Pride goes before the fall. It is warning given to us by our elders, many times in our youth when we think we have it all figured out, and is based in one of Solomon’s proverbs (Proverbs 16:18-19). Just when we think we are on top of the world with our wealth, education, social status, or even our religion, we are undoubtedly a gut-wrenching moment away from being put back in our place. And unfortunately for us, the bigger the man, the harder the fall.
In Matthew Chapter 3, John the Baptist is sent out to prepare the way for Jesus. He is the “voice of the one crying in the wilderness”, and man dressed in camel hair (although I don’t think it was cashmere turtlenecks), and a diet based on what he could find around him in nature. No doubt, this man sent to prepare the way was a bit of a spectacle, but not deliberately. John gathered many followers, baptizing them for the forgiveness of their sins. John was taken aback when he saw who was in the line – Pharisees and Sadducees. Both the Pharisees and Sadducees were caught up in outward observance of religious law. They might pray in the streets (Matt 6:5), openly announce their giving (Matt 23), ask many religious, pious questions (Act 23), becoming spectacles themselves, yet still they only abided by the laws that conveniently roll off the tongue and fit their interest. These men were highly regarded for their piety. They were key members of the religious community. Their roots were in the church. Yet, time and time again, John, then, Jesus see these men for who they are: prideful hypocrites.
It is no wonder they come to John to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, something common with Jewish culture even before Christ, because this was an outward observance of faith, and really the one enduring public expression that remains today. For them, it was another way to add another tassel, place another feather, earn another merit badge to showcase their devotion (to their pride) on their whitewashed tomb (Matt 23:27-28). John calls out this action for what it is and begins to cut these men down to size, pleading with them to work on the inside: true repentance and bearing fruit (Matt 3:8). Then he warns them that God himself will cut these men down to size if he must, not simply pruning (John 15), but cut at the very root, and throwing their fruitless mess into the fire once and for all (Matt 3:10).
As we are reading today, let this be a warning to us, especially those of us who are “church folk”. We may study the Bible, hold a position of leadership, or make eloquent confessions of faith, but to whose purpose do we do these things? Are we lining up so we can receive our reward in full today (Matt 6:4)? Earn our badge, sticker, or tassel? I know I constantly battle my pride as I check more boxes of serving God. As I articulate and expound on deep theological questions, cast judgement in situations of others, or feel like I have shared a great message, I can’t help but think, “Wow. Good thing God has me on His side.” How arrogant. How prideful. How ashamed am I. The things I share, that I might selfishly revel in, that are so wonderful, so grand, are not my own, but God’s! Doing things “for Him”, like we ever could, does not assure our place in His kingdom (Matt 7:22; Eph 2:9-10). Only repentance and bearing fruit. Everyday we must fight for altruism in our lives, to die daily, to fall a little, and be consumed by God’s kingdom message. I’d rather be eating locust and wearing camel skin, than have God bring justice to me later – but today, it is a warning – Church, check your pride.