Thought for the day
It is possible to live a merely sentient existence, paying attention only to the immediate and being satisfied once the urgent appetites are met. It is hard to say how many manage to sustain this form of sleepwalking! In our better moments, we all know that this is wholly inadequate, even on a merely human level. We are all of us called to rise above above mere existence and to live life abundantly (cf. John 10:10). In the faith, the Advent call is to wake up from our slumbers. Metanoia (conversion or repentance) means a whole change of mindset, going right down to the roots of our being. It’s the only project. Of course it takes time, but the time is now.
God of life abundant, may your advent call to life and love, hope and conversion touch us again and draw us closer to you. Amen.
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
Matt 3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Matt 3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matt 3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Advent 2 introduces the seasonal figure of John the Baptist, the prophet who ushered in the ministry of Jesus himself. Jesus was a disciple of John and began his public ministry only when his mentor was arrested. Jesus’ proclamation resembled that of John—repentance/conversion—but the dreadful events predicted by John are replaced by the message of God’s mercy and compassion.
Kind of writing
The first part of the text, presenting the person, proclamation, figure and baptism of John, is a chreia, a short story which illustrates the essentials of John. The second part of the text elaborates the preaching in the direction of practical exhortation. The last part reflects John’s suspicion that he was preparing for a greater figure—even though the actual ministry of Jesus came not with ferocity but with forgiveness.
Old Testament background
(i) The citation from Isaiah is subtly adjusted to make it “fit” John as a figure in the wilderness. Hence it is taken to read: a voice cries out in the wilderness, “prepare etc.” There is, of course, no point in crying out in the wilderness — nobody lives there.
“A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
The other quotation from Malachi 3:1 (mistakenly attributed to Isaiah in Mark 1:2-3) is located elsewhere by Matthew, a bit of a scholar or a pendant:
This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ (Matthew 11:10)
(ii) John the Baptist is presented with traits of Elijah and Samson, prophetic figures: “They answered him, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”” (2 Kings 1:8)
Some time later, when Samson went back to marry her, he turned aside to see the lion’s remains. He saw a swarm of bees in the lion’s carcass, as well as some honey. He scooped it up with his hands and ate it as he walked along. When he returned to his father and mother, he offered them some and they ate it. But he did not tell them he had scooped the honey out of the lion’s carcass. (Judges 14:8–9)
New Testament foreground
(i) John the Baptist is a very important figure in the history of Jesus. All four Gospels include him but in quite different ways. For instance, only Luke has the story of his birth. According to Matthew, John is the expected Elijah; according to the Fourth Gospel, he himself says he is not! Mark reports the baptism without any apparent unease. Matthew is uneasy; Luke, narratively speaking, has John is prison for the baptism(!); John omits the baptism altogether. John definitely baptised Jesus—the discomfort with it proves it took place and was not invented. Again only two gospels report his death, lest any comparison with the death of Jesus be encouraged.
(ii) Like John, Jesus withdrew to the desert—an implied critique of the Jerusalem Temple cult, like the people in Qumran. Like John, Jesus expects the Kingdom and proclaims repentance/conversion marked through an immersion ritual.
(ii) We may say that John was right and wrong about Jesus. He expects tremendous judgement but Jesus comes in mercy and compassion. John does send to enquire about Jesus, but we are not told what his reaction to the information was.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matt 9:14-17)
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” (Matt 11:2-6)
For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly). Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! (2 Corinthians 7:8–11)
Verse 1 Wilderness is the place of return and prophecy. It was also the place to which people like John withdrew in some disgust at the religious leadership.
Verse 2 Repent really means convert, a whole journey of change of mindset. Kingdom of God is a kind of “code” for God’s future intervention, establishing lasting justice, in the face of injustice and tragedy.
Verse 3 In this verse, John is associated with the return from the Babylonian Exile. Punctuation matters. The Isaiah quotation, view above, is adjusted so that the voice cries out in the wilderness, to match the ministry of John in the desert.
Verse 4 The details indicate he is the expected Elijah. Cf. 2 Kings 1:8 above.
Verse 5-6 The popular reaction to John is evident also in the need to have him executed.
Verses 7ff. It is hard to imagine the Sadducees (Temple conservatives) coming to John, but some must have been touched by his message. The prophet does not ingratiate himself! This preaching is very like the preaching of Jesus in Matthew, where we read:
Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt 12:33-37)
Relying on status or tradition is robustly, even offensively, set aside by John.
Verse 11 Carrying sandals is the role of the lowest slave. It is possible that, historically, John spoke of wind (pneuma) and fire, elevated theologically to the Holy Spirit (pneuma) / and fire. Thus three of the classical elements are brought into play: air, fire and water.
Verse 12 Severe judgment is his clear expectation. Harvest imagery is often used in the Bible to indicate the time of sorting after the harvest. For example: The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Psalm 1:4)
Pointers for prayer
1. John the Baptist came to bear witness to Jesus. Who have been the people who have borne witness to us of the good news of the gospel that God loves us—a friend, a parent, a teacher, etc.? To whom have we borne that witness?
2. John appears in the story as one who had the courage to be himself in the face of opposition. He was also a person who knew his own value, did not make exaggerated claims and was content with his mission. Can you recall times when you have been content to be yourself, without pretending to be more than you are? What was it like to have that freedom, even in the face of criticism from others?
3. John was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”—announcing confidently to those in the wilderness that they must not despair because God’s grace may come to them at any moment.
4. Have you had the experience of being in the wilderness, feeling lost? From whom did you hear a voice that gave you hope? Have you been able to give hope to other people when they were in the wilderness?
Your kingdom is at hand, O God of justice and peace; you made John the Baptist its herald to announce the coming of your Christ, who baptises with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Give us a spirit of repentance to make us worthy of the kingdom. Let complacency yield to conviction, that in our day justice will flourish and conflict give way to the peace you bestow in Christ.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen