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Narrative Lectionary Text: Matthew 3:1-17
What do you want to burn today?
I know I would like to burn about twenty pounds. Are you with me on that one?
It is the New Year and many of us are asking this question. What would you like to burn off, or throw away, or drown? What is cluttering up your life?
You know I’ve been working on my dissertation.
By the way, that cold day on Wednesday was a gift from God for me. Everything I had planned to do was cancelled, so I worked for twelve hours and actually finished writing the complete first draft of my dissertation! Oh yeah.
I’ve been working on this paper since my sabbatical back in the summer. I’ve learned something about writing. Writing is more about what you throw away than it is about what you keep. I’ve probably written six or seven hundred pages, but my final paper is only 240 pages long. I’ll write and write, and think it is wonderful. Then I’ll come back to it the next day, and think, Oh, that’s just awful.
Sometimes its not that a particular section is bad. OK, sometimes it’s just bad and I hit delete. But, sometimes the passage might be good, but it just isn’t good for this particular paper in this moment, so I have to remove it from the text.
I have to burn it, prune it, drown it. And, as painful as the editing is, it gives me the freedom to write. The more I am free to edit, the more I am free to actually write without fear.
That’s what we’re talking about today. What needs to be cleansed from your life, right now, that would truly set you free?
We’ve come to the next stop on our journey through the Gospel of Matthew and we find a wild man in the wilderness talking about this same topic. Turn to Matthew 3:1-17.
I’ve drawn this picture to help us walk through the text and see what is going on.
It is divided into three sections.
The first section, verses 1-6, show us John the Baptist preaching out in the desert. The second section, verses 7-11, show us a conversation between John and the religious leaders of Israel. Then, the final section, verses 12-17, shows us this amazing scene where Jesus is baptized.
If we want to fully understand this text then we have to go back again and be reminded of the big picture that we’ve been looking at all year.
God has made a huge promise to Abraham and the children of Abraham. I will bless you to be a blessing to the nations. One picture, one metaphor, that God uses to describe Israel is the image of a vineyard. God planted Israel, with this promise, like a vineyard in the earth. The fruit of this vineyard was the blessing to the nations. It was the love of God demonstrated through the physical reality of the people of Israel.
The problem is that the fruit of this vineyard was rarely ever sweet. The people of Israel continually chased after other gods and sought their own blessing rather than blessing others.
The prophets continually warned the nation that God would prune the vine, burn the dead branches, and let new branches grow to try it again. This pruning cycle happened over and over.
Then we come to this story.
John is the last of these prophets. He steps onto the scene with the familiar story. “Repent,” he cries out, “the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
The people flocked to him. Think about that. The people willingly walked out into the desert, to listen to a man who wore camel skin clothes and ate nothing but locusts and honey, so that he could tell them to clean up their act because the Kingdom of God was about to show up.
Do you know what that tells me? The people were ready. The people were tired. They had been beaten up for centuries by one Empire after another, and ruled by one corrupt king after another.
They confessed their sins and were baptized. This baptism was a Jewish ritual of cleansing. It was a sign that the people wanted to come clean before God and start again.
Then the religious leaders showed up.
They walk out into the desert in their flowing robes, looking all important. Then John says, “who invited you guys. You brood of vipers!” Check that out. John called the religious people a bunch of snakes.
Of course they got defensive. John exposed the error of their theology. They think that, just because they are sons of Abraham, they are the righteous ones that God loves, and that God doesn’t love anybody else.
I wonder how many times we fall into that trap.
Yeah, I’m a Christian. I was born into a Christian family. My parents had me baptized. I’m good.
John challenges that thinking.
The religious rite of baptism is a good thing, he was doing it after all, but, if it is just an external thing, then we’ve missed the point.
He brings them back to the promise of God and asks, “Where’s the fruit? Are you being the blessing to all nations that God promised for you, or have you become so self-absorbed in your own religious superiority that your fruit has dried up?”
Then John says that one is coming who will not baptize with water, but will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Do you see these pictures here in the middle?
These are tools of cleansing. They are the editing tools of life.
The axe, the winnowing fork, water, and fire.
The purpose of baptism is to prune the tree and to burn away the chaff, so that the fruit can be fresh and give life. That wasn’t just a one time act to cleanse the sin of Adam and get you right with God. It is an ongoing process, so that we can be free to be the blessing to the nations.
That’s the whole point of the story, and that is the promise of the coming Kingdom.
Then Jesus shows up and the Kingdom of Heaven bursts out on the scene.
The new vine has sprouted out of the ground and we see a glimpse of what it is all about.
Keep this in mind. The point of Jesus’ ministry on earth was to show us what it actually looks like to walk in a faithful, loving relationship with God, in the power of the Spirit, and to be the fruit that God intended us to be.
This moment of Jesus’ baptism is a snapshot to set the stage for the Kingdom.
So you see what happened?
Jesus submitted himself to baptism. He humbled himself and said to God, get rid of anything that keeps me from following you.
Then Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
And then God looks down, like a loving, proud father and says, “I love this kid.” “Behold, my Son, my beloved.”
That is God’s vision for your life, too.
Each one of us is called, on a daily basis, to die to our own pride, to humble ourself to the will of God.
To be burned up and drown in baptism. Then we are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and we walk in the world knowing that God looks at us and says, “I love this kid.”
We are about to enter into a baptism renewal ceremony. We are going to splash water all over you. Literally.
One of three things could happen to you in the next few minutes.
First, you might just get wet.
This may mean nothing to you. You see, baptism is not a magical event that happened when you were a baby that somehow seals your membership in Heaven, and it is not merely an external ritual that you have to do because your grandparents said you should. If that is all it is, then you’re just wet. Maybe this ceremony will mean nothing to you. That’s fine.
The second thing that might happen to you is that the Holy Spirit may be kindling a fire in you right now.
The Spirit may be exposing an area of your life that needs to be burned up, cut off, drown in God’s cleaning fire and water. What is it? Give it to God. You have been baptized, and that was a gift from God. Right now the Spirit is inviting you to renew that baptism through this ceremony. Rest in the fact that your baptism was not a one time event, but is a way of life in which God’s Spirit refines you and empowers you to live in God’s Kingdom and to walk wet.
There is a third possibility.
Maybe you’ve never been baptized. This is all very foreign to you. Yet, you sense the Spirit doing something in you right now. If that is you, then I encourage you to grab me, or Pastor Mark, or a trusted friend and ask more questions. Maybe it is time for you to take that step, to follow Jesus into those waters, be baptized, and begin a new life in God’s Kingdom. We would love to walk you through that journey.
So, here’s the question for us today.
What is cluttering our lives so that the fruit of God’s love is not growing? What do we need to burn and how can we walk wet and free this week?