Advent 2: 8 December Matthew 3:1-12
There is quite a jump from Jesus’ infancy in Matthew 1-2 to what we find in Matthew 3, probably some thirty years later. It was ‘in those days’ (3:1) only in the broadest sense. Yet for Matthew it all belongs together because we are in the world of hoping, the time of great need and expectation. Matthew has demonstrated Jesus’ credentials as the messiah in the first two chapters. They are like melodies in an overture; we have heard the strains of what is to come. Now we are about to begin.
‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’. Heaven’s kingdom was Matthew’s favoured way of speaking of God’s reign. This is the focus of hope when God would change the world, liberate them from their oppressors, set them free. ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who announce good news, who declare to Zion, "Your God reigns".' That is the hope we find in Isaiah 52:7 and it was the hope which inspired Jesus and the early church. God will reign. Things will change! At its best it is a vision often pictured as a gathering of all people and of the Gentiles for a great feast of celebration and inclusion on Mount Zion, a vision acted out in many small groups of hopers, including those around Jesus, when they met for their own special meals of bread. It is ultimately the foundation of the eucharist, which remembers that Jesus was broken and poured out his life for this vision.
It is an innovation on Matthew’s part to take this declaration of the nearness of the kingdom which he found in Mark 1:15 and to place it on the lips of John the Baptist. Matthew brings John into close alignment with Jesus (and, to some extent, vice versa). Mark reports that when challenged about his authority, Jesus replied by asking his questioners about John’s authority (11:27-33; 12:1-12). Both were mavericks. In Matthew’s version of that incident (21:23 - 22:14) Jesus’ reply consists not only of the rather pointed parable of the wicked tenants (21:33-46), but also of the parable of the 2 sons before it (21:28-33) and the wedding feast after it (22:1-14). The three parables speak of the three ministries: John’s, Jesus’ and the disciples’. They are as one. Matthew indicates that the prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom ahead of the questioners – because of John’s preaching (21:31-32)!
John and Jesus are on about the same thing, even though John does not lose his status as preparing the way, nor Jesus, his as the superior one. John is in the outback, the traditional place of preparation and transition. Jesus heads out into the populated world. John calls for repentance. This has less to do with feeling sadness or remorse and more to do with a total change of attitude and direction. Both John and Jesus called for radical change, not just in preparation, but because it entailed a choice that God and God’s way rules from now on.
In 3:7-10 Matthew introduces some sayings of John which he found in Q. They make it plain that only one thing counts: change and the behaviour which indicates such change. John declares that there is to be performance based assessment, as we know it today. Status, birth, pedigree, past religious experience, including once off conversion experiences, even a whole cv of spiritual experiences, count for nothing if there is not ongoing evidence of the new orientation in the way we live. Jesus makes the same point in the closing sections of the Sermon on the Mount (7:15-23), repeating one of John’s saying in identical wording (7:19; 3:10). They are making the same point.
John emphasises judgement and announces Jesus as the judge to come. Using a mixture of Mark’s and Q’s traditions, Matthew depicts John as predicting that Jesus is about to burst onto the scene with Spirit and fire to wipe out all evil and destroy evil doers. If we didn’t know otherwise and were reading Matthew without any previous knowledge that is what we might expect. The next verses then form a climax because in the baptism Jesus is identified as the one about whom John was speaking. We would be holding our breath ready for the charge!
Matthew 11:2-6 even suggests that John expected something like that to happen and had to send his disciples for a ‘please explain’ to Jesus: he was not doing what he was supposed to do! It is not that Matthew thinks John was wrong. It was a matter of timing. It is an important theme in Matthew that Jesus will be the judge, but something else must happen first which puts it all in a different perspective. In his life and his deeds Jesus models and explains the criteria for the judgement, demonstrating what really matters. The result is a transformation.
We see its beginnings already in John. Put negatively, there are no favourites: everyone must be immersed in the waters; everyone must join the transformation. Turned into positive terms, this also means: no one is to be written off as inferior or worthless. Every person matters to God. We are into the logic of love which flows out from the ministry of Jesus, embracing the unloved, including the outcasts, lifting up the fallen, inviting those beyond the pale, finding a place for the sinners. It does not contradict John, but it throws him off balance. The notion is so powerful that compassion will come to be seen as God’s very heart and being, a totally new way of seeing God’s reign and expounding hope. Allowed to run free it even calls into question statements that God will one day stop loving.
In John we see the first breaking of the waves. They crash against pretence and superiority. In their wake we sense something new is afoot, for which we remind ourselves to prepare year after year in the season of advent: preparing ourselves by openness to the revolution of love. Some of the predictions did not happen as originally expected and probably won’t, but the prediction of the revolution of love keeps becoming true and keeps inviting its fulfilment and grieving its absence.
Epistle: Advent 2: 8 December Romans 15:4-13