Lectionary Reflection—04 December 2016
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 the Lord;
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’s coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, ‘Abraham’s our father.’ I tell you that God’s 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’s coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He’ll 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’ll clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he’ll burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
I don’t know about you, but this passage for the second Sunday of Advent is very foreboding. I mean, John’s speaking truth to power and he’s not holding back. But let’s break it down because there’s a lot going on.
The first thing that stands out is John’s proclamation, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Now just an aside; Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” is synonymous with “kingdom of God” in the other Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Scholars believe that “Matthew” used “heaven” instead of “God” because he was a Jew writing to a Jewish audience. And, for a lot of Jews, writing “God” was too sacred to use. To this day we’ll see “G_d” or “G-d” in a lot of Jewish writings. All of this to say that “Matthew” is not talking about going to heaven as a lot of people think. No; he’s talking about the same thing the Old Testament promised and the New Testament proclaimed—God’s promised Realm (Kingdom) was finally arriving.
Notice John said, “Here comes the kingdom of heaven/God!” It wasn’t coming someday in the future, but right then. That’s why he was baptising people; the time to get ready had come. That’s why he’s telling them to “change [their] hearts and lives.” Not for something that might come someday but for something that was just about to be revealed in their presence, in their lifetime.
This changing of one’s life brings me to the next point. It’s not about saying one’s changed but proving it by one’s actions. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he told them, “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives” (emphasis added). Our faith, our belief, must be accompanied by faithful action or it’s not true faith. In the book of James, it’s written—
My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?…faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity…Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action…faith [is] made complete by…faithful actions…So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone…As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead (James 2.14-26; adapted).
In other words, people are identified by their actions. Jesus said—
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they’re vicious wolves. You’ll know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you’ll know them by their fruit (Matthew 7.15-20; adapted).
That last bit sounds familiar doesn’t it. It’s just what John said above when he was talking to the Pharisees and Sadducees. In this charged political climate we’ve seen people claiming they’re “good trees” but their “fruit” is “rotten.” In the words of James, their actions don’t represent the faith they claim to have. People who’ve truly changed their hearts and lives don’t spout racial slurs or spray paint threatening messages on churches or threaten others with violence. They don’t think it’s okay to objectify women or treat minorities as non-human. Jesus said, “You’ll know them by their fruit.” He also said, “[What] goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight” (Matthew 15.18; adapted). In another place he said, “A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken” (Luke 6.45; adapted). And James would say that this overflow of one’s inner self includes one’s actions.
The next thing Matthew points out is John’s attire. As I’ve stated elsewhere, this is Matthew’s way of letting the reader know that John the Baptist was somehow Elijah who was to usher in Yahweh’s return to Israel (see Malachi 4 and my post about it). But when would Yahweh return? John gave the Pharisees, Sadducees, and us some clues that it was a lot sooner than anyone could’ve imagined. He told them that the “angry judgment” was “coming soon.” How soon?
“The ax is already at the root of the trees…The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He’ll clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he’ll burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out” (verses 10 and 12).
In other words, God’s “angry judgment” had already started. The tools of judgment were already in Yahweh’s hands and he already started to clean up. That’s why John’s message was so urgent. The “angry judgment” of Yahweh was imminent and, therefore, people needed to “change [their] hearts and lives” (repent) and “produce fruit” (faithful actions) that proved their change. Talk was cheap. One must show that one had changed before the “angry judgment” of Yahweh came crashing upon the city, the temple, and its people.
So, the question comes rushing to the fore—
What’s all of this got to do with Advent?
Honestly, I don’t know. I suppose the purpose of passages is to emphasise our need to prepare for the coming of God. And while the passage does have that type of message, it’s completely and thoroughly about God’s “angry judgment” that was soon to come upon first century Israel. Are we, then, to take the inclusion of this passage to mean that God’s “angry judgment” is once again about to come upon us? Hardly. As I’ve stated, the entirety of God’s “angry judgment” within the New Testament was focused upon first century Israel and has already been fulfilled (see my series on New Testament eschatology for a more in-depth study of the subject).
So what can we take away from this passage?
For me it’s about people who follow Jesus producing “good fruit.” There’s a very clear warning here about thinking we’re God’s children just because we “believe in Jesus.” John’s contemporaries thought something similar to this and he said not to count on that. God, he said, could make children from the stones of the earth (no belief required). As James said, “faith [alone] can’t save anyone.” Our faith is “made complete by faithful actions.” We must, therefore, ask ourselves, “Does my faith in Christ make me more Christ-like? Do my actions truly represent my faith in Jesus of Nazareth? Or do they represent my own will and desires? When others look at me, are they reminded of Christ?” These, my friends, are hard questions that require a lot of prayer and meditation. I pray that God’s Spirit will rest upon us as we wrestle with them.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC