Gospel reading from Matthew 3: 1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This 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.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do 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. 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.
‘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. His 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.’
Traditionally Advent 2 was for the prophets and Advent 3 for John the Baptist, but John seems to get in on Advent 2, and not the bit about him as the baby foretold to his aged parents six months before Gabriel speaks to Mary but – No – the adult John speaking of judgement and performing this strange thing called baptism – immersion in the Jordan River. Such a strange thing in fact that John got the name, John the Baptiser (as he was the one doing this peculiar thing), but there is little in the passage to explain what this baptising is about, though it is linked with the people confessing sins, and in the case of the religious leaders, bearing fruit worthy of repentance. It is also linked to crossing the Jordan so entering (again) the promised land. This is a turning back to God, a recommitment to the God of their ancestors. John speaks clearly of a future and greater judgement where wheat (good fruit) will be separated and kept, and the chaff burnt. At this point we are reminded that Jesus will also say it is not our job to sort out the weeds from the wheat; that is God’s harvest-time job, otherwise described as separating sheep from goats.
So what would we make of such an “apparition”, such a rude, abrupt and counter-cultural figure, whose dress and diet claimed a heritage from Elijah the great prophet (at a time when the King, Ahab, was against the things of God)? Does he remind us of the rather aggressive street preachers we get today, who, if we are honest, seem so unattractive and unloving? John however did not just tub-thump, he offered baptism. So is he then a bit like a leader of a new sect or group, expecting allegiance? That is another abuse of power! John did not draw a crowd primarily to himself but pointed them to Jesus. I must decrease .. one who is more powerful than me is coming .. He came to prepare the way, to help people get things straight before the arrival of the King. That makes him a very different proposition from an angry street preacher or someone collecting a following for their own sake.
So, what do we make of him and more importantly what is our response in our age and context. Christmas (and Advent before it, even more so) is disruptive of how things are. John stands in the line of prophets speaking out and speaking up.
What is God’s word to us this Advent, at this difficult time in our history? I suggest both disruption and invitation.
Like the previous prophets, John came with a message that was disruptive – and we need to hear the disruption and what that means – and he came with a message of invitation, of baptism, of promise.
Disruption, Invitation and Promise!
Revd Peter Reiss