I think one of the things that people get wrong about sin the most often is that they reduce it down to being a moral judgment against a single person. In my mind this oversimplifies something that is much more complex and, perhaps, even more insidious. It's so easy to think of sin as something that happens when somebody does something wrong to somebody else. This is why can erupt in such outrage when something truly horrible happens. Somebody steals from another person, and we know that they have done something wrong. Surely that is a sin, and lo and behold it is indeed a sin. Somebody cheats on his or her spouse and we know that they have done something wrong. They have hurt another person emotionally through their actions. Indeed that is a sin. Somebody takes the life of another human being over argument. Indeed, that is a sin. I don't think anyone would object to those actions being called sinful, because in each instance another person is hurt and relationships are destroyed. Perhaps that's where we see another layer to sin as that which destroys our relationships with each other and with God, but sin can still be even more complicated.
Sin isn't just the events we can point to where a bad and wrong thing has been committed by one person against another person. Sin can even be those systems which oppress and hurt people on a daily basis. We can sometimes point to single people responsible (Hitler, Bin Laden). We can sometimes point to organizations or governments who hurt people and destroy relationships (The South and its participation in the horrors of slavery). But there are sometimes in which we cannot point at any one single person or even one single action as being the event of sin. The biggest example of this in the world is how there are people in the world who die from hunger when we throw away tons of food per day from our fast food restaurants. This world has the resources to stop people from dying of starvation or access to clean water, yet people still die. In other words, people are hurt and relationships are broken. If sin is simply a moral pronouncement against a single person, who do you judge? The truth is there are many people to bring to task over issues like hunger - local warlords, corporations and profit driven policies, governments abroad AND here who could handle this issue better, and even the American consumer like me and you. In some ways, no single person is at fault AND everyone is at fault. Do you really think that God has nothing to say to these situations as much as when we personally take the Lord's name in vain or would rather not keep the Sabbath day a day of rest? Like I said, sin is more complex than that, and we are all too often drawn up into sin that we are explicitly committing and complicit in its existence.
That's why when John the Baptist begins proclaiming a baptism of repentance, he makes the proclamation that all who have come are indeed in need of repentance in their lives. Not even the Pharisees and Sadducees can escape his bold proclamation that they too are in desperate need of help as well. This brood of vipers as he calls them are perhaps the people who could have been the most boastful about their lives. They were the ones who devoted their lives to the study of God's Law. They were the ones who devoted their lives to trying to be able to live out God laws to their fullest. They were the ones who could call themselves priests and caretakers of God's house. But John singles them out and tells them that they should even be wary of the wrath that is to come. They too have sinned as we have sinned. For John, repentance is the way to turn around, change your mind, and possibly even reorient your whole life into a new direction. He tells the people gathered there repentance leads to a life that bears fruit. To start this new life, they are then invited to a ritual cleansing to be purified as they would start their new life. Too bad for John that he did not know exactly what Jesus was coming on earth to accomplish.
John knew that Jesus was coming. He was trying to prepare the way for him, to make his paths straight. The only thing he wasn't prepared for was how Jesus would come to him and identify with all the people who needed to repent of their sins. John at the close of our reading refers to the one who is coming who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. He knows that the way of purification for the Israelites is for things that can stand fire to be passed through fire and things that cannot stand the fire to be passed through water. By this process they will be made clean. John knows that the people cannot stand the coming fire, so he passes them through water. This coming fire could be considered to be God's wrath, but it is important to remember that the fire of this other baptism is not meant to destroy, but to purify. This is important to hold onto to because God does not and will come to destroy us or the creation that God has made. God's wrath indeed says "No!" to the sin that pervades our life, but it also still says "Yes!" to us. Before God, the devil and sin cannot stand and will be burned away, and we will be left standing because of what Jesus has come to earth to do.
He has come to be for us even in our sins, and he comes to be WITH us where we are even in our sins. And this is precisely what surprises John the Baptist when Jesus does come. Jesus comes and he identifies with us. He enters into the same waters of purification that all the sinners have waded into. He comes as one of us to be one of us. In him, we see that God will indeed not throw us into the fire to be destroyed. Rather, we see a God who would give up everything, even the rightful condemnation of us because of the sin that we steep ourselves in. What then becomes of repentance? Rather than being that which purifies us and gets us right with God, it becomes the new life that is lived out in "the new world of God's Rule." (Duane Priebe, Lutheran Study Bible; Matthew 3:2 note) This is not something that can be brought about by us. It is brought about by the God who loves us, who comes to us.
What then of all this sin? Is it something that we simply do not need to worry about? No we do not need to worry about it in terms of banishing it to get right with God before the end. But sin more than anything does this: It calls a thing what it is. That may sound simple, but it is indeed something that calls into the complexity of seeing and discerning what is going on in the world and joining in with God in declaring what is harming ourselves, each other, and our relationships. For even as Jesus comes to earth to bring us life and salvation, he also invites us into new life of God's rule of love and compassion.