In those days: the kingdom at hand

Jesus meets John the Baptist

Matthew 3:1-12. 1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:“A voice of one crying out in the desert,‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”  4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Commentary. Luke introduces the ministry of John the Baptist with a careful historical introduction listing the year, the emperor, the rulers of the surrounding territories, and the high priest who was in office. Matthew introduces John’s ministry with a very general, “in those days.” The point is not that Matthew was unaware of the interval of about thirty years that he is passing over. Rather, his purpose was to show that the birth of Christ and the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry are part of the same flow of God’s activity in salvation history. There are two major sections within this passage. Verses 1-6 introduce the ministry of John the Baptist while verses 7-12 summarize the message of John.

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year, the Gospel reading presents the preaching of John the Baptist. This passage is the traditional text for Year A and reflects the advents themes of preparation and expectation. Matthew 3:1–12 describes John’s preparation for Jesus (also see Mark 1:2–8; Luke 3:1–18; John 1:19–28). Although we normally call him “the Baptist,” Matt 3:1-12 does not focus on his baptizing activity as much as on other aspects of his ministry: John as Preacher/Prophet, and John as the Forerunner to Jesus.

Contrary to today’s popular misconceptions, biblical prophets do not merely or even primarily “predict” the future. Rather they “speak on behalf of God” (Greek pro-phemi), and they do this through both their words and their actions. Thus, John not only talks like a prophet (preaching a message of repentance), but he also acts like one (as Matthew describes his clothing and diet in the desert). John not only calls all people in general to repent, but he has particularly harsh words for some of the more “religious” people, challenging them to show their repentance in their actions, to “produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (3:8), as all other biblical prophets also did.

Near the end of this reading, Matthew portrays John in a related, but slightly different role: that of a forerunner to Jesus. John is quoted as speaking about “the one who is coming after me,” who “is mightier than I” (3:11), which makes this selection especially appropriate for Advent. The strong focus on judgment, however (“the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”; 3:12), might not seem very “Christmassy” to us, yet it can remind us that during Advent (and all year long) Christians are not only preparing to celebrate the birth Jesus from 2000 years ago, but are also preparing for the future coming of the Son of Man and our final judgment and the daily coming of Jesus into our lives – something that all the Advent readings call to our attention.

Matthew’s Summary. Matthew’s summary comes at the very beginning (v. 2), where John’s preaching is summarized in exactly the same words as Jesus’ preaching is summarized in 4:17: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Both preachers demand a radical conversion of the whole person to God, and both urge it as preparation for the new age when the God of Israel will be acknowledged as the Lord by all creation. The phrase “is at hand does not do justice to the perfect tense of engizō, which means literally “has come near”. The perfect is used also in 26:45 and 46 (cf. Luke 21:8, 20) and introduces a state of affairs which is already beginning and which demands immediate action. John’s summons is urgent: the time for decision has already come.

Repenting. The Greek for “repent” (metanoeo) means, “to change one’s mind.” However, given Matthew’s emphasis on “bearing fruit,” his idea of “repentance” probably goes back to the Hebrew shuv — “to change one’s ways.” It involves more than just thinking in a different way. The word “Repent” is really a command, and is in the present tense, which denotes continual or repeated actions, i.e., “Keep on repenting!” Repentance is not a door we pass through once that gets us into the kingdom; repentance is the ongoing life of the kingdom people here and now. Warren Carter enhances this understanding by noting that when people repent when prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. Both “way” and “path” are metaphors for God’s will and purposes (Deut 5:33; Jer 7:23; Matt 7:13-14). God’s purposes, manifested in Jesus, will be experienced either as salvation or as condemnation depending on one’s response to the call – here seen in John’s call to repent. To repent signifies, then, not only specific changes in structures and ways of living, but a basic receptivity to God’s purposes.

Repentance is also a daily renewal of our baptismal vows.  St Paul wrote: “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Roman 6:3–4). It is living the newness of life that is the focus of repentance best understood. But there is a potential pitfall. If we understand living the newness of life as a sequence of “I can” – “I am sorry for my sins. I can do better. I can please you, God.” Then we over accent our “doing” to our openness to God’s will.  It is the subtle difference between our turning to God without recognizing that in Jesus God has turned to us.

In repenting we ask the God, who has turned towards us, buried us in baptism and raised us to new life, to continue his work of putting us to death. In other words, to repent is to volunteer and ask that the “death of self” which God began to work in us in baptism continue to this day. The repentant person comes before God saying, “I can’t do it myself, God. Let me die to self so that you can give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life.” That is the language of repentance. Repentance is a daily experience that renews our baptism.

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. What should be our response to the coming of heaven? Should it be worship, praise and giving thanks? Ironically, those are good responses, but in Matthew’s gospel, not the ideal ones. Jesus never reprimands people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel (compare Luke 17:17-18), but he does rebuke those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented (11:20-24). For Matthew, the ideal response seems to be repentance. We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God (15:3-9). Thus, the responsive worship of the crowds in 9:8 and 15:31 is commendable but will be in vain if performed with unrepentant hearts.  It is Matthew’s warning to the overtly religious of his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees – and perhaps to us in this season of Advent – it is good to want to celebrate and praise, but make your priority repentance.  Let the coming one change our lives.

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