Matthew 3.1-12

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" John the Baptist's words, not mine! But it's a pretty withering put down in anybody's language. John was, of course, a master in the school of "how to lose friends and irritate people" and as we know from our numerous encounters with them in past weeks, it was open season on the poor old Pharisees and Sadducees.

But what exactly was he talking about? What is this wrath that is to come? Is that what the people were doing when they came to him for baptism - fleeing a wrath that they believed was coming? Well, yes, in short. But to understand it, we need to understand that the whole bible was written against the backdrop of the most cataclysmic event in Israel's history - the Exile in Babylon. This was an event which took place around 600 years before the birth of Christ - from 587 B.C. to be precise. And what happened, in simple terms, was that in 589 B.C. king Nebuchadnezzar II invaded Jerusalem, deposed the king of the Jews and set up a puppet king in his place. Then a year later, he came back and kidnapped the entire ruling classes and took them into captivity in Babylon, while Jerusalem and the entire Promised Land was subsumed into the vast Babylonian empire.

Now this would have been pretty catastrophic for most societies (and an awful lot of societies in that part of the world suffered the same fate at Nebuchadnezzar's hands). But just think about it for a moment from the perspective of the Jews. Their whole worldview is based around the idea that the Lord God of Israel is the supreme God, that they are his chosen people and that his sovereignty is demonstrated to the world by protecting his people within the Promised Land.

Their whole world has suddenly come to a violent and ignominious end. The Promised Land no longer exists. The Temple - the dwelling place of God - is destroyed. The Lord God of Israel has been proved to be nothing but a pipe-dream, a mere silhouette. Everything they live for has been wiped out.

And it is around this time that the Prophet Isaiah is writing. For the first 40 chapters of the book of Isaiah, the prophetic words have all been terrifying warnings of impending disaster. But even in the midst of those warnings, Isaiah is beginning to hold out to the people the hope of a saviour. And by Chapter 40, when the disaster of exile has fallen up on them, the whole tone of Isaiah has changed. Chapter 40 is like the sunrise after the apocalypse: "Comfort, O comfort my people says the Lord."

In the midst of despair and complete ruin, God appears with words of hope. And this hope begins to build, not just in Isaiah, but in all the prophetic writings. If the people repent, if they turn back to their God and seek his love, they will find him and he will send them a saviour, who will restore their homeland to them and fulfil every promise of the Promised Land. And above all, God himself will come to them again and live among them as their king.

So we have two key themes beginning to emerge: (1) a saviour who will bring them home and (2) the Day of the Lord, the day when God's judgment would be pronounced against the Gentiles and in favour of Israel and a new era would begin - the kingdom of heaven, God's kingdom on earth.

And, amazingly, in 539 BC, the invincible Babylonians fell to the Persian empire. And the following year Prince of Persia, Cyrus, sends the Jewish people home. The exile is over. The Jewish people can be a people once more. And here's the miracle - of all the cultures quashed by the Babylonians, only the Jews survived in tact. And they seemed to survive because they were able to re-evaluate their story, cling to God's promises and change the way they lived in the light of what God was saying to them - and so find a hope beyond the point where all hope had died.

So when they got home, they responded to this monumental event in their corporate lives by writing down all their stories and traditions to ensure that they would never again stand in danger of obliteration. And those writings are what we call the Bible, or at least the Old Testament. The Old Testament was complied in order (a) to remember who they had been before Exile, (b) to make sense of their exile experience; and (c) to understand where they were going from now on. So when you read the Old Testament, you must always read it through the lens of the Exile in Babylon and it will begin to make sense.

And of all the stories of their past that they began to recount at this time, one story came to make the most sense of what they had been through: the story of the Exodus - the flight from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Exodus and Exile stand as the twin peaks of the Old Testament: two stories of God saving them from slavery and setting them free in their own land.

But now, there was another problem. Their exile was over - in the sense that they were back in Jerusalem. But in another sense their exile was not over. They were still a vassal nation, not free as God had promised. They were exiles in their own land. And so they were still waiting for God to set them free and they were still waiting for the coming of his kingdom - his return to live among them.

