Matthew 3:1-12, The Coming of God [unfinished]

[December 8, 2013] On the first Sunday of Advent we spoke of living with the Christian’s hope, the Lord’s second coming, and being in a state of preparedness for it. This second Sunday of Advent we consider the witness of John the Baptist who called all people to repent in view of the One who is coming to judge the world.

Matthew 3:1-3

Now in those days arrives John the Baptist, announcing in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” For this is he who was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, “A voice of one shouting: ‘In the wilderness have prepared the way of YHWH, make straight his paths.’”

John arrives on the scene all at once, while Jesus is still in Nazareth (Matthew 2:23), announcing that “the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near” or come close, as in, “it is practically upon us,” and therefore we all must repent. I say “we” because John includes himself, or else why is he living in the desert and wearing the clothes of a penitent? The word “repent” means literally, in Greek, to have a change of mind, of what one pays attention to. In Hebrew the word means to turn around, as in making an about-face. So: to change the direction of one’s attention, one’s focus, and therefore where one puts one’s energy.

What is the explanation of John? Who is he? Where did he come from? Why does he suddenly pop up now? This is what Matthew tells us: he is the one spoken about by Isaiah in 40:3, which says, “[Hear] the voice of one shouting:

‘In the wilderness make clear the way of YHWH;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley will be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill will be made low,
and the crooked places will become straight,
and the rough places, a broad plain.
Then the glory of YHWH will be revealed,
and all flesh will see it together,
because the mouth of YHWH has spoken.’”

We are to go out into the desert and prepare a straight, unobstructed and flat road for God to arrive on when God comes to us. When God does come to us all living things will see God’s glory together, at once. Isaiah goes on to tell Jerusalem/Zion to broadcast the Gospel to the towns of Judah. What is the Gospel? “Behold your God! Behold, the Lord YHWH will come as a mighty One—and His arm will rule for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. And He will feed His flock as a Shepherd; in His arm He will gather the lambs; in His bosom He will carry them. He will lead those who are nursing [the young].” The rest of the chapter is a commentary on this.

The kingdom of the heavens is the rule of heaven, or better, the overruling of heaven, that is, the kingship of God overturning and overcoming all that opposes or hinders the free expression of God’s will—which is to love all that God has made. Isaiah thus says that YHWH (the covenant Name of God, that is, God as the One in special relationship to Israel) will come as a hero (a mighty man) and His arm will rule for Him.” The arm of YHWH, it turns out, is revealed in the Servant of Isaiah 53 (see 53:1)! Not what we might expect of a “mighty One”!

Moreover, God is coming to set things right with respect to His beloved: “His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” And “He will feed His flock like a Shepherd; in His arm [again] He will gather the lambs [and] in His bosom He will carry them; He will lead those who are nursing the young.”

So, God is coming! When God reveals His/Her glory to everyone, God will put an end to everything that prevents the expression of God’s free loving of the creation, and will cherish those who are God’s own and makes right everything for them. (Who are they? Isaiah’s eye is on the people of Israel, especially the poor. Perhaps in a broader sense it is all of creation that is sentient, that is capable of being aware of God, an ability that is relative and may in some degree be on every level of creation.)

What should our response be to this news, this announcement, this Gospel, of which John is the herald foretold by Isaiah? (Eu-angel in Greek, or Good-spell in English, means the good, wonderful, and joyful story of God’s coming to us.) We should prepare God’s highway, the pathway God must travel to get to us. Oh, God will come in any case! But we will be a lot better off if we clear the obstructions from God’s path.

This is where repentance comes in. Making that pathway clear and straight and easy to travel is repentance. And we can only do that by changing our nous, our attention, which speaks directly of our heart. Our heart is what pays attention. The question is, what is our heart paying attention to? Jesus says that where your treasure is, that is where your heart is. What do we treasure? Or who?

And why the desert? Something must be said about this since it seems to be an important motif not only in Isaiah, where it literally refers to the Arabian desert that stood between the exiles and their homeland, but in the Gospel itself. It is where John chose to live and chose to baptize, and where Jesus went to be tested for forty days. Moreover, no Israelite can ever forget the role of the desert in the Torah. It is in the desert that the people meet God, at Sinai, and it is the desert that stood between them and the Promised Land, and it is the desert where they were tested for forty years.

Pay attention to this motif of the Promised Land, for as we see in a couple of verses, it is tied up with the meaning of baptism. And it stays with us into the Gospel story, with the message of Jesus. For example, it is tied to the idea of “beatitude.”

In any case, the desert is where you are when you leave the world, whether it be Egypt or Babylon, and it is in the desert that one meets God, where in fact God comes to you, and it is in the desert where you have to face yourself (with the help of the devil, of course, who has somehow followed you out of the world!).

To put all this together, when we turn our back on the world (the matrix in which we have been living), we are where God will come to us, but we have a hard time because there we have to come face-to-face with devil (the one who runs the world) and he is in us, in the mirror. We have to deal with this devil before we can be ready for God’s coming. And we must, for God is coming whether we are ready or not!

Matthew 3:4

And the same John was having his garment from camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

John comes on the scene already attired like an ascetic, someone who is in mourning for the world and for what must obviously and inevitably come upon it because of its stupid, foolish and indeed outrageous ways. He is dressed like a mourner because he is grieving for it ahead of time. For it, I say, but one also mourns because one is inescapably a part of the world. One is included in that mess. There is then a deep sense of grief at having failed the Beloved One, at having failed God. We not only have failed God but with complete disregard for love, we have turned our backs on God and even—and this includes all of us—turned against God (though still God keeps loving us). In a way it is not our fault, we were born into this world and learned its ways. Yet in another way it most definitely is, for we have been complicit in our own becoming. Instead of becoming angry at the world, we learned our lesson from the world and became angry with God. So how can we not mourn, for ourselves and everyone else?

I think of mourning as associated with fasting (including the fast of Jesus in the desert). Jesus voluntarily fasted in the wilderness because of the sins of the world that He had shouldered as His own—which is why He got baptized (more on that another time). Israel was thrust into the desert as a punishment for their sins—because of their lack of faith (trust in God) more than anything else—a punishment that disciplined and beat into shape their offspring so at least they could be ready for the Promised Land. When one fasts, in the Bible, one is grieving for one’s sins, and so you give up the things that make you happy, like food and clothing. So you tear your clothes and where a burlap bag and sprinkles ashes on your head and face (not for showing off, either!). That’s in the case of a temporary fast. John was living a permanent “fast,” and so he gave up the house and lived in the desert; and he gave up normal clothes and wore a poncho of camel skins and a leather cord around his waste; and he gave up normal foods and ate locusts and wild honey, the food of the desert. Big bugs dipped in honey, yummy! (The nutritional value of locusts is actually quite high, but not exactly a pleasure food—at least, that’s the point here, in case you actually have a taste for them.)

And yes, John is dressed like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). This is not explicit here but implicit. Elijah was expected to return to prepare the people for the coming of God (see Malachi 3:23-24 or 4:6, depending on your Bible; the last two verses of the Old Testament). Why was Elijah dressed like that? For the same reason as John. Elijah also was a prophet of doom, who accused Israel of abandoning God and warned them of the consequences, which would be that God would (provisionally) abandon them—as when the rain was withheld for three and a half years. He dressed that way because he was mourning for the people’s sin, and for himself as part of those people.

Matthew 3:5-6

At that time was going out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan, and they were being baptized in the Jordan River by him, openly acknowledging their sins.

John’s message apparently was enormously effective, for it seems that the Jews of the whole region came to him, including the urban Jews of Jerusalem. This would place him on the west side of the Jordan, which was not in the territory of Herod Antipas, so he must have moved later on, when he got arrested by the tyrant.

John dunked all those people in the Jordan River—the word “baptize” means to dunk—and in doing so, they openly acknowledged their sins, their complicity in everyone’s sins. The word “confess” means to freely or openly or publicly or fully to acknowledge something, to make it one’s own (as we say). In this case what they were honestly and freely making their own were “their sins,” though I take that in the broadest sense—our own complicity in everyone’s sins. The point was not to beat themselves up for their individual failures. That would mean we could actually tell the difference between what was truly our own failure and the failure of our society that has been fostered upon us. When I do something “wrong” who is to know from whence it comes? I’m not saying we absolutely cannot, but our motivations are complicated things, and often what we think is wrong may be right and even more often what we think is right may be wrong. I’m also not saying that it is all ambivalent and does not matter: “it’s all relative.” No, obviously some things are clearly evil, and malice is malice. Sin may be involved in most everything we do, and whether or not we see that, there is also a kernel of good in what we do, and very likely we do not and perhaps cannot see that. So the point is not to carry on this pretence of confessing to a priest when your conscience is not bothering you. Confessing is helpful when your conscience does need relief. But I am not promoting that we go around encouraging ourselves to have a bad conscience. A sensitive conscience yes, but guilt, no. Guilt does little good.

However, this is different than what John was doing with the people at the Jordan. They were openly acknowledging their part in the sins of Israel, or let us say, the world (for us it is certainly the world), that they were in the same boat as everyone else and that this was a very seriously distressed—and sinking—boat. In other words, there is no “them,” there is only “us.”

Why the Jordan River and why baptism? [unfinished]

Matthew 3:7-9

But seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming fury [of God]? Produce then fruit worthy of repentance. And do not think to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham [as] father,’ for I tell you that God is able out of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

Matthew 3:10-11

“And already the axe is laid toward the root of the trees. Every tree therefore not producing good fruit is being cut down and into the fire thrown. I indeed baptize (baptizō) you in water into repentance, but the one coming after me is mightier than I [am], whose sandals I am not competent to carry (bastasō). He himself will baptize you in [the] Holy Spirit and fire:”

Matthew 3:12

“Whose winnowing fan [is] in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.” 

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