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 to a boot camp experience in the desert. Of course this sort of thing appeals to the ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy – and certainly these kids did it tough under the watchful eye of a deeply unpleasant sergeant-major type – but I was more interested 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 growth and renewal.
So here’s John the Baptist again, looking and sounding as grumpy as ever – wearing the same scratchy camel hair shirt and still 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 out into the desert to do boot camp with John.
Matthew’s got a problem with John the Baptist, I think, but it’s not his rough appearance and even rougher language – in fact the Jewish historian Josephus writing around the same time as Matthew agrees that John is wildly popular – and John’s funny clothes and his outlandish diet were a real plus, because that’s just what Elijah was like, and the popular tradition was that Elijah was coming back to announce the coming of the messiah.
So 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 telling off. 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 leaders they’re a bunch of hypocrites, well, that’s a prophet’s prerogative really.
So that’s not Matthew's problem, either. 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 is Jesus there? We know from Mark, and Matthew repeats the story, that Jesus has come for John’s baptism of repentance. And that’s the awkward bit, for Matthew and the Christian community he is writing for 60 years later. We know that Jesus is baptised by John, quite a few scholars believe that Jesus may even have been a disciple of John for a while out there in the desert.
And that’s Matthew’s problem – because 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 preparation, 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, is inspired by 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, even though it’s hard to believe right now, 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 failures and 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.
John the Baptist’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. Actually, 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 doesn’t talk about cutting down people like trees and destroying with fire, instead he 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 costly 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 out 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 and-a-bit weeks away from Christmas. Seventeen sleeps to go before we experience all over again the miracle that God can think of no better way to show us how much we are loved 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, 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 every year Advent is the time of being called back 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 graciously intertwined with our own. But it can also be also the time of watching the waste places of our lives greening and bursting into new life. When we go out into the desert with Jesus we are confronted with the fact that we do lose our way over and over again – and the other, related fact that sometimes it’s only by letting go of a lot that we thought we knew, and a lot that we thought gave us security, that we can see where we are really going. Today, both John and Jesus call us to repentance – but only Jesus points us to the miracle that the about-face of repentance is reconnection with our deepest selves, and with God.