Weekly Gospel Reflection—08 December 2013
Matthew 3:1-12 (CEB): In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for [Yahweh];
make his paths straight.”
John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
As we’ve noted in our series on New Testament Eschatology, the description Matthew gives of John here is the same as the one given of the prophet Elijah (the beginning of that series can be found here). Matthew’s audience, consisting primarily of Jews, would have immediately picked up on the reference. Elisha, it was said, would usher in the return of Yahweh to Israel. But that wouldn’t be a very good thing. The promise was one of “judgment.” Of Yahweh bringing justice and putting things right. And in doing that, there would be consequences. John is saying the same thing here.
Right from the start, John stated that G_d’s Realm — “the kingdom of heaven” — was finally arriving.1 But that arrival would also bring G_d’s judgment upon Israel. John warns the leadership that, just because their children of Abraham and Sarah, doesn’t mean they’ll be exempt. Quite the contrary — they’ll be the ones under judgment.
John also points out that the one coming after him will be the one through whom this justice will come. That is, as we know from reading further on, Jesus himself.
Now the prophets were clear that it would be Yahweh returning to Israel. And Yahweh’s return would be signaled by the return of Elijah. Matthew clearly points out that John the Baptist was Elisha. Therefore, it’s logical to conclude the Jesus was, somehow, Yahweh.
But what does all of that have to do with Advent? The time of preparation for the coming of G_d? A lot, I think.
First is the idea of G_d’s Realm “coming” or expanding. Since I believe that G_d’s Realm was established in the first century, what’s been happening ever since then is the ever expanding reality of G_d’s Realm “on earth as in heaven.” But that expansion comes at a cost. And that cost leads to the second point.
While it’s true that G_d’s Realm is “redeeming justice2, true peace, and joy” (Romans 14.17, VOICE3), those traits will bring conflict within ourselves, our communities, and our society. Thus, like John warns, we must “charge [our] hearts and lives” and align them with G_d’s Realm. If we don’t, the things that aren’t in support of G_d’s Realm — the falseness within us — will be removed. We will be sifted. We will be pruned. Those things will be cut out of us.
Thirdly, like the Religious Elite of John’s day, we can’t be assured that everything is fine with us just because we’re “G_d’s children.” Like them, we should examine ourselves to make sure we’re prepared when G_d’s Realm opens and expands in new ways around us. We mustn’t assume that we have everything figured out; that G_d’s Realm must look like we expect it to look. That’s what John is warning about. Things will not be what we think. The Realm of G_d will not look like we suppose it to look. It will manifest in a myriad of ways and almost certainly be as diverse as a field of wildflowers or life in the sea.
So, on this second Sunday of Advent, let’s prepare for the coming of G_d, the expansion of G_d’s Realm, in new and unimaginable ways. Let’s examine our hearts and lives and compare what we find there to the heart and life of Jesus of Nazareth and the Way of Being he personified. And when we find things that don’t line up with Christ, may G_d, through the Holy Spirit, grant us the Grace and Strength to remove them so we can be more attuned to G_d’s Realm.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
1) Because Matthew’s audience was mainly Jewish, he used the popular phrase “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God.” For a lot of the Jews, from that day till now, writing the word “God” could be an issue. One wasn’t supposed to write G_d’s name if it had the potential of being erased or disfigured in any way. So, as a work around, the word “heaven” was substituted. Heaven was the place where G_d dwelt. So, to speak of Heaven was to speak of G_d. Therefore, the two could be used interchangeably without worry of defacing the name of G_d.
2) The Greek word here is dikaiosyne (δικαιοσύνη) and it means “fair and equitable dealing, justice.” See here and here for more information.
3) The Voice Bible. Copyright © 2012 Thomas Nelson, Inc. The Voice™ translation © 2012 Ecclesia Bible Society All rights reserved.