Christ roots us. (Satterlee)
It may become easy to be smug in our religious roots.

Isaiah 11:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more… Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

Romans 15:4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

‘Therefore I will confess* you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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.’ 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.’

To the Roots

John appears in the wilderness. He is the one about whom Isaiah spoke (Isaiah 40:3). This aligns him with the prophetic tradition. John is wearing a coat of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. This aligns him with the prophet Elijah, who called Israel to righteousness. King Ahaziah asks his messengers to describe Elijah:

He said to them, “What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” They answered him, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
 2 Kings 1:7-8

From the outset, Matthew wants us to understand John as a prophet, calling Israel to righteousness, back to its roots. He is a reformer.

David Garland, in Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (2012) notes:

The renewal of Israel does not begin in its hallowed center of political and religious power. John makes no appearance in Jerusalem or the temple; instead, Jerusalem, all Judea, and the region across the Jordan must come out to him. Even many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to him to be baptized.

Reform rarely comes from the center. It comes from the fringes. John’s reformation comes from the wilderness, on the other side of the Jordan. Luther’s Reformation came from a backwater part of the Holy Roman Empire, on the other side of the Alps. Jesus himself came from the tiny northern town of Nazareth, not even mentioned in the Old Testament. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

There’s something really fresh and engaging about John the Baptist’s direct approach. It’s honest: his blunt irritation with the Pharisees and Sadducees: Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Period. He has clarity about what he wants: outcomes.

For John, the religious establishment is so hopelessly broken, God is going to remake it from the roots. Even now, the axe has been laid at the root of the tree that has failed to bear fruit.

The tirade continues: Don’t even think that your race, your bloodline, or religious heritage gets you automatic salvation. Some rabbis held that all Israelites would escape the fire of Gehenna, by virtue of their birthright. David Garland, in Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (2012) quotes the Babylonian Talmud, “All Israelites have a share in the world to come.” John begs to differ. No circumcision or baptism can be a substitute for righteousness. Being a child of Abraham does not excuse one from injustice. God can make children of Abraham out of rocks. Only repentance matters.

crucifixionThe thrust of this passage is preparation for the one who is to come. It’s like Matthias Grünewald’s surreal crucifixion that has John the Baptist ahistorically at the foot of the cross pointing at Jesus with the oversized finger. John is always pointing to Jesus. “I baptize you with water… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Fire cleanses and purifies.”

Reza Aslan (Zealot) postulates that Jesus was a disciple of John’s in the early days. It would explain a lot: their relationship, Jesus’ baptism, and John’s disciples coming to Jesus. It’s purely speculation, but an interesting hypothesis. The church certainly has had to struggle with why Jesus needed to be baptized at all, given the ever-elevating christology of the early church. Even the gospel writers display a struggle with this. The first gospel, Mark, simply records Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan. Matthew’s gospel, ten years later, probably puts the early church’s question on John’s lips: “I need to be baptized by you and yet you come to me?” Luke doesn’t mention this, and John omits the baptism altogether. We’ll revisit the baptism text on The Baptism of our Lord, in January.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea…
Matthew 3:1

Though scholars debate this, John was likely an Essene, one of the three major sects of Second Temple Judaism. The Essenes were based in the wilderness of Judea. Matthew tells us that this is precisely where John appeared 3:1. Not as numerous as either the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Essenes rejected those more institutionalized sects in favor of asceticism. Pliny said the Essenes did not marry, possessed no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. The Wikipedia article on Essenes describes a monastic community that “congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) celibacy.” The gospel writers’ description of John leads us to this conclusion

Conservative N. T. Wright draws a different conclusion. He points out that the Essenes practiced frequent (some daily) ritual washing/baptism, but John’s appeared to be a “one off” as he says – a prophet preaching a one-time conversion of repentance. Is Wright right? John may be close to, but not formally aligned with the Essenes. Here’s a short video clip of an interview with Wright on the topic.

