Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Preparing the way for the coming kingdom

The Peaceable Kingdom (ca. 1848), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), oil on canvas, expresses a vision for the kingdom of God, found in Isaiah 11 and anticipated in Matthew 3

Patrick Comerford

Matthew 3: 1-12:


1 Ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις παραγίνεται Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστὴς κηρύσσων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τῆς Ἰουδαίας

2 [καὶ] λέγων, Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. 3 οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ῥηθεὶς διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ,
Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου,
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.

4 Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ Ἰωάννης εἶχεν τὸ ἔνδυμα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τριχῶν καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, ἡ δὲ τροφὴ ἦν αὐτοῦ ἀκρίδες καὶ μέλι ἄγριον. 5 τότε ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία καὶ πᾶσα ἡ περίχωρος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, 6 καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ' αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.

7 Ἰδὼν δὲ πολλοὺς τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων ἐρχομένους ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς; 8 ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας: 9 καὶ μὴ δόξητε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ. 10 ἤδη δὲ ἡ ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται: πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.

11 ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν: ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἰσχυρότερός μού ἐστιν, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς τὰ ὑποδήματα βαστάσαι: αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί: 12 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ, καὶ συνάξει τὸν σῖτον αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ.

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3 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.” ’

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and 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? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 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. 10 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.

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. 12 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.’

Introduction:

Our Bible study this morning is the Gospel reading for Sunday week [5 December], the Second Sunday of Advent. The Revised Common Lectionary readings for that Sunday are: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12.

Our Sunday readings for Advent this year are drawn from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, and prepare us for the coming of Christ in glory and majesty, which is far more important a theme for Advent than sending out Christmas cards and preparing for the office Christmas party.

The context:

The Old Testament reading (Isaiah 11: 1-10) looks to the promise of the Coming Messiah, filled with the Spirit of God, ushering in a kingdom in which the wolf shall live with the lamb, the calf with the lion, “and a little child shall lead them” (verse 6) – a Messianic image that has inspired poets, painters and hymn writers throughout the generations.

You may find resonances of these images in both the Psalm (Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19) and the Epistle reading (Romans 15: 4-13) too.

The Gospel reading develops these themes. It may seem out of place in some parishes using the Advent Wreath, for it is customary to recall John the Baptist on the Third Sunday of Advent; the sequence for the Advent Wreath normally follows this pattern:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs;
Advent 2: The Prophets;
Advent 3: John the Baptist;
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary;
Christmas Day: Christ.

But the Gospel reading for the following Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent [17 December] returns to John the Baptist, and explains how his mission has pointed to Christ (see Matthew 11: 2-11).

On the other hand, this Gospel reading links with the Old Testament reading by once again prophesying, anticipating the coming of the Messiah, telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near (see verse 2), and quoting the Prophet Isaiah.

The reading:

The introductory verses (1-3) emphasise John’s preaching, not his baptising. John first and foremost is a preacher, calling us to repentance, μετάνοια (metánoia), true conversion, turning around and reorienting ourselves (see verses 1-2). Compare this with Mark 1:4, “John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism if repentance for the forgiveness of sin.”

John is the one described by Isaiah who is “the voice … crying out in the wilderness” (verse 3). Yes, we go on to hear a description of John’s baptising, but this reading does not include the verses describing the Baptism by John of Christ; instead, it places a greater emphasis on the meaning of that baptism and on the message of John.

In this passage, parallels are drawn constantly between John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah, as we have seen, and Elijah.

The description of John’s clothing of “camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist” (verse 3) draws on descriptions of Elijah as “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” (see II Kings 1: 8). Although John positively denies that he is Elijah (see John 1: 21), later in this Gospel, Christ speaks of John in terms of the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11: 14; compare with Matthew 17: 10-13).

Unlike Elijah, though, John performs no miracles; it is because of his preaching that John is identified as a latter-day Elijah. He fearlessly confronts the powers of the day, both secular (compare Ahab and Herod) and religious (compare the prophets and priests of Baal with the Pharisees and Sadducees). But John also heralds the coming Day of the Lord – which is part of the prophesy drawing on Elijah at the very end of the Old Testament (see Malachi 4: 5-6). In this way, John acts as a bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

John’s preaching emphasises the coming of the Kingdom of heaven (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, basileía tou ouranou, see verse 2). The Greek word for kingdom, βασιλεία (basileía), points first and foremost to God’s rule or reign, not to the realm over which he rules. As the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, where God’s will is done, there his kingdom comes (see Matthew 6: 10). When God’s kingdom comes, his will indeed shall be done on earth as in heaven, and justice shall be firmly and truly established. And Advent is a time to prepare for, to anticipate, to look forward to the coming of those days.

Because the kingdom is at hand, John calls those who hear him to repentance (verse 2). The Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια (metánoia), means a change of direction, a change of heart, a change of mind. Those who take John’s preaching seriously must reorient their thinking, their priorities. Their whole outlook must changed once realise the nearness and the demands of God’s reign.

They express that change by confessing their sins and being baptised (verse 6).

What about the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to the baptism (see verse 7). Did they receive John’s baptism? The phrase ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ (epí tó báptisma autou, verse 7) means literally “to his baptism” rather than “coming for baptism” (NRSV) or “to where he was baptising” (NIV). Were they spectators, or were they baptised? Did they receive the baptism to signal that they were ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God, or were they hypocrites who had failed to repent?

Is John trying to shock them Pharisees and Sadducees out of their false sense of security (verse 9), and into spiritual awareness by the strong language he uses: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (verse 7).

Christ has not yet arrived at the Jordan, but John’s message already is not primarily about himself, but about the one who is to come (see verse 11-12), who is spoken of in apocalyptic images of the final judgment.

Some questions for discussion:

Did Isaiah actually prophesy anything about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God?

At what point in the life of Christ does Saint Matthew place these events? Is this timing significant? Why?

What was the content of John’s preaching? How does John’s preaching compare to Christ’s?

Do confession and repentance prepare people for the coming of the kingdom?

What does the coming of the kingdom have to do with making the Lord’s paths straight (see verse 3)? How do we make the Lord’s paths straight?

Is John too judgmental of the Pharisees and Sadducees? Would you be so harsh with people who come to church to look and learn?

Why did Jesus have to be baptised?

Did he have to be baptised for repentance?

Collect:

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with Year I and Year II MTh students on 24 November 2010.