(Matthew 3: 1-12)
Being a street patrolman in Houston in the late 70s and early 80s had its problems and challenges. The problem wasn’t so much the crime. We expected that and met it head on with a dedication to serve and protect the people. The problem was that we didn’t feel as if the command staff and the city supported us or had our best interests at heart. You see, the department had just experienced a mass exodus of retirements of officers hired after World War Two and the Korean War. Now the department was hiring their kids, kids who grew up in the sixties and had no problem questioning the status quo. The problem was that we had no voice and, if we complained, we were quickly told we were free to go elsewhere. Easier said than done for those of us with young families to support. We felt it was wrong because we were the ones going out there every day to fight crime in a very violent city and those in power were less than sympathetic as they had nice cushy desk jobs. What would be better we thought? Well, it would be better if we had a voice. There was a Police Officers Association, but they were controlled by the command staff and were more interested in running the department’s softball league than speaking out for us dues paying members and rocking the boat. So how do we get a voice and change the status quo? Well, we formed a police officers union that was affiliated with the AFL-CIO and limited membership to patrol officers and sergeants. Well, that sent shock waves through the department and the city as they worried how a “unionized” police force would disrupt the balance of power. At first, we were pretty radical, and our ranks grew quickly. After a few years, I ran for president of the union on the platform that we should use our power to work with the department, the other police association and the city. I won handily but didn’t realize I had upset the status quo of the union hierarchy that worked actively behind the scenes to undercut my authority. My message was well received by the officers and it appeared the city and command staff were willing to talk, but the displaced Union hierarchy wasn’t having it. It didn’t end well.
And that’s where we find ourselves in our scripture reading for this morning. John the Baptist has burst on the scene announcing that one is coming who is going to change the status quo, so you better repent and change your ways. John is preaching that the long-expected Messiah is coming, someone who will disrupt the power structure. God saw a problem with how his children were being treated by the privileged. Those who were supposed to be seeing to their needs, the religious authorities and the government were only interested in getting theirs and keeping others from getting any of it. The people were barely getting by, let alone making enough of a living to get ahead. They had resigned themselves to living within their own status quo. Now John was not the person you would expect to be introducing such an important guest or dignitary. But people flocked to him and traveled out into the wilderness to be baptized and confess their sins. John is proclaiming; Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. He’s telling them change is coming so they better get ready. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, he tells them. John is a “resistance” preacher. He’s telling the people that the time is coming when change will be made and that they get to be a part of the coming kingdom. He’s not like those priests who are preaching a message every Sabbath of a fearful and vengeful God so they better do as they say and bring their tithes and sacrifices.
But there were others in the crowd who weren’t ready to change. They were the command staff and liked things just the way they were. They got along just fine with the governing authorities and didn’t need this agent of change upsetting the status quo. But John spotted them in the crowd. They were the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come to him for baptism. John had gotten their attention because he had been criticizing the Pharisees for being legalistic and hypocritical, following the letter of the law while ignoring its true intent. He criticized the Sadducees for using religion to advance their political position. Maintaining the status quo at the expense of others. He lashes out at them saying; You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do 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. He’s saying it doesn’t matter if you are sons and daughters of Abraham if you aren’t doing anything other than going to synagogue once a week. Bear fruit worthy of your repentance. Do something to show people you are truly a child of God. Ironically, we have the same problem today with our own Christianity. We have preachers and governing councils that are more concerned with maintaining their status quo while God’s children are being neglected and ignored right in the shadows of their very churches. Just keep sending your apportionments and everything will be fine.
John tells them to bear fruit or get the axe. He’s telling them that; even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree, every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. John’s message of 2,000 years ago should still resonate with the modern Christian church of our time. Bear good fruit or get the axe. There are churches closing almost every day that are not bearing fruit and the anointed leaders can’t seem to figure out why. It’s because they are more worried about maintaining their status quo than bearing fruit that helps others. You know, the folks outside their holy huddle. I don’t know why some churches are like that. They know better but don’t want to change. It’s just fine the way it is.
So, what do we do? We do as John commanded; repent. Repentance means doing an about face, a 180 degree turn from the kind of self-centeredness that leads to wrong actions such as lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, taking revenge, abusing, and anything else that is harmful to self or others. A person who repents stops rebelling and begins to follow God’s way of living prescribed in his Word. The first step in turning to God is to admit your sin, as John urged, then God will receive you and help you live the way he wants. Today Jesus Christ reigns in the hearts of believers, but the kingdom of heaven will not be fully realized until all evil in the world is judged and removed. This will never be accomplished as long as we accept the status quo.
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preparing others to welcome him. People who do not know Jesus need to be prepared to meet him. We can prepare them by explaining their need for forgiveness, demonstrating Christ’s teachings by our conduct, and telling them how Christ can give their lives meaning. Say no to the quo. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can be the ones making straight the paths for them by correcting misconceptions that might be hindering people from approaching Christ. Show them that not all churches are that way, and we certainly are not.
John the Baptist called people to more than words or ritual, he told them to change their behavior before it was too late. Producing fruit in keeping with repentance means that God looks beyond our words and religious activities to see if our conduct backs up what we say, and he judges our words by the actions that accompany them. Do our actions or inaction serve to maintain the status quo? Ask yourself; do you practice what you preach? Could people discover what you believe by observing the way you live? The same can be said of our church. Are we practicing what we preach? Do people see what we believe by observing how we live in their community? People may be curious about your Christian lifestyle and values or wonder about this little church you go to every Sunday. You can use their simple curiosity as an opener to share how Christ makes a difference in you, how we make a difference in the community, and how we say no to the status quo.
As John the Baptist so bluntly pointed out, God has no use for people who claim to be religious but do nothing about it. We have to ask ourselves; are we God’s people in name only? If so, the love of Christ is not in us and we are just a part of the status quo. God calls us to be active in our obedience. To be productive for God, we must obey his teachings, resist temptation, actively serve and help others, and share our faith. If we keep on doing what we’re doing with all that God provides us and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will be doing our part to establish God’s kingdom in our little corner of the world and with the conviction of Jesus Christ, say no to the quo.
Please pray with me.
Gracious God, how great is thy faithfulness that you have kept your covenant with your people as you said you would. Your love for us is never changing and your compassion never fails. All the earth testifies to your great faithfulness, mercy and love. By your grace we have received a pardon for our sin and a peace that endureth that gives us strength for today and a bright hope for tomorrow. Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies we see; all we have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto us