On this, the second Sunday of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist. We find him in the wilderness, at the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The powerful religious leaders of his day, who were generally in conflict with one another, were united in their opposition to John (and later also to Jesus). Their curiosity, coupled with their desire to make trouble, led them to follow the people out of Jerusalem into the wilderness to see what was going on. John’s message for them is also an important message for us today: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
This morning, we will begin by unpacking the rich symbolism and the cultural context of this passage. Then, we’ll explore what it means to bear fruit worth of repentance and how we might do that in our own lives.
The rich symbolism in our passage begins in the opening verse. We hear that John the Baptist appears in the wilderness. The wilderness was a significant place for the people of Israel. Beginning in Genesis, the wilderness was a place where people encountered God. In the story of the Exodus, the wilderness was the place where the freed Hebrew slaves wandered, with God accompanying them, for forty years! And, by the time of John the Baptist, the wilderness had become a place of resistance. People distressed by the collusion of the elites with the occupying Roman government left the seat of power in Jerusalem and fled to the wilderness. So, we encounter John proclaiming repentance in a place where God is known to show up that is also a place of resistance to power.
Next, we find symbolism in John’s attire and dining menu. Matthew tells us that John wore clothing of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. The choice of camel’s hair clothing sounds odd and uncomfortable to us – but for John, it was the clothing of the poor – it was Bedouin dress. Combined with the leather belt, this clothing also symbolized the prophet Elijah. In 2 Kings 8, Elijah is described as, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” And just as camel’s hair was clothing for the poor, locusts and wild honey were food of the poor. In John’s choices, we see an alignment with a beloved and revered prophet, as well as with the poor of the region.
With some understanding of the symbolism under our belts, we may begin to understand what drove the Pharisees and Sadducees to the wilderness to investigate what was going on. Together, they represented the upper and middle classes of their day. The Sadducees were aristocrats, who used their wealth and position to gain power in the Jerusalem temple system. Usually the chief priests and the high priest were Sadducees. The Pharisees tended to be from the merchant class. They also held great power. Theologically, the Pharisees and the Sadducees did not see eye-to-eye, but they found common cause in their opposition first to John the Baptist and later to Jesus. They depended on Rome for their power, and both John and Jesus threatened the status quo.
Our final symbol to explore this morning is found in what John calls these religious leaders. He addresses them as a Brood of Vipers! Let’s just say that it’s not a compliment. A viper is a type of snake. The snake is unclean in Jewish tradition, so calling them snakes would have been a big insult. But, there’s further symbolism in the use of this name. If you think back to the Garden of Eden, you may remember that it’s the snake who tempts Eve to eat the apple and share it with Adam. And, the snake does so by telling Eve lies. If you re-read the story, you’ll find that the snake’s words are full of lies and half-truths designed to get Eve to do what he wants.
To recap: We find John the Baptist, in the wilderness, behaving in ways that show solidarity with the poor, dressed like a beloved prophet, and criticizing those who abuse their power. He tells both the people who come for baptism and the leaders to repent. To the leaders he says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
So what does John’s call mean for us today? Remember that repentance isn’t about beating on your chest, or throwing yourself to the ground, or feeling guilty. The Greek word metanoia, which we translate as repentance, simply means to turn around. When a person repents, he or she turns away from whatever draws them away from God, and turns back towards God. Or, as John Burgess says, “Repentance isn’t about guilt feelings, it’s about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.”
What does it mean to bear fruit worthy of repentance? Beginning with the prophets, the word fruit began to be used to describe the end result of behavior:
In Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the Christ, we are also called to bear fruit worthy of repentance. We are called to allow God to transform us into Christ’s image, and to have our fruit – the end results of our behavior – demonstrate that transformation.
I read a story this week about two families in Florida. One family was a newly arrived Syrian refugee family. The other was an American family of four. While walking on the beach, the American mom and dad encountered two of the children in this Syrian family. The children were afraid of the water. So, the Americans began speaking with them. They used words and actions to show that the water was safe. Slowly, the children approached the water, and soon were laughing and having fun. The adult with them explained that they were refugees who had just arrived from Syria.
As they returned to their home, the American mom and dad passed the large extended Syrian family. The Syrians motioned them over and offered to share their meal. They cooked a sort of pizza using pita bread, olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, cheese and fresh mint. The Americans got ice cream for everyone, as well as some toys and shoes they’d planned to donate. The mom said, “It was the most remarkable night of my life.” Another night the families again encountered one another on the beach and another meal was shared. This time, the American’s children were with them and all the kids played together.
The American dad said that these encounters opened his mind to what is happening with refugees, and that he now felt ashamed that he ever thought refugees should be turned away.
What are the fruits of repentance in this story? Love. Openness to the other. And a willingness to examine long held beliefs and change them when faced with new evidence.
Maybe your issue isn't refugees. I don't know what areas in your heart God is trying to soften. I know what those areas are in my own heart. And, I know that God is calling each of us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It’s not about guilt. It’s about being open and allowing Christ to transform our lives.