Contrary to Wright, Aslan points out that not all Essenes had the same practices. Some lived in cities and villages while others lived in a more monastic community. Both kinds were ascetic. The only items of personal property an Essene at Qumran would be allowed were a cloak, a linen cloth, and a hatchet for digging a latrine in the wilderness. In addition to their numerous ritual washings by immersion, some Essenes also practiced a one-time baptism for ritual conversion into the sect. Most importantly, the Essenes rejected temple authority, which put them at odds with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They opposed animal sacrifice and observed strict dietary restrictions. They actively prepared for the end times. This sure sounds a lot like John the Baptist to me. 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
— Matthew 3:2

Get used to this phrase, “the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew uses it 32 times. It is found nowhere else in Scripture. It is probably interchangeable with “kingdom of God,” which Matthew uses only four times, compared to 14x in Mark, 31x in Luke, and 2x in John (John only uses the word “kingdom” five times). In the Markan parallel for this passage (Mark 1:15), John says, “… the kingdom of God is at hand.” Some have suggested that Matthew substitutes “heaven” for “God” so as not to offend his Jewish readers, who have a prohibition against speaking the name of God. This suggests Matthew has a significantly Jewish-Christian community, something I pointed out last week. Matthew doesn’t explain complex Jewish customs, so we can be fairly certain he is writing for a Jewish-Christian community.

It’s always poignant to draw attention to the fact that the kingdom is not a place to which we are going. It is coming near, coming to us as Jesus will teach his disciples to pray later, “Thy kingdom come…”

Kingdom is passé, except in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. U.S. Americans don’t think of themselves as living in any kingdom. We live in a country. It will be jarring to the ears of lifelong Christians to say “God’s country is at hand” or “The Empire of God is breaking in,” but it might convey a clearer sense of what is being said. When people today hear the kingdom of God, they automatically think of a castle in heaven after you die, which is far from what John is saying.

The kingdom of God is where God is sovereign. The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. The hungry are fed, and the poor are rich. There is no more war. Swords are beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. People give up killing for farming. The powerful are replaced with the meek and humble. When these things happen, you are in God’s country, whether now or in the future.

The call to repent is issued to the rich and powerful. God is about to bring wrath upon the rich and powerful. Repent! John is in line with the prophetic voices:

Therefore, I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.
— Ezekiel 18:30

What transgressions? Ezekiel leaves no room for doubt, idolatry, adultery, and usury. Neglecting the hungry and naked. Robbing the poor through predatory lending.

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbors wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.
-Ezekiel 18:5-9

Hauerwas says it’s tempting for us to think of repentance in individualistic terms. John is calling Israel to repentance as a nation. Repent or else all hell will break loose and all calamity will rain down. Indeed, it did, in 70 A.D., with the destruction of Jerusalem.

When John speaks of the wrath to come, he may indeed be speaking of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple. With eschatological thinking in the first century air, it can, at the same time be alluding to God’s coming judgment at the end of time.

It’s interesting that when Jesus begins his ministry later, he carries on John’s exact message, word for word:

From that time Jesus began to proclaim,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Matthew 4:17

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.’”
— Matthew 3:3

This passage from Isaiah 40:3 is quoted by all four gospels. This was Isaiah’s invitation for the people to return from the Babylonian Captivity to Jerusalem. John’s (and Matthew’s) listeners would hear “Babylonian Captivity” as “Roman Captivity.” However John meant it, it was likely heard as a critique of the Roman occupation and the Temple authorities who were in collusion with them for personal gain. This sedition, among other things, will get John beheaded, and Jesus crucified. Matthew, however, clearly wants us to hear this voice as John preparing the way for Jesus.

Now John wore clothing of camels hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
— Matthew 3:4

The description of John in Matthew’s gospel is clearly designed to evoke images of Elijah (1 Kings 1:8) who was hairy, had a leather belt, and lived in the wilderness. All Jews expect Elijah to return to announce the coming of Judgment Day. Hauerwas (“Matthew” Brazos Commentary) points out the very last words of the Old Testament point to Elijah (Malachi 4):

Remember the law of my servant Moses, to whom at Horeb I gave rules and regulations for all Israel to obey. Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment.

John and Jesus are announcing that the “great and terrible day of the Lord” is at almost here. John is Elijah and Jesus is the Christ/Messiah/Anointed.

