prophets of Ba’al, we see the same take no prisoners, in your face sort of prophet in Elijah. Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al, the king, the queen, and everyone else who takes sides against God in his eyes, something John does with Sadducees, Pharisees, and later, King Herod.
And John’s message to the people and the establishment was no less direct and abrupt than Elijah’s. He preached his messages with the urgency of the apocalyptic beliefs of his day. Apocalypticism was the belief, particularly among the Essenses, that the end of all things was near, popular at the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. The idea included the concept that there were unseen evil forces controlling the world and the world systems (cosmos) but God was soon to intervene, overthrow them, pass judgment on them, and bring about his Kingdom on earth.
This message that the end was coming led people to see John as the herald of the Messiah or as John said, “the stronger one.” The idea was that the Messiah would follow one who told people of his coming ahead of time. This was a popular belief among the Jewish people of the time going back to the days of the Maccabees a hundred fifty years before and even before that. They believed the Messiah would come following a great prophet who would announce him. Some Jews today set a place at the table for Elijah during the Passover Seder in anticipation of him being the messenger for the true Messiah. Many thought John might be that Messiah; John saw himself as the messenger.
When you put all that together, you might find yourself thinking of a guy with a sandwich board walking around raving at people, “The End is Near!”. I’m sure some of the people in John’s day felt like he was a bit much, a little over the top, likely the Pharisees and Sadducees that were trying to rebuke him but maybe some of the others as well. For that matter, we might think it a bit over the top, a bit too direct. Yet when you look at the world today, maybe not so much. So much is available to us through modern media and we know about things from places we may never have heard of all at the click of button. And much of what we read tells us about a world not too different from the world of John’s day. One writer recently put it this way,
Engaging with current events at this particular moment in modern history feels like an endless rolling panic attack. Floods. Fires. Elections. Impeachment hearings. An indistinguishable shower of grinning authoritarian …clowns snickering at everyone who tries to stop them stripping the planet for parts. Affectless armies of weaponized nihilists prepared to set the world on fire rather than share it with women and people of color. All of it imploding into a sort of hectic immanence, a frantic collapse of timelines. Sometimes, it can feel like the crisis is too massive for anything any of us do to matter. Sometimes, everything is so urgent and so overwhelming and there’s so much you ought to care about that it’s easier … not to care.
I’ll summarize her comments and say things are not good at all. With all that in mind, all that end of the world, things are tough all over mentality, what is there to be hopeful of. What hope can we find in this situation?
The truth is, John is bringing hope in his message. In order to see it, we have to look past the words to the signs behind them.
Let’s look at the signs. First, The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (v.2). John offers hope in that while all the bad stuff is going on, God is preparing His Kingdom, that place where all that is broken will be restored. Second, there is hope in repentance (v.2). By repenting we learn to become true disciples, followers of what the early church called, The Way. In doing so, we grow toward becoming whole or in other words, growing into salvation. Third, hope is found in knowing those who abuse their power and authority will come to judgment (vv. 7-10). Remember that apocalyptic stuff we talked about before? The part about God intervening, overthrowing the evil powers, pass judgment on them, and bring about his Kingdom on earth? For those who follow in God, there is hope in knowing true justice will one day be, “a mighty flood…an endless river of righteous living.” Finally, hope comes with the one to come who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (v.11). John speaks of the hope in the anointed one, the Messiah, the one sent by God to lead all of creation to restoration.
So, when we think of hope,
Hope is not thinking positive thoughts. Hope is not self-delusion. Hope is clinging to the life raft and kicking, even when there is no sight of land. Hope is a muscle. Like most muscles, it hurts…at first, but it gets easier as you get stronger, and you get stronger the more routine, seemingly pointless work you put into it. It is possible. It’s not easy. It takes the sort of work, every day, of doing what needs to be done to care for yourself, your community, your society, even when you resent having to do so and would rather lie down for five minutes or five months or the rest of your life. That’s hope. It’s not a mood. It’s an action. It’s behaving as if there might be a future even when that seems patently ridiculous.
Even in the worst of life, God holds out hope to everyone. He held it out to the children of Israel in Egypt and again in Babylon. He held it out to the disciples at Pentecost. He held it out to Paul on a dusty highway. Most importantly, he held it out to us a baby, born to be the bearer of salvation, of reconciliation, for mankind. And God still holds it out to each of us today. Hang on to it. In the face of everything negative and difficult in this life hang on to it and hang on to the promise of God to lead us into a fuller salvation with each passing day.
Ehrman, B. E. (2012). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Fifth edition ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
France, R. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew – The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Lawrence, P. (2006). The IVP Atlas of Biblical History. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Penny, L. (2019, 11 27). On Hope (in a Time of Hopelessness). Retrieved from Wired: https://www.wired.com/story/laurie-penny-on-hope/?fbclid=IwAR2kJsXwy48xuXY_f_7ESe46Qmc2ftC8bharvhQrdxsWoCxMvbe5iA5YDOQ
Powell, M. A. (2009). Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Publishing.
 (Lawrence, 2006, p. 138)
 (Powell, 2009, p. 66)
 (Powell, 2009, p. 66)
 (Ehrman, 2012, p. 121)
 (Ehrman, 2012, p. 122)
 Translated from the Greek word ischuros meaning strong, with all force, or most likely in this verse, powerful.
 (Penny, 2019)
 Amos 5:24
 (Penny, 2019)