Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Matthew 3: 1-12
1And in those days cometh John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, saying, 2Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
3For this is he that was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.
4Now John himself had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then went out unto him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about the Jordan; 6and they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said unto them, Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance: 9and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 10And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
11I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance, but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire: 12whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.
“And in those days cometh—John the Baptist,”
Saint Matthew begins his Gospel telling of the genealogy, the birth of the baby Jesus, the Wise Men, the flight to Egypt to avoid the decree of King Herod to kill all male children two years and younger and finally the return of the Holy family to Nazareth.
Years go by and finally we have the arrival of John the Baptist and his ministry.
The phrase, “In those days,” suggests that a kairos moment has arrived. Kairos is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment. Saint Matthew seems to suggest that this, juncture in time, there was a profound shift in our history that changed the lives of humans forever.
While only Matthew and Luke begin their accounts with the birth of Jesus, the fact that all four Gospel include the story of John the Baptist, illustrates the great importance that the Gospel authors placed on this event.
Matthew refers to the ancient prophecies when he cites Isaiah chapter 40:3 which reads, “The voice of one that crieth, Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God.” when Matthew wrote”
“For this is he that was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.”
You see hundreds of years had passed by and here was this wild man, clothed in a rough robe spun from camel’s hair, a belt of leather around his waist, and sustaining himself on wild honey and locusts. John was preaching in the wilderness, a region of rugged gorges and bad lands in the eastern part of Judah where the land slopes off toward the Jordan Valley. In ancient times, this area was infested with wild animals.
Except for a brief time during the spring rains the wilderness is arid, a place where few humans choose to live. But yet, Matthew writes in verse five and six;
“Then went out unto him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about the Jordan; and they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
So here we have a man, by all appearances a wild man of the desert, preaching repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.
There has been no prophet in Israel for four centuries, and people are anxious to hear a prophet. John fits the bill, calling the people to repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom—as prophesied centuries earlier:
• for the day of Jehovah is at hand (Isaiah 13:6)—
• for a day when “… the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low; and Jehovah alone shall be exalted in that day. ” (Isaiah 2:17)—
• for a day when the Lord will come “Behold, the day of Jehovah cometh, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger; to make the land a desolation, and to destroy the sinners thereof out of it. ” (Isaiah 13:9)—
• for the day of Jehovah is great (Joel 2:11).
After all those years the children of Israel again have a prophet in their midst and they run out to the desert to hear him.
John has the habit of denouncing evil wherever he finds it, in this instance it is the Pharisees and Sadducees he saw coming to his baptism. Later on he calls out the evil of King Herod which results in Herod having John separated from his head, but that is a story for another time.
It is interesting that here we find Pharisees and Sadducees lumped together. They represent two very different viewpoints, and are often at odds with each other. Pharisees are known for their adherence to the law and resistance to pagan culture. Sadducees are more likely to be wealthy and friendly to the Romans. Sadducees dominate the priesthood, and most members of the Sanhedrin are Sadducees
John called them “offspring of vipers” and demanded to know who it was that had warned them to flee from the wrath to come. He is comparing these men to snakes, squirming away from the fires of righteousness.
Again it is interesting that John deliberately attacked these men calling the offspring of snakes, invoking the imagery of serpents which—in the bible—are equated to Satan. Normally, religious leaders are granted a certain degree of respect, even if we do not always agree with them. But here, John calls these esteemed clerics a “offspring of vipers.” These are the people that maintain the temple and perform the required rituals, but their religious observance has calcified and their hearts have grown hard. And many of these are from the same groups that persecuted Jesus and had him nailed to the cross.
Wherever the gospel is heard in its depths it is preceded by the law in its seriousness. Without law there is no gospel…. John is the law of God in person; Jesus is the gospel of God in person.
So here we have a record of an august event, the arrival of a contemporary prophet as promised by the ancient prophets.
Matthew tells us of John the Baptist preaching for the people to repent, and prophesying, that Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; Mark and Luke use the phrase “kingdom of God,” which means the same as the phrase Matthew used; “Kingdom of Heaven”
Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians, and he uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” to honor their reluctance to use God’s holy name lest they somehow profane it. The kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven is that realm in which God is king.
Repentance involves turning around—a new direction—a change of heart—a new commitment. John calls for people to repent, because only when we face sin squarely and renounce it can we be freed from it. Today, we are sorely tempted to call sin by other names and to blame other people for our problems rather than accepting responsibility for our sins. Such an attitude denies the reality of sin, and thus offers no escape from it.
John justifies his call to repentance by announcing that the kingdom of heaven has come near. John is calling them to turn away from the world that they have known so that they might see the Kingdom of Heaven in their midst.
John warned the Sadducees and Pharisees not to think that by the labors of Abraham and his agreements with God that they would escape the Lord’s wraith.
Pride and presumption are the downfalls of the Sadducees and Pharisees, who think that they are safe due to the covenant between God and his chosen people. They are the religious elite, the crème de la crème, but John warns them that their Abramhamic heritage will not save them.
John is using a play on words when he told them, “I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” you see, in the Aramaic language, the words for “stones” and “children” sound very familiar, so he does this stylistic word play to make a point, perhaps, that the Sadducees and Pharisees, are not worth any more in the eyes of God—due to their arrogance—than a common stone.
John said, “even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” The Baptist uses strong and fearsome imagery to verbally paint a picture that any who do not, as he put it–Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance—will suffer the consequences.
Then the Baptist reveals a prophecy, that which was revealed to him, he said; “but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire”
Next he again reverts to colorful metaphor to illustrate how Christ will separate the wheat from the chaff, taking the wheat to his realm and sending the chaff to the fire. The Baptist told them; “whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”
Some interpretations use a different phrase other than “whose fan is in his hand” such as “His winnowing fork is in his hand.”
In ancient times they used to throw grain into the air, where the wind can carry away the lighter chaff while the heavier grain settles back to the floor, while the meaning of GARNER is to gather into storage. John uses this imagery to warn them of the upcoming judgment when Christ will receive his and the others will be cast into the lake of fire.
Later on in Chapter 7, Saint Matthew recounts the words of Christ who said;
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?
And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Although many of us at Saint Michael’s originated in Protestant backgrounds before embracing a more catholic point of view. We agree with our Catholic friends that the Protestant understanding of the Grace of God alone being the requirement for salvation, if this doctrine is true, then why did Christ make this statement; “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
In this season of Advent, when we look both at the birth of Christ and that time when he will return to separate the wheat from the chaff, we humbly ask that everyone take a moment to reflect upon their own conscience and ask themselves; “Am I sure, that I am going to heaven based upon the doctrine of grace and grace alone, or is there other thing I must do so that I am not one of those Christ spoke of?”
The Bible texts of the Gospel lessons are from the American Standard Version, Published in 1901, Public Domain.
The Collects, are from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979. as found on lectionarypage.net
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