1John 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.” ’
4John 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 regions along the Jordan, 6and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7When 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 baptise 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 baptise 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.’
Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.
Oh how we’ve lost significant meaning of some words, because their over-use has resulted in the important meaning becoming subservient. One such word is “repent”. Too often, these days, “repent” is used as a synonym for “sorry”. The invitation to the confession in the Book of Common Prayer (1928) Eucharist opens with the words “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in His holy ways …” The BCP embraces that aspect of repentance which involves turning around from what we have been doing, and being genuine in our desire to live according to what God wants us to do. It’s too easy, with the common use of “repent” to think all we need to do is say “sorry” to God. Repentance includes an acknowledgement that our ways have not been according to God’s will, and that change is needed.
When John reportedly said “the kingdom of heaven has come near” he was, of course, working on the belief that Jesus was already around and would establish the kingdom of heaven, on earth. We know, from Christ’s own words, that even the Son didn’t know when he would return, so we can’t know either. That makes it all the more important that we are prepared for His second coming now, and don’t put off our preparations. “If the owner of the house knew at what hour the thief would come he would have stayed awake” [Matthew 24:43]. There is thus some urgency, even for us, to be prepared. If your Christmas plans include having friends or family to a celebration meal, do you leave dirty washing on the floors? Do you ignore the dust and the dirt on the floor? Do you go to the shops and only buy enough food for yourself? Of course not! If the kingdom of heaven is near, and we are preparing for the second coming of Christ, shouldn’t we do all the cleaning we would do to welcome our King? Shouldn’t we be serious about preparing the way for the Lord? Because of the lack of punctuation in the original writings, the quote from Isaiah could read “the voice of one crying ‘in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord’”, in which case the lack of active Christian presence in our communities might be the wilderness in which the way needs to be prepared, or it could read “the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘prepare the way for the Lord’”, in which case we have to listen to the lone voice, not the combined and harmonised voice, or leadership. Either way, we should be preparing the way for the Lord to enter into our lives in a decisive way. Let’s put out the welcome mat, and mean it.
Some may wonder why Matthew chose to mention what John wore and ate. I believe that it is to emphasise that this call to repentance comes not from the religious establishment, but from someone who could easily be discarded by that very establishment. John was different; John did not dress like everyone else; John did not eat what others would eat; but God chose John to proclaim the Good News. How often do our church leaders reject those who offer themselves to walk in Christ’s footsteps simply because they are different, and don’t fit the mold which those leaders use, probably subconsciously, in their ‘discernment’?
If you want to take literally the idea the people from all over Judea came to be baptised by John then you must acknowledge that he would have been a very busy beaver. The idea in the reference is, of course, that the people were clamouring for good guidance to renew their relationship with God in a meaningful way, and they weren’t being satisfied elsewhere.
We might think of John’s description of ‘Pharisees and Sadducees” as a brood of vipers in terms of Matthew trying to separate the Christian community from the Jewish one following the destruction of the temple in AD70, and that might be true, but there is also the element of criticism of the pedantic and legalistic approach of the Pharisees to the way they approach worship, in contrast with the loving, caring approach of Christ. Those who wish to behave like Pharisees should be reminded that Christ’s approach in nothing like theirs. Personally I’d prefer to follow Christ than follow any Pharisee. It is not good enough to just claim a direct link back to Abraham (or to the Apostles) if we have lost our way and become tied up with controlling everything everyone does. God is the master gardener, and, just as Christ did to the fig tree, He is prepared to chop down the biggest trees if they are not producing fruit. Let the one who has ears, hear. [Matthew 11:15]
When I think of this passage through EfM (Education for Ministry) eyes, I see a world in which the people are screaming for spiritual guidance because the religious hierarchy appears to have left them to themselves; I see an honest call to genuine repentance and dire consequences if we don’t; I see judgement in the form of the description of those who seek to escape the inevitable by being superficial; and I see hope of reconciliation through baptism, initially with water and later with the Holy Spirit.
Verse 11 includes an example of what I call the future present tense in English. Essentially we use the present tense to indicate something in the almost immediate future. When a friend is scheduled to have a meal with us next week, we say “my friend is coming” even though the friend may not leave for several more days. That gives us a sense of urgency, and gets us to prepare. John said “one who is more powerful than I is coming” even though Christ was not there. Maybe we should proclaim, in the Eucharist, “Christ is coming again” to stir us into action preparing the way for the Lord.