Prophet and Herald

This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Advent in Lectionary Cycle A. In yesterday’s post we took a brief excursion to explore John’s understanding of himself. In this post we consider this Matthean text’s use in the Season of Advent.

In the Gospel of Luke, the sacred writer 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. Not so in the Gospel of Matthew. He 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.

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year, the Gospel reading presents the preaching of John the Baptist. This Matthean passage is the traditional text for Year A and reflects the Advent 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.


Image credit: Image credit: ‘The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the Desert’, ca. 1635,  a painting by Massimo Stanzione -1585-1656, Public Domain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.