And it is this post-exile experience of being exiles in their own homes, that really begins to shape their longing for a saviour, a figure called the Messiah, who will be God's superhero - the perfect model Jew, the one who administers justice, the one who exacts revenge on Israel's enemies and who restores the Davidic monarchy - the Throne of David. When he comes, he will finally set his people free and the day of his coming, "the Day of the Lord", will be a day of liberation for the people of Israel, but the day of wrath for her Gentile enemies.

Now, for the next 600 years this sense of being exiles in their own land grows. And their desperation for the Day of the Lord, for the coming of the Messiah also grows. And by the time of John the Baptist, it has reached fever pitch, not least, because his message seems to be that the Day of the Lord is imminent. He is specifically saying that the kingdom of heaven (the time when God himself will come) has come near. He is quoting the very passage from Isaiah chapter 40 that speaks of the end of Exile. The Messiah must be coming very soon.

And so, John is getting the people to act out the very story that made sense of their Exile - the story of the Exodus. And he does it by getting the people to climb back into the river Jordan - the river through which they first entered the Promised Land when fleeing from Egypt. He does it by getting them to repent - literally to turn around and look again at their Promised Land as though for the first time. And in doing so, to remember this simple rule: that when they maintain their relationship with God, their lives run in the right direction. And when they neglect their relationship with God, it runs in the wrong direction.

That is not to say that if they remain close to God all will go well - not at all. Tough times come to us all, and evil is no respecter of justice. They know all too well that bad things happen to good people. But they also know that when they enter into fullness of relationship with God, they find what they need to survive and to flourish despite what the world throws at them. That is why they are so desperate for the kingdom of heaven - because that means God living with them - relationship fully restored.

And that is why John comes preaching a message of repentance and baptising in the Jordan - because freedom is coming, end of Exile is coming, the Messiah is coming, the kingdom of heaven is coming. So we need to live differently now.

And as for the Pharisees and Saducees, well they need to do a bit more than get into the Jordan and come out again. You can't just make a show of repentance. It has to be real. "Bear fruit worthy of repentance", John tells them. Start living the kingdom of heaven now or you'll have no part of it when it comes. It's no good saying "we're children of Abraham", "we've got the story, we're the chosen people." Anyone who repents is a child of Abraham. Repentance has to be real.

So where does that leave us? Well, in a way, we're in the same position as the people of Israel. Our Messiah has come, but we're still in exile in our own home. We cling to stories and promises that everyone else has forgotten and we are increasingly cold-shouldered by our society for it. Being a true Christian, rather than a nominal Christian, is getting harder in this land. But the old message is still true, and I suggest we respond like the people of the Old Testament did to their exile:

  1. We re-evaluate the story. One of the most startling things about Jesus as the Messiah, is that he came too early. He didn't come at the end of time to bring about the Day of the Lord. He came in the middle of time to show us how to live in order to be fit for the kingdom of heaven and the Day of the Lord, and even to bring it in by living in obedience to God's kingship. So the kingdom of heaven is something that becomes real here and now when people live under God's kingship, as Jesus did. So imitating Jesus in order to make the kingdom of heaven a reality in our lives is our mission.
  2. We should cling to the promises, even beyond the point where it is reasonable to hope. The Day of the Lord is still coming and it is still good news for God's people, so we must long for it (that is what Advent is all about, longing for the coming of God's kingdom on earth and for final justice to be established). But we must also ensure that we will be on the right side when it comes and that is why the third point is so important:
  3. We must bear fruit worthy of repentance. Advent is a season of penitence and above all that means, not donning sackcloth and ashes, but turning back wholeheartedly into relationship with God: delighting in his word; longing to hear from him and speak to him, thrilling at everything he does and all he has created and living in the way that he commands, right now, because then, as now, the time is short.

The old rule is still true: when we maintain our relationship with God, our lives run in the right direction. And when we neglect it, it runs in the wrong direction. So let's re-evaluate the story, cling to the promises and bear fruit worthy of repentance and see if it doesn't just set us free after all.

Preached: Cliburn, 5th December 2010