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.
— Matthew 3:5-6

While “all Judea” is clearly an exaggeration, Matthew wants us to know that John is gathering quite a crowd. He is drawing attention to himself, something one doesn’t want to do with the Romans.

Repenting and confessing is sealed by baptism. To understand this concept from John’s perspective, consider this passage from Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
— Ezekiel 36:25-27

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.
— Matthew 3:7-9

Gentiles might come for a ritual conversion with water. Jewish peasants might also come, to repent and profess faith in the sovereignty of God and the prophetic call. But Pharisees and Sadducees? For John, they were the very problem. Perhaps they were simply coming to observe this crowd-drawing attraction in the Judean wilderness, but something was getting through to them, because some came for baptism.

Amy Jill Levine (The Annotated Jewish New Testament) says it was believed that a new born brood of vipers ate through their mother’s stomach. The Pharisees and Sadducees in John’s perspective were destroying Israel by feeding off of it. By the Temple tax and exorbitant cost of atonement sacrifices, they were bilking the poor farmers and widows so they could live in luxury.

Barclay (the Gospel of Matthew) suggests the vipers fleeing the wrath to come evokes a wilderness brush fire, with the line of snakes desperately racing ahead of the flames.

Clearly John is worried that they don’t really mean it. They are coming for fire insurance. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” is their warning. Baptism is not enough. If you’re really repenting, let’s see the fruit in your life. Being a child of Abraham will not cut it either. If you mean it, then let justice roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, per Amos.

Genesis 17:7 says, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

If we’re promised an everlasting covenant as descendants of Abraham, then our place in the kingdom is secure. Our righteousness comes from our family tree. John disagrees.

Hauerwas suggests John’s call to bear fruit worthy of repentance means he is refusing to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees. I’m not so sure, but it is plausible.

Even now the ax 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.
— Matthew 3:10

Bearing fruit is also a motif that Jesus will adopt in his ministry (Matthew 7:16-20, 12:33, 13:23, 21:19, 21:43, 26:29). Everyone knows what happens to a tree that does not bear fruit. The farmer can’t afford to let it take up space. It will be destroyed. The ax at the root is an ominous warning to Israel. Change your ways or calamity will strike.

It is easy to see why some folks make outrageous claims when calamity does strike. Planes hit the World Trade Center. Katrina hits New Orleans. Armchair theologians want to see God’s wrath in everything. The roots for such are in Scripture. Sometimes calamity is of our own making, the result of our sinfulness or evil. Other times, however, calamity happens through no cause of our own. We must be careful before making such claims, unless we have some revelatory knowledge. 

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.
— Matthew 3:11

For the connection between the purifying properties of water and fire in Jewish thought, consider Numbers 21:23:

Everything that can withstand fire, shall be passed through fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless it shall also be purified with the water for purification; and whatever cannot withstand fire, shall be passed through the water.

John is offering a way to have forgiveness of sins without the Temple sacrifices according to Ben Witherington. If so, this is an offense to Rome and Jerusalem, both of which demanded sacrifices. It would also explain why the Pharisees and Sadducees have come to check it out.

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.”
— Matthew 3:12

This will not be a familiar image to most folks in 21st century America. Imagine tossing wheat into the air with a huge winnowing fork. The wind blows the lighter chaff to the side, leaving the heavier wheat to be harvested. Once the wheat has been separated, the chaff can be burned.

I like Brian Stoffregen’s thoughts here: “Our cleansing means more than just “being dipped” (baptizo) but also, perhaps, being thrown into the air to let the “Holy Wind” blow away the worthless stuff.”

How does one preach this text?

Perhaps this is a good time to talk about repentance as returning to the things that really matter to God – bearing fruit. We can invite our people to hear John’s call for justice and compassion. When leaders make decisions that benefit those who are already wealthy and powerful, and when religious leaders support them, or fail to call them out, God calls prophets to be voices crying in the wilderness.

This might be a good time to help people understand the prophetic role in critiquing the religious and political establishment when it fails to care for the most vulnerable in society.

We might also talk to our folks about pointing, like John, to one who lived God’s compassion and revealed God’s justice, who baptized us with the Holy Spirit so that we might bear fruit.

More thoughts… Frederick Buechner on John the Baptist.