To the north - on their left - Abraham ben Isaac was taking advantage of an early morning breeze to do some threshing. Yesterday, he had stacked newly-harvested stalks of wheat on a limestone platform atop a small hill.
At first light, Abraham ran over the stalks with a threshing sled. The sled is a wooden slab into which many holes have been drilled. The holes are filled with pieces of basalt rock which crush the stalks as the weighted sled is rolled over the stalks of wheat on the hillside ground.
Now, with a mild morning breeze moving across the hill, Abraham uses a winnowing fork to throw the piles into the air. The soft breeze cradles the extremely light chaff and carries it to form new piles which will be gathered and burned. The chaff has no other purpose than as fuel for fires.
The heavier wheat falls back to the ground below forming piles that are gathered and stored for the making of bread.
In those days came John The Baptist, preaching in the wilderness, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."
The five Pharisees quickly discover the man they have come to challenge is a man whose very presence and appearance demand attention. You may follow him or you may challenge him - but you cannot ignore him. He and his message dominate the very landscape in which he stands. God has selected a most appropriate landscape and had already announced the work John the Baptist would do there over seven centuries (713 BC) before John was even born. For this was he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’"
The people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.
The wilderness ravine where John preached and baptized and through which the Jordan flows remains as unfit for human habitation as the parts of the wilderness through which the five Pharisees have so recently passed. Because of the excessive heat the water is undrinkable and the wild growth is inedible. It remains a stark reminder of that other wilderness through which their ancestors had traveled for forty years and learned to live by faith in God after being shut out of the Promised Land for so long a time due to their lack of faith.
The barren wilderness was chosen for the Baptist's work by God Himself because of the powerful symbol it provided of the spiritual poverty of the people being called to repentance by this prophetic servant of God.
The five Pharisees were well acquainted with Isaiah's words of prophecy and they knew The Messiah's Coming would be preceded by the voice of one crying in the wilderness, but they rejected the notion of John the Baptist being that voice.
Pharisees looked to powerful priests and pious Pharisees as the truly appropriate people to proclaim God's authentic messages - and to point the way to God's promised Saviour. True, John was the son of a family of priests and therefore, by descent, a priest in every sense of the word but they had come with the high priest’s authority to question John’s style and his refusal to follow the high priest's company line. Look how John lives - and dresses - and eats - and what he preaches.
John wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist... His choice of clothing was itself a sermon no high priest or Pharisee would as authentically have preached. His life- as much as his words – was a living illustration of what is most important in life. Remember Jesus’ own words in His Sermon on the Mount - “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? This man in wilderness garb made the people think of more important things and even eternal things – made them come to terms with the most essential and important relationship God Himself was coming to establish with us all.
The five Pharisees should not have been surprised by John's appearance or by the location of his pulpit. Had not their own spiritual forefathers learned the meaning of faith in the wilderness?
And his food was locusts and wild honey - the food of the wilderness. Four kinds of locusts (or grasshoppers) are still eaten by the poor and in times of famine. The wings and legs are torn off, the bodies are dried or roasted or ground up and baked and seasoned with salt. The Holy Land is known for its wild bees and honey which can be found in abundant supply even in wild regions where John preached.
People came in large numbers to hear John's powerful proclamation of God's Word and to be baptized by this prophetic priest
But when John The Baptist saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father', for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. …"
The Pharisees were people of God - and people of God are truly special people - but they are special because of God's grace - not because of their ancestry or by their merit or by anything else worthy of any self-boasting. John warned that God Who created Adam out of the dust of the earth – out of the basic elements of creation - is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. It is God’s Grace in breathing into us the breath of life soul and creating us in His Own Image for a loving relationship that makes us true people of God.
By the grace of God, the Pharisees' and Sadducees' lives should have been proclaiming the Love and Power of God - as John's life was - and as Abraham's and Isaac's and Moses' and the prophet's lives had before John.
John addressed these Pharisees and Sadducees as "You brood of vipers". Prophets were never known for their subtlety - not when strong medicine was needed. "You brood of vipers" was a sermon opening that must certainly have gotten heir attention.
Notice, though, John does not call the Pharisees and Sadducees "vipers" -- but rather the brood or off-spring of vipers". There is a significant difference. A "viper", as all well know, is a small, but poisonous serpent - and contact with one can mean death.
Adam and Eve followed Satan as a viper out of paradise and into sin and death. The Pharisees and Sadducees were making themselves an obedient brood of that viper.
Pharisees who came to hear John preach claimed their faith was in God -- but they lived their lives as if their true allegiance was somewhere else - as if their faith and their loyalty were in those things which bring nothing but eventual and eternal death.
Life is a threshing sled. Illness, war, crime, corruption in high places, financial setbacks, unrealized hopes, family strife, injury, failure, and finally death itself run roughshod over us and deal crushing blows. Temptations offer us a great deal, but in the end prove to be crushing weights to carry. We are sorely tested by our failures and our triumphs - by our sorrows and our joys - by the bad times and the good. Back and forth over us like a huge threshing sled, life moves on. And the end is coming.
John warned that The Lord's "winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire."
When The King of kings Lord of lords comes, life’s threshing sleds have done their work and no one is worthy to stand in Jesus’ Presence - all are unclean sinners. John called upon all who heard his words to acknowledge that great truth by being symbolically baptized entering the Jordan River in recognition of their need to be cleansed and made worthy to stand in The Lord’s Presence. Many came and were baptized. And John promised there was more … far more.
John said, "I baptize you with water for repentance – give you the opportunity to symbolically confess your need for what only God can give - but He Who is coming after me is mightier than I, Whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with The Holy Spirit and with fire."
THE PEACE OF GOD WHICH PASSES ALL HUMAN UNDERSTANDING KEEP YOUR HEARTS AND YOUR MINDS IN CHRIST JESUS. AMEN.
Second Sunday In Advent
December 4, 2016
Pastor Kurt Borows
Pastor, Resurrection Lutheran Church, Catawba Island, Port Clinton, Ohio