The Tapestry of Repentance

Sunday Dec 5: Advent 2
Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

There must be a week of sermons in this text! In the first two chapters of the gospel, Matthew has shown Jesus is from God, both by genealogy and by the birth narrative. These were not simple statements of “history” or human interest, but followed the norms of the time in explaining the origins, and establishing the bona fides of an important person. The narrative is also intrinsically political. If the warp of Matthew’s narrative in the form of establishing his status via genealogy, virgin birth and astrological signs, the weft is the claim to be Saviour (Jeshua) the Messiah (1:16) who is born king of the Jews (2:2) in the time of King Herod, and who is God’s son (2:15). Such claims were seditious.

This week’s reading holds this seditious narrative aloft. It is no soft blanket of comfort for snuggling away from the world’s ills. It is the flag for a new world.   “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  (3:2) From the very beginning of the story Matthew has made it clear that this is no swaddling blanket of a gospel. Uncomfortable as it may be to our ears, and salvation and good news aside, this is a gospel of consequence and fire.  It has its own urgency, it’s own kai euthos.* “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:10)  As we gather this year and read the Christmas stories, and children’s faces shine in the delights of a candle service,  a mature faith cannot ignore the clamour and pain behind the wonder. Matthew writes of the battle for a new kingdom.

John is introduced in the manner of one of the great Old Testament prophets. Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as a hairy many with a leather belt around his waist.  (Elijah was in the business of fire, too!)  Petty suggests

That he ate a diet of "locusts and wild honey" means that he received his sustenance directly from God as did the Hebrews when they wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus.

John appears at the River Jordan; at the place of entry to the Promised Land. He calls his own people to change, to turn and go in a new direction.  This is a call to a re-entry to the Promised Land. But it was no social baptism, no rite of passage. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he cries. (3:8)   It’s as though the Sadducees and Pharisees were coming, as the elite do, to the events at which it is appropriate to “be seen.”**   This kingdom, as we will see in the chapters which follow, is against the elite who wish to remain in charge. and unchanged. (eg 23:27)

Matthew is speaking of something much deeper than pious convention. Citizenship of the kingdom is not based on one’s descent from Abraham.  Indeed, he likens those who claim descent from Abraham to the offspring of snakes, which given the role of the serpent in Genesis, is an extraordinary insult. *** The kingdom John is looking towards is a return from exile, and carries all the cost of exile.  In a sense John is calling people to undergo a new exile to enter a new kingdom.

He is introduced with the words from Isaiah 40, the great hymn of comfort to the exiles:

Comfort, O comfort my people…
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’

The inheritors of Isaiah 40’s promise were those who returned to the Promised Land. They are the ones who have “served the term, paid the penalty, and now receive from the Lord’s hand double for all their sins.” (Isa 40:2) They are the people of the servant who “ will faithfully bring forth justice,” (Isa 42:3) and is called “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon...” (Is 42:7) We cannot return to the Promised Land without self-exile and repentance (turning away) from our old Israel.

If the literary device of a Messenger is the warp of the  of John, the weft is a rich weaving in of memories and associations from Israel’s history of exile and restoration; a tapestry of hope.  Is John hinting at a restoration from that first exile from the Garden?

Brian Stoffregen quotes Warren Carter (Matthew and the margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading)

By repenting, people prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. Both way and path are metaphors for God's will and purposes (Deut 5:33; Jer 7:23; Matt 7:13-14; contrast with Roman ways and roads). God's purposes, manifested in Jesus, will be experienced either as salvation or as condemnation depending on one's response to John's call to repent. To repent signifies, then, not only specific changes in structures and ways of living, but a basic receptivity to God's purposes. [p. 94]

As he notes later, quoting Douglas Hare’s Matthew (p21)

The Christian equivalent of 'We have Abraham as our father' is 'We have Christ as our Savior.' While trust in Christ's salvation is a first requirement, it is not the last."

We are addressed by John each Advent in the same way he addressed the Jewish people of his time.  He required of them that they repent and be converted just as if they were not Jewish! So it is for us.  Jesus does not ask less of us.

This repentance which turns away from our present life is a baptism, a dying and being raised up that does something profound to us.  It is a “baptism of the Spirit” which burns away all that the symbol of water leaves untouched. We learn the florid language of Matthew and John has a life changing reality.

John is only the beginning of our hearing the gospel. Jesus brings more, truly pioneering our faith.  We have yet more to learn, including how we understand the violent imagery of the chaff being burned with unquenchable fire.  There are aspects of the Divine that John and even Jesus, or at least as Matthew understood them, had not yet grasped. One of those, with which we struggle, is the implicit contradiction between a God of love and a God who condemns. But here at Advent we begin.  Here, as Bill Loader expresses it

…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.

May it be so!

Andrew Prior Dec 2 2010 First Published at Scots Church Adelaide

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

* Mark uses kai euthos, “and immediately” as a constant refrain of urgency and action in his gospel

**  The Greek will bear several translations. They may not have come for baptism but simply to observe (and criticize) or to oppose.  See Stoffregen

*** Regarding snakes, from Stoffregen quoting Keener’s A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

… Matthew may allude to a fairly widespread ancient view that vipers were mother killers. … Calling his hearers vipers may have been an insult, but calling them "offspring of vipers" accused them of killing their own mothers, indicating the utmost moral depravity.




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