1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’ ”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
In the early 1970’s began the controversially desecration in the schools. Students were being bussed across town so that the blacks and the whites were a mixed combination.
Tony Nathan, an African American was one of those blacks that was bussed across town who then attended a predominately white high school.
The name of the school is Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama. Tony Nathan and several other black students join the football team in the predominately white school.
It’s 1973 and racial tensions were running very high, and riots were breaking out. Their coach, Tandy Geralds, tells his team to use their shared anger at repeated violent incidents to unite them, but the players continue to clash on and off the field.
After a riot, the football coach, Geralds agrees to let a ‘traveling Sports Chaplain’ – Hank Erwin – speak to the team as a motivational speaker. Hank’s speech moves nearly the entire team to accept his invitation to commit their lives to follow Jesus Christ.
Coach Geralds does not accept the invitation. In fact, he is confused by the whole thing and is not sure what to make of the event.
Now I am here to tell you that I do not know much about sports at all. But I do know that in football, one scores points by running down the field with the football in hand until he crosses the line and makes a ‘touchdown.’
Tony Nathan was the running back for the football team. He demonstrates – regardless of the color of his skin, that he is a very gifted player.
What we look like on the outside does not tell the story of who we are in the inside. It’s easy for us to make judgements about others before we even get to know them.
This is certainly the case with this fellow, John the Baptist in our text today. I guarantee you that if we met this guy today, I doubt very seriously we would not bother to give him the time of the day.
He has never cut his hair. He made his clothes out of camel hair and wore a leather belt around his waist to keep it from falling off. And he lived in the wilderness where his food was locusts and honey.
He sounds disgusting. But, yet people flocked to him to listen to what he was saying –
“Prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.
People of Jerusalem, all of Judea and those who lived all along the Jordan river came flocking to him –
He was baptizing them left and right – as many that would come. And, not only that but they were confessing their sins to him. And John was cleansing them with the waters of the Jordan River.
And then guess who else shows up to be baptized? The Pharisees and the Sadducees. When John sees them, he calls them, “Brood of Vipers.” In other words, they are a family of snakes.
You have to admit that this is a bold move on John’s part. These Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders in Israel. They were the law keepers and promoters of tradition.
Over time, these well-meaning groups, had become corrupt, legalistic, and hypercritical and eventually would be the ones who would be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Vipers were evil creatures, and its venom was deadly. For John to call them a “Brood of Vipers” implies that they bore satanic qualities.
He was pointing out that these men were deceitful, dangerous, and wicked.
- Deceitful in that they were hypocrites
- Dangerous in that they were blind leaders leading the blind
- And wicked in that their hearts were full of murder.
For John to call them a ‘brood of Vipers’ was meant was to make them aware of their own wickedness and call them to repent.
John is a bold man to speak to the religious leaders in this way, no doubt. He warns them of the judgment that they will face and gives them advice to repent, but to first bear fruit that is even worthy of repentance.
In other words, quit doing the evils works that you are doing that has corrupted the community and do works that creates a fair and just community.
But here is where John really tells them…
John the Baptist is calling the Jews to repentance for the forgiveness of sins. They cannot rely on the fact that just because they are Jews, they cannot rely on their Jewishness for their salvation.
There has to be transformation – A changed heart that turns toward God.
Even more importantly, John makes it clear that salvations is implied that both that Jewishness is no guarantee of salvation and non-Jewishness is no hinderance from salvation.
What matters is repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And so, why…why did people from all of Jerusalem, Judea, and those in the region of the Jordan River flock to come and accept John’s invitation to be baptized?
Would we have been one of those persons who would have gone before a man who looked like someone who never shaved, cut his hair, and eat locusts for lunch?
I’ll be honest…I think if our world and our country continue to go in a direction in which we will be persecuted for being a Christian, or where our taxes will be so high, we find it difficult to live off our wages…or if our government becomes so corrupt –
it’s difficult to say what we might do or not do…
This was the case for these people in those days. There was no justice or fairness in their system. People were disparate. Women and the poor were outcasts in their society. Food was scarce. Life was hard.
And so what John brings to them is a new way to live. His invitation to be baptized in the Jordan River, was not just to get in the river and get wet. It was an invitation to live in a different way.
It was an invitation for transformation…to not live a life that was ruled by government officials, but to live a life that was ruled by God.
It was an opportunity to experience joy – not a slave to sin – but freedom from sin.
John’s invitation to make straight the paths – Repent for the forgiveness of sins was an invitation to have hope for a better tomorrow that provided love, grace, and mercy.
It is an invitation to believe in something far more -greater that any of us can ever imagine.
It is an invitation to experience GRACE so profoundly that it changes who you are and who you become.
Tony Nathan, an African American running back, joined a high school football team in 1973 when racial tensions were running high. He was told over and over again that he would never get to play for Alabama because of the color of his skin.
But not only does Tony go to Alabama to play football, but also later joins the Miami Dolphins.
Hank Erwin came to the team to give a motivational speech that motivated every single player to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ.
Coach Gerald fought and resisted to be a part of what his team had done. He told his wife, “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”
But as time went on, things began to change. The black and white players began to respect each other and began to get along.
Coach Geralds witnessed the transformation. His players asked him one evening if he would like to come with them to their weekly bible study. The coach declined the offer.
But he did go to where they were meeting and peeked inside the door. What he witnessed, changed his heart – He saw a group of men – both black and white – laughing, praying, and studying God’s word.
That next Sunday, he went to a black church where Tony Nathan attended – walked into the church and told them, “I want what you have. I want to be baptized.”
I don’t know if you and I would follow a leader like John the Baptize. But what I do believe that if we were to witness the joy that others were experiencing, we would want to have what they have.
I believe that we too would want to be baptized in the river Jordan.
We make the path forward for others when we too repent for the forgiveness of sins…
When we tell others about the joy that we have in Jesus Christ…
When we love others – forgive others – That’s when the transformation begins to take place…
Letting go of our differences and leading a life of love and grace changes who we are and who we are to become.
Tony Nathan and Coach Gerald’s lives are depicted in the movie, “Woodlawn.” Coach Gerald loses his job for allowing prayer in the schools.
The movie traces the spiritual movement that swept through the football team and eventually united the team members, the school, and the community.
It is an example of what happens, “When God shows up.”
And that is exactly what God does on that Christmas morning. He shows up…
He shows up to give us a new way forward. A new way to live.
God shows up to give us his grace.
God shows up to give us a gift – His one and only Son who has the power to change the world through the repentance for the forgiveness of our sins.