Gospel - Matthew 3:1-12
How are your Christmas preparations coming? Lists and shopping and cards? How have you prepared for the season in a spiritual sense?
Christmas season. A time of preparation. Most Americans prepare for the holidays with lights and gifts, cards and good cheer. But the Church reminds us to prepare spiritually. What does that mean? In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist gave us a direction.
1 At the right time, John the Baptist showed up in the desert of Judea. 2 “Turn your lives back to God!” John preached. “The Kingdom of heaven will come soon!”
3 God pointed to John through the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“There is a voice shouting in the desert:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road!
Make God’s way straight to us!’”
4 In the desert, John wore camel hair clothes and a leather belt. For food, he used to eat locusts and wild honey.
5 People from Judea, its capitol Jerusalem, and the Jordan river valley kept coming to John. 6 They told God everything they did wrong. Then John baptized them in the Jordan river.
7 Some religious leaders called Pharisees and Sadducees also came to be baptized by John. But, many of them acted selfishly and did not care about the people. So, the people doubted the leaders really wanted to change their lives. “You bunch of snakes!” John shouted at the leaders when they approached. “Who warned you to run away from God’s anger? It will soon be here! 8 So, do something that will really show you’re turned back to God! 9 Don’t just say, ‘Abraham is our father; God loved Abraham, so he will love us, too.’ God is powerful enough to make these stones the parents of Abraham’s children.”
10 If people were like fruit trees, God would be ready to cut them down! Every tree that has bad fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire!”
11 “I baptize you when you turn back to God. But, after I’m no longer with you, another person will show up. He has so much more power than I have, that I’m not even worth to carry his sandals. For, he will dunk you in the Holy Spirit and fire!”
12 “In his hands right now, that person holds the tools to separate the grain from the chaff leaves that cover it. He will gather the grain together in his barn. But he will burn the useless chaff in a fire that will never end!”
Matthew’s gospel presented the Baptist in the context of prophecy about him, his arena and audience, his place in the religious pecking order, and his reason for preaching.
1 In those days, John the Baptist came, preaching in the desert 2 [and] saying, “Reform, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” 3 For this was the (word) spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying:
“A voice crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord.
Make straight his path.’”
4 John had clothes (made) from camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then, (they) traveled out, (the people of) Jerusalem, all (over) Judea, and all around the country of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized in the Jordan River by him.
7 Having seen many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “Family of snakes! Who told you to flee from (God’s) approaching wrath? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Father Abraham.’ I tell you God is able to raise up children of Abraham out of these stones! 10 Already the axe is laid to the tree root. Every tree not bearing good fruit will be cut down and will be thrown into the fire. 11 Indeed, I baptize you with water (as a sign pointing) to repentance. But the one coming after me is stronger than me, of whom I am not worthy to carry (his) sandals. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire! 12 As he (has) the winnowing tool in his hands, he will throughly clear his threshing floor and he will gather his wheat (harvest) into the barns, but he will burn the chaff in an unending fire.”
3:1 This passage is full of imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures. “In those days” echoed Judges 18:1 and Daniel 10:2. The phrase indicated indefinite time, similar to beginning a story with “Once upon a time.”
“John the Baptist came” Again the verb “came” was indefinite. It indicated appearance more than arrival.
“preaching in the desert...” The desert was an image of the Exodus, the place of intimacy between God and his people. Even though the desert was full of danger, it had the allure of retreat and reflection for the prophets. The Essence community, contemporaries of John and Jesus, set their roots in the desert above the Dead Sea.
Taken together, this verse evoked the image of the wilderness prophet, God’s man who appear to deliver his message in a place of intimacy with the divine.
3:2 The phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is the same as “the Kingdom of God.” In inferred God’s reign over his people. But, what did Jesus mean when he said it was near? There are several possibilities:
1) God was actively preparing to begin his reign. The end was near.
2) God was working one-on-one with each individual listener. Taken with the command to “reform,” the listener opened his head and heart to the Good News, the first announcements of the Kingdom.
3) God’s blessings were already present. In the process of repenting, the sinner only needed to look and see God working in his or her life.
4) God prepared his people to enter the Kingdom. The call of John to repent was an invitation to prepare for a communal nature of his reign. After all, God came to save his people, not just the individual.
Notice, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” can mean the immanent coming of the end times, the reform of the individual, and/or the experience of the community.
3:3 The prophecy was taken from Isaiah 40:3. Matthew subtly changed the focus of Isaiah from God to the Messiah. In other words, John fulfilled the role of Elijah, who, by popular belief, would come to prepare the people for the Christ.
3:4 John’s clothing echoed Elijah’s in 2 Kings 1:8.
3:7 “Family of snakes” or “Brood of vipers” This strident rebuke equated the leadership in Jerusalem with demonic powers. John placed the leadership on the same level as the serpent in the Garden of Eden! John interpreted the intent of the approaching leaders as insincere and two-faced. Did they come for baptism just to gain the confidence of the people? Or, did the come to undermine John’s ministry?
John’s attitude mirrored the disdain of the Essences for the leadership. It could have also reflected the distrust of the general population toward the mentioned groups.
3:9 “We have Father Abraham” Some believed that, since God promised a chosen people through Abraham, the coming salvation would come exclusively to the Jews. But salvation was not heredity. If it was, John’s efforts would have been in vain. Bloodlines, not repentance , would determine one’s future in the Kingdom.
3:11 “I baptize you with water (as a sign pointing) to repentance” can also be translated “I baptize you with water into (a lifestyle) of repentance.” The former meaning confirmed the moral change of the baptized already present. The later used baptism as an initiation into a new lifestyle. The meaning was vague because baptism could act both ways. A sign of change. And an initiation into a new life.
“He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire!” The presence of the Holy Spirit and fire were signs of the end times. Both implied the coming judgment. The Messiah would usher in the Kingdom.
This Sunday’s gospel introduces John the Baptist, the one who prepared the people for the coming of the Messiah. Matthew divided these passages into six sections: John and his message [3:1-2], prophecy concerning John [3:3], description of John himself [3:4], his audience [3:5-6], condemnation of leadership [3:7-9], John’s reason for preaching [3:10-12].
Within in the first two passages, Matthew set forth the message, the arena, and the goal of preparation: repent (in the desert) for God’s Kingdom. [3:1-2] In his day, John’s message challenged his audience. Because of the pressing needs for survival, the people back then lived in a present oriented culture. The culture was extremely conservative; change that upset the social order was viewed with great suspicion. John’s message flew in the face of the social view. It demanded personal moral change in uncomfortable surroundings (the desert) for an imminent (but future) event.
Matthew used Isaiah’s prophecy to accentuate John’s message. [3:3] The ancestors of John’s audience heard Second Isaiah’s call. They prepared for a return to their homeland. From exile in Babylon, they journeyed through the desert to Jerusalem. While Second Isaiah preached a physical return, John preached a spiritual return to God. The themes of return through the desert were the same for Second-Isaiah and John. Both echoed Exodus, the physical and spiritual journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Palestine.
John modeled his message of preparation. [3:4] While his lifestyle encouraged extreme survival (primitive conditions, dress, and diet), John trusted the Lord would provide all his needs. Through his own lack, John showed the people what repentance truly meant.
John’s message, lifestyle, and close approximation to Jerusalem made gave him an eager audience. [3:5-6] While traditional in theme (return through the desert), John was radical because he presumed to speak as a religious leader so close to Jerusalem. Of course, John would attract those who hated the traditional Jewish leaders (i.e., the Sadducees and the Pharisees) for their corruption. And, of course, he would attract the attention of the leaders themselves.
John railed against the Jewish leaders for their unwillingness to change and their pretense. [3:7-9] For their part, the Jewish leaders reasoned: “Why should we change? We Sadducees (the Temple priests and civic leaders in Jerusalem) offer true worship to our God according to his Law. We Pharisees (rabbis who taught salvation through strict observance of the Law) follow God’s Law faithfully. We are true descendants of Abraham, physically and spiritually. How is it possible for us to displease God?” As part of the establishment, the leaders resisted any change, especially one that might show lack their spiritual leadership.
But, John cut to the heart of the matter. Calling them “sons of snakes,” he insulted the leadership by aligning them with Satan. (Remember who the snake was in the Garden of Eden). Then, John demanded proof of moral change. Without change, how could someone show a true relationship with God? Being a Jew (“a son of Abraham”) who followed the Law was not enough! John insisted one’s heart return to the Lord. [3:7-9]
Finally, John defined the purpose of his own ministry. As a prophet, John declared judgement on the present situation. [3:10] But, he stepped beyond his prophet’s role as a mediator. As a Baptizer (the unique quality of his ministry), John “dipped” people in water in order to declare repentance of the sinner before God and his people. [3:11a] John represented God to the sinner and the sinner before God. Through baptism, John replaced the mediating role of the Jewish leadership; they no longer could represent the people to God (had they lost that privilege through corruption?)
John saw his mediator’s role as minor, for One greater would come to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (as if both were liquids). [3:11b] The One greater than John would be God’s instrument of judgment; he would be the One who would cut down the fruitless tree and harvest the wheat. He would be the one who burn the tree and the chaff. [3:10,12]
Unlike first century Palestine, we live in a future-oriented culture that lives for the moment; during the holidays we intensely prepare for that special Christmas event. Unlike John’s contemporaries, we do not need to focus on the future; we need to concentrate on the present.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: Judging the Living and the Dead
678 Following in the steps of the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the judgment of the Last Day in his preaching.... Our attitude about our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love. On the last day Jesus will say: "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Christmas is a time to think of others. Part of our preparation is giving, especially to those in need. As we reflect on the coming holiday, let us consider others, for love of others strengthens our love of God.
How have you focused on the needs of others this season? How have you reached outside your family and circle of friends to help?
Matthew presented the sweeping figure of John the Baptist. The desert prophet who preached and baptized. The Elijah figure who prepared the people for the Messiah.
How do we prepare for the coming of the Lord? This second Sunday in Advent gives us a sign. To pause and think about our place with the Lord. And our place with others. The celebration of this Sunday gives us the time to get ready. For the coming of the Lord!
When do you take “desert” time to reflect on this hurried and harried season? How do you reform in a culture that gives us so many choices, moral and otherwise? What does it mean to wait for the coming of Jesus even when you celebrate his arrival on December 25th?