Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12
The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent (Matthew 24:36-44) began the new liturgical year at the End (with a capital E), with the expectation of Jesus’ final coming to us.
Advent 2 and 3 move back (chronologically speaking) to the expectation of Jesus’ coming in ministry in connection with John the Baptist. The liturgical reverse chronology, however, should not be mistaken for moving away from Matthew’s eschatology.
The Gospel of Matthew is thoroughly eschatological