Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12
What is it that we most deeply hope for, long for, or expect in our lives for the present or for the future? If we were to fill in the dots and draw the picture-
if our deepest longings were to be fulfilled-what would the picture look like, of ourselves, of our world, and of ourselves in relation to those around us and to the world in which we live?
At the heart of the lesson from Matthew for Advent 2, and perhaps its overall theme, is the matter of hope. As usual, on this traditional John the Baptist Sunday, John appears as the one who prepares the way with talk of the nearness of the kingdom and a call for repentance (3:2). There is one who is coming, he says, and this expectancy shapes the narrative. In the same way it addresses our own expectations as it questions what dreams shape our images of the future, or even whether we imagine a future at all. Is there any hope left in us?
One of the key tasks of the preacher is the passing on of hope. “Open our eyes,” we pray. Hope-filled dreams have a way of shaping what it is we are enabled to see. They are like lenses that train us to interpret and to act in the present. Each generation learns to dream the visions that are taught by those who have dreamed before and by those who are able to keep dreaming in the present. To borrow a metaphor, every Christian needs to have a “hope chest.” “In those days” the lesson says, and so begins a dream not just about what is, but about what might be if God’s reign might indeed be drawing near. Such dreaming has already been there earlier in the story, when Joseph, the first character in Matthew’s story, is called to imagine what righteousness will look like in the light of God’s promise (see Advent 3, 1:18-25). To know that promises will be kept is a way that hope is shaped. In John we see just such a preacher who seeks to fill or even to create anew for us that “hope chest.”
If the overall theme is one of hope, that theme is focused in two major sections of the lesson. The first part (1-6) is captured in the summary of John’s preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The second part, beginning with “But when he saw.” (7) might be characterized under the themes of righteousness or judgment.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near.” “This is it!” John says. But just what is it? If this is a way of talking about what God is doing in this world, what will that reign of God look like? On this question Christians have disagreed-even the existence of the four canonical gospels witnesses to that disagreement. It is a matter of imagination or vision. Matthew is claiming that it has something to do with the coming of Jesus. But what does that have to do with the here and now? What does it have to do with those hopes that will shape our future? Isaiah’s prophecy (11:1-10) offers at least some proposals. We note the images of righteousness, of equity, of peace, the cessation of harm, the unity of all nations under the rule of God. How will we hear and expect the promises of God to be fulfilled yet today?
Then there is this matter of repentance. The kingdom is near, yet repentance has something to do with preparing the way for God’s entry into our lives. The call for repentance signals that there is something wrong and there is a need for change. Repentance and its seal in baptism signal a theme to be sounded repeatedly in Matthew: God’s power is present but it is not unrelated to what we do. There will be plenty of time in Matthew to wrestle with issues of law and righteousness, of grace and works, of faith and responsibility. One thing is clear, for Matthew God’s power calls for and enables a transformed new life of discipleship. Repentance then directs our vision not so much to sorrow for the past, but to the promise of a new beginning. The promise of this lesson is that because God’s reign is so near it has the power to bring about this new orientation of life.
Talk of such a new orientation of life leads directly to a theme especially present in the second half of the lesson-righteousness and judgment. John calls for his hearers to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (8). The issue is that of response to the promise of God. What shape does the kingdom and repentance take in our lives? If the promises of God are a matter of grace and gift, then do I have any responsibility? Matthew’s answer is a clear “Yes.” Repentance and fruit belong together, but it is important to hear their connection in context. Such bearing of fruit means above all not to be enslaved to the past, to be open to the future of what God is doing and will do.
Repentance means to assume responsibility for the future and not to be tied to the past and to personal prerogatives. “Do not presume” upon your status as children of Abraham, John says. God is able to raise up new children (9). The key focus is on God’s ability and the promise of God’s power. Repentance and judgment are serious business, but one does not force fruit. Fruit springs forth out of a new orientation, out of knowing one’s place as a child of God’s promise. In baptism’s call to such response as God’s children, we experience the transforming power that links “being” (children of God) and “doing” (bearing fruit), between “faith” and “action.” Matthew will hold this wholeness before us throughout the gospel. “You are the salt of the earth.You are the light of the world” (5:13-14). “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them.” (7:24).
Hope for such wholeness is finally secured in the promise of the one who is coming. When John claims that God is able to raise up children, this is clearly a promissory announcement of the power of God that will indeed “raise up” a child whose resurrection will be life and salvation for us.
So we return to the preacher and the preacher’s imagination and dreams. What is your vision? What is your hope? Do you dwell in the past and in recrimination or despair about what might be? Or do you live into that future where all that is named by the name of God and God’s kingdom is located. Will you move into this Advent season in hope and in the sure confidence that fruit is yet to come, that God will yet do a new thing among us? Promises are always a matter of hope. And to hear God’s promise again in this “one who is coming” is to be called to repentance and so empowered to rethink, to re-imagine, and to reorder our lives by the power of God’s presence.