Matthew 3:1-12 – Thunder in the Desert!
While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:
'Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!'
John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life. When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.
“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
Before we even proceed, can we just take a moment and delight in the title John is given…….The Baptizer’. I mean, is that a WWE wrestler name and a signature move to be proud of or what?!
I remember my second Sunday going to an evangelical church. I was 14 and I brought my best friend who I have known since I was 4 years old. She is the most loyal and supportive friend. She also has no interest in faith or God so the fact she is still my best friend is a miracle! We went into the service and what met us was….interesting to say the least. One of the many little quirks of that church building was that underneath the front of the stage was a giant … pool. It was white and had 3 steps on either side of it. That Sunday was the first time I had ever seen saw an adult baptism and, though it didn’t shock me, it was definitely different. Audrey has not spoken of it since but she doesn’t have the best memory … or else she is completely traumatised. Either way, it was something that stuck with me over the years.
I was baptised as a baby in the Catholic Church and went on to make my First Communion, looking oh-so-angelic in my white communion dress. With my hands clasped together (in the prayer pose that we had been taught for months in school as we said the Angelus lunchtime daily), I was all sorts of saintly!!
As I entered a new expression of faith and explored how to 'do faith' as a teenager, baptism was a big thing. I watched a lot of my friends get baptised and would always well up when they were submerged and emerged – new and pure. I was often asked if I would get baptised (as many of my friends didn’t really acknowledge my baptism as a child) I never felt the desire, that moment of “YES! That’s what I want to do!” To this day, I don’t feel an overwhelming urge to get baptised as an adult.
In this week’s passage, John really doesn’t beat around the bush. Here he is in the desert wearing camel hair and a leather belt and preaching like there's no tomorrow. In the Message version, it says that his message was simple and austere. Initially, I am both attracted and repelled by those words. John's a confident man and had unwavering trust that God was with him and John understood who the real authority was. He didn’t take credit for his work. For most of the passage John sounds mad, loud, brash and harsh but he also displays humility and understands his place. Now, looking back on the words simple and austere, I understand where John is coming from. His motivation is to have people baptised who understand the act of baptism; who understand what the next step is and needs to be. To baptise people who understand that being baptised does not complete a journey, it is the start of one. He doesn’t want those who only want to get baptised because it looks good. His question is, 'What are you going do once you have been baptised? What happens next?'
Read on here and see:
“The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
But what if I don’t want to get baptised? Or what I was baptised before I made the conscious choice for myself? Can I still live a life that serves God? Can He still ignite that kingdom life within me? Can I have that fire and the Holy Spirit too? Can I be changed from the inside out??
Yes. We can have all those things — but only if we bow before Him, repent and begin the journey of breaking the patterns and the habits that distort and destroy our lives.
So what is repentance? It's not just an apology. It’s an owning up. It’s embracing the grief of the fact that we are not living our lives the way God has called us to. That we can’t see the potential that He sees within us. That our consciences are not even nudged when we do things that aren't of Him. Repentance calls us to face up to the stuff that we know deep within us doesn’t bring life. Repentance is a tough word because not only does it demand vulnerability, it also requires perseverance, humility and faith.
But what it gives back in return can’t be put into words. Something happens within us. That kingdom life, the Holy Spirit and that Fire all begin to sweep through us as we embark on the new chapter. A new life.
“Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin!”
Don’t do it because it will look good. That will only be temporary. Do it, no matter how hard it is, because you long for life; a life that is changed from the inside out.
You will get there. He is with you and He will change you from the inside out. It will take time and it will be hard but you will get there and He is with you.
Susie Keegan is a creative, a font nerd, a graphic designer and the Church of Ireland Chaplain to Dublin Institute of Technology with 11 years experience in youth work. Use ‘Comic Sans’ in the wrong context and you’ll feel her wrath! Being an author on this blog has really pushed her comfort zone and she is very happy to be part of this community.