SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB link to all three readings here.
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
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.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
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?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
I had to smile this morning at the observation of our commentator R.T. France about John the Baptist, specifically that Christians tend to look upon John as “no more than a warm-up act” for Jesus. (p. 98) In fact, the primary Jewish historian of the day, Josephus, writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., made this observation of the catastrophe: “Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man... Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion... Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.” Josephus’ description of the Baptist’s fate coincides with the report from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
It is surprising from our vantage point in history that the primary Jewish historian of his time would attribute Israel’s worst catastrophe to the unjust slaying of John, and not of Jesus, whose works and fate were also known to Josephus. It would be a grave mistake to read Sunday’s text without respect for the significance of John, whose appearance here in the opening of Chapter 3 marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus. [Chapters 1 and 2 compose Matthew’s unique infancy narrative, a theological statement of Jesus as the new Moses.] In this Gospel Matthew begins the narrative of the adult Jesus with the direct “John the Baptist appeared,” skipping over several decades. Unlike Luke, Matthew records no previous contact of John and Jesus in childhood.
John is described as preaching in the desert, though “wilderness” is equally accurate; the terms are laden with meaning in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments, from Israel’s four decades of wandering and purification to the late apocalyptic literature of the final battle between good and evil to Jesus’ own contest with Satan during his forty-day fast. The desert/wilderness, biblically speaking, is the place where people go to face their God, their demons, and themselves. John is the son of the desert; there is no record of his even visiting towns and cities. As the text reports, people “were going out to him,” and his clothing and diet are indicative of a man very much at home among the beasts.
The message of John is one of repentance, i.e., “return to your true allegiance.” His listeners were Jewish, coming from Jerusalem and its surroundings, reflecting Matthew’s special focus in this Gospel upon Jewish destiny. [Luke, by contrast, includes Roman soldiers among John’s hearers.] The message is not unique to John; it is common to Israel’s prophets. In fact, given the place, the man, and his message, it is not surprising that many people would think of John himself as a classical prophet from Israel as of old. Recall that the last prophet in the Hebrew Scripture, Malachi, had died four centuries before John, and the people had mourned that “the Spirit was quenched” from the face of the earth in the absence of prophecy. Thus, the appearance of a man with the bearing of a prophet might be interpreted as the return of the Spirit, which indeed it would prove to be, though John goes to pains to say that he is not that prophet, but that one greater than he is to follow.
John is one of very few prophetic figures who was himself the object of prophesy, as Matthew, in the third line, quotes Isaiah about one crying in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. This preparatory work is the above-mentioned forgiveness of sins, with a baptismal washing accompanying the acknowledge of sin. An interesting feature of this text is John’s refusal to baptize Sadducees and Pharisees coming forward for the symbolic bath of repentance. It is not hard to make the case that John has “major issues” with the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem that consume a considerable amount of Sunday’s text. “Brood of vipers” indicates that either John does not take their conversion seriously, or that whatever their individual intentions might be, they are vital members of a religious establishment no longer productive for the lives of its adherents.
I take the latter interpretation because the following damnation is wide in scope. John tells them to go home and produce good works—presumably emanating from the Temple—if they have any hope of escaping the coming wrath. That John intended his condemnation for Jewish leadership is also made clearer when he states that the claim “we have Abraham as our Father”—will not cut it at judgment time since “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.” Blood lines will count as nothing when “the one who is to come” makes his presence known. The forefront here is fruitfulness, a spiritual and corporal productivity. The trees that do not bear such fruit will be cut at the root and cast into the fire.
John depicts “the one who is to come” as greater than he (John). The future one will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. There are two separate effects of the Mighty One’s baptism: the “quenched Spirit” will return and the prophetic morality will be restored in its fullest dimensions. The other dimension is judgment; there will be a “sorting” of wheat and chaff, of the useful grain and the useless weed. What John is describing in apocalyptic terms will be made clearer in the teaching of Jesus, who will speak of productive believers—those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc.—as entering the kingdom, and the unproductive—those who do none of these things—will come to a bad end.
I cannot help but think that the Sunday Lectionary of Readings for the Advent Season—particularly the first three Sundays—are something of an inoculation against a domesticated image of Jesus, born in bucolic simplicity to angels’ song. Indeed, the Incarnation has its humble roots. But the Baptist warns that this infant will grow to baptize in the Spirit and with fire. Prepare to approach the Christmas crib, and prepare to defend your productivity.