LEXEGETE™ | Year A
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
December 9, 2007
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 (7)
1a. CONTEXT: Matthew 3:1-12
The formidable figure of John the Baptist appears in all four of the
Gospels,but as is characteristic of Matthew, this account carries the
Gospeler's own unique stamp. Source material taken from Mark (Mt.
3:1-6) and material shared with Luke (3:7-12) have been freely
adapted to communicate clearly Matthew's understanding of who John
was, why he had come, and the significance of his ministry for the
Jewish-Christian community for whom Matthew wrote. A widely known
figure, John probably commanded initially a far greater following
than Jesus himself, a fact with which the early had to struggle.
Though the problem of the relationship between John and Jesus is
treated most extensively in the Fourth Gospel, nowhere in the
Synoptics is there more concern for presenting the Baptist (or
Baptizer, Mk. 1:4) in his proper place within God's plan of salvation
than in the Gospel of Matthew (K. Stendahl, Peake's Commentary, p.
Standing in the ancient tradition of the prophets--indeed by dress,
habits and message being understood by some as Elijah himself--John
appeared as the immediate forerunner of God's Anointed One.As Plummer
perceptively pointed out decades ago, of the two trumpet ntoes John
sounded, it was the second which revealed his particular role as
herald of the Messiah (An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel
According to St. Matthew, p. 22). Like the prophets before him, John
preached the coming wrath of God and a call to repentance. Yet it
was John alone who was commissioned to issue that summons because "
the realm of heaven is at hand" (3:2,AILL).These words also sound the
basic theme of Jesus' ministry (see Mt. 4:17, 10:7; Mk. 1:15)
and yet take on new meaning in light of the Cross.
As one who came to fulfill the prophecy of a voice crying in
preparation of God's coming, John makes clear that no one is exempt
from the need to repent and to prepare themselves to make straight
the paths of God. Clearly Jewish lineage was not enough to guarantee
entrance into the kingdom (Mt. 3:9). Only those who bore the fruits
of repentance would be spared from God's righteous axe and the fire
of judgment (Mt. 3:10,7:19,12:33;Is. 10:34). "Repent"--not a
half-way declaration of our sins and vague feeling of contrition but
a radical turning, returning to God, beginning again in a new
relationship with God. This word drives home the total demand of
repentance in both the Old Testament and the New. The Hebrew root
for "repent" (sub) is closely connected to the notion of God's
covenant with Israel and implies a returning to that relationship
Yahweh has established between God and God's people, despite the
faithless breaking of that covenant again and again. That sense of
radical conversion which puts us back in right relationship with our
God is clearly what lies at the heart of the Baptist's message,
reminding us not only that God has continually searched us out, but
also foreshadowing the reality of a new and unending covenant made
with us through Jesus Christ.
Matthew portrays John as lashing out at the Jewish leadership (the
Pharisees and Sadducees) as faithless and sinful: "You brood of
vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come?," invective which Luke
addresses to the multitudes (Lk. 3:7). For Matthew, the Jewish
authorities are seen as those who have willfully forsaken the true
Law of God, and are responsible for the people rejecting the Messiah.
(Compare Matthew's use of this harsh phrase in the words of Jesus in
12:34 and 23:33.) John comes to announce the time of judgment and
preaches a baptism of repentance and preparation using water as the
outward and visible sign of preparing ourselves to become highways of
God. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew reserves baptism "for the
forgiveness of sins" (Mk. l:4, Lk. 3:3) for Jesus alone. He may do
this to more clearly delineate the relationship between John and the
Messiah. As Stendahl has described it,John's batpism of preparation
and repentance gives way in Christ to a baptism not as preparation
for the Spirit but as one which gives the Spirit (Peake's Commentary,
p. 773). Suddenly baptism itself is transformed through Christ,
promising us both that which is life-threatening and life-giving, the
righteous judgment and the merciful love of our God. The humble and
despised servant depicted by Matthew, the Messiah, is understand as
the One who came to fulfill the Law and to go beyond it. John
pointed the way by proclaiming a baptism of repentance while
prophecying a baptism of judgment and redemption. The fire of
destruction John warned about becomes the fire that refines and
transforms and leads us to new life through Christ (Mal. 3:2a-3).
But as Matthew continues to reiterate, we must remember that it is
fire nonetheless (Mt. 13:30,40,49-50).
1b. Text: Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3:1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare  the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to 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 he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (ESV)
1εν δε ταις ημεραις εκειναις παραγινεται ιωαννης ο βαπτιστης κηρυσσων εν τη ερημω της ιουδαιας 2[και] λεγων, μετανοειτε, ηγγικεν γαρ η βασιλεια των ουρανων. 3ουτος γαρ εστιν ο ρηθεις δια ησαιου του προφητου λεγοντος, φωνη βοωντος εν τη ερημω, ετοιμασατε την οδον κυριου, ευθειας ποιειτε τας τριβους αυτου. 4αυτος δε ο ιωαννης ειχεν το ενδυμα αυτου απο τριχων καμηλου και ζωνην δερματινην περι την οσφυν αυτου, η δε τροφη ην αυτου ακριδες και μελι αγριον. 5τοτε εξεπορευετο προς αυτον ιεροσολυμα και πασα η ιουδαια και πασα η περιχωρος του ιορδανου, 6και εβαπτιζοντο εν τω ιορδανη ποταμω υπ αυτου εξομολογουμενοι τας αμαρτιας αυτων. 7ιδων δε πολλους των φαρισαιων και σαδδουκαιων ερχομενους επι το βαπτισμα αυτου ειπεν αυτοις, γεννηματα εχιδνων, τις υπεδειξεν υμιν φυγειν απο της μελλουσης οργης; 8ποιησατε ουν καρπον αξιον της μετανοιας: 9και μη δοξητε λεγειν εν εαυτοις, πατερα εχομεν τον αβρααμ, λεγω γαρ υμιν οτι δυναται ο θεος εκ των λιθων τουτων εγειραι τεκνα τω αβρααμ. 10ηδη δε η αξινη προς την ριζαν των δενδρων κειται: παν ουν δενδρον μη ποιουν καρπον καλον εκκοπτεται και εις πυρ βαλλεται. 11εγω μεν υμας βαπτιζω εν υδατι εις μετανοιαν: ο δε οπισω μου ερχομενος ισχυροτερος μου εστιν, ου ουκ ειμι ικανος τα υποδηματα βαστασαι: αυτος υμας βαπτισει εν πνευματι αγιω και πυρι: 12ου το πτυον εν τη χειρι αυτου, και διακαθαριει την αλωνα αυτου, και συναξει τον σιτον αυτου εις την αποθηκην, το δε αχυρον κατακαυσει πυρι ασβεστω.
-- Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament: greekbible.com
2. ANALYSIS: Matthew 3:1-12
Mt. 3:2 (see also Mt. 4:17) - metanoiete, eingiken gar hei basileia
ton ouranon - The Greek more literally means "the kingdom of the
heavens has drawn near" or "has come near." Marcan and Lucan
parallels employ "the kingdom of God"to point to the same reality.
Matthew paints a more eschatological picture (the final reign of God
yet to come in which all history is gathered up and brought to
perfection) while the teachings of Jesus in each of the Synoptics
also indicate the beginning of the new age here and now (Lk. 11:20,
17:21; Mt. 12:28; Mk. 4:11,26-29).
Mt. 3:9-10 - poiesate oun karpon axion teis metanoias - ("Bear fruit
that befits repentance": AILL) - The Greek for "bear" also means "do"
and is elsewhere translated as "produce" as well. For Matthew
"fruit" clearly equals "deeds," i.e. confession and repentance must
lead to something mroe than contrition, i.e. to works which embody
that radical re-turning to God.
Mt. 3:12 - kai diakathariei tein halona autou - ("the Sovereign will
clear the threshing floor":AILL) - The Greek literally means to
"thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor." In the mouth of John these
words point to the end time when the fiery wrath of God will consume
all those who have not born the fruit of repentance. If we consider
the image of cleansing itself, we also find important connections to
the reality of Jesus' ministry in the present: as he teaches the
multitudes about God's sovereign reign, Jesus has compassion on the
crowds and stands in their midst as one who heals, cleanses, casts
out demons and raises from the dead. These are the marks of the
Messiah's presence (Mt. 11:2-6, Advent III). Judgment, compassion,
and the forgiveness of sins are all woven together, fulfilling yet
going beyond John's prophecy of the One who was to come. No wonder
even the Baptist had second thoughts: "Are you he who is to come, or
shall we look for another?" As Frederick Buechner succinctly put it,
"Where John baptized, Jesus healed" (Peculiar Treasures, p. 70).
3. STRATEGY: Matthew 3:1-12
If we respond to Advent as a season of repentance, new possibility
and hope, indeed as an invitation to participate with God in
"creating all things new," then we recognize that serious personal
preparation and intentional outward action must be woven together to
make ourselves the very pathways of God. It is a thrilling if
terrifying thing to join with Joseph and Mary in becoming bearers of
the Christ. What does this really mean for us, individually and
corporately? What does it mean to truly live in expectation, in
hope? As suggested above,we must begin by recognizing who we are and
whose we are. Quite solitude and the kind of prayer which comes only
out of the silence of our hearts is a good place to begin. We can
help our congregations continue on this journey even as the rush
towards Christmas accelerates. Advent is a time to discover God's
time, to create space in our lives for reflection and medition on the
One who has come and who is continually breaking into our everyday
lives now. Being ready, being prepared, yet living in open
expectation that we will be surprised and gifted beyond our most
cherished dreams--the preacher can help the congregation take
serously the Gospel's call to repentance while helping them see the
new life which awaits and the new life which we also give birth to
when we re-turn to our God. Rather than ignore or whitewash the notes
of judgment sounded in this passage, it is part of our task to link
judgment, repentance and new obedience as the foundation of the love
and life we wait and hope for. In keeping with John's cry, key words
might be recognition and vision.
In an Advent essay entitled "Recapturing Lost Visions," John
Westerhoff defines repentance as a change in our perception, the
recognition that the reign of God is at hand, that life in the world
to come has indeed begun (A Pilgrim People, p. 46). Advent, he says,
"is a season of paradoxes: longing anticipation and patient watching;
transforming the way we envision life and yet living prepared; living
out a wait for what never seems to come and continuing in hopeful
trust; desiring to give up control and opening ourselves to new
possibilities for life" (A Pilgrim People, p. 43). Just what IS the
kingdom of heaven all about? Who shall inherit it, and how? What
ARE the fruits of true repentance? The Gospels give us some rather
specific answers. How do we recognize our individual and corporate
fiathlessness, forsaking justice in the name of self-interest and
greed? How do we recognize the Christ within and around us, how do
we create enough room inside to be pregnant with new life,new grace,
new hope? How do we give birth to that Presence and receive it anew
through the lives of those around us, friend or stranger, rich or
poor, sinner or saint? In the midst of a tired, chaotic, sinful and
self-destructive world, Advent offers us the opportunity to see and
to help create a different reality, one which helps us to glimpse if
just for a moment the reign of God which is at hand. Repent--bear
fruit--enter new life in Christ!
4. REFERENCES: Matthew 3:1-12
Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures. San Francisco: Harper &
Plummer, A. An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St.
Matthew. London: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1910.
Stendahl, Krister. "Matthew," pp. 769-98 in Peake's Commentary on
the Bible,ed.M.Black & H.H. Rowley. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson
Westerhoff, John. A Pilgrim People. Minneapolis: The Seabury Press,
5. MUSIC SUGGESTIONS: Matthew 3:1-12
The 2nd Sunday of Advent offers a rare opportunity to lift up the
figure of John the Baptist not only in Scripture and sermon but in
song as well. PREPARE THE WAY, O ZION (HB 65,LBW 26 alt.) and
ON JORDAN'S BANKS THE BAPTIST'S CRY (HB 76,LBW 36) are good choices.
Other Hymns which also convey significant Advent images relating to
the Gospel texts include: HARK! A THRILLING VOICE IS SOUNDING (HB 59, LBW 37); COMFORT, COMFORT YE MY PEOPLE (HB 67, LBW 29); HERALD, SOUND THE NOTE OF JUDGMENT (HB 70); "THY KINGDOM COME" ON BENDED KNEE (HB 615); JUDGE ETERNAL, THRONED IN SPLENDOR (HB 596,LBW 418).
If the preacher wants to draw a conscious connection between the
Advent Gospel and the need for repentance, an unusual and
thought-provoking hymn choice would be WHERE RESTLESS CROWDS ARE
THRONGING (LBW 430). This is a hard-hitting lyric to the old Welsh
tune LLANGLOFFAN. It underscores the need for Christ's presence in a
world where many do not have the eyes to see that presence.
Exegete: Katheryn Keene, All Saints Episcopal Church, Attleboro, MA
6. FURTHER READING: Advent/Christmas
Simcoe, Mary Ann, ed. A Christmas Sourcebook. Chicago: Liturgy
Training Publications (155 E. Superior St., Chicago 60611),
1984. This is an elegant, spiralbound volume of prayers,
readings, poems, hymns and myriad other resources
for Christmastide, starting with the Winter Solstice and
continuing through the Baptism of Our Lord. It would make a fine
gift for anyone who enjoys unusual liturgical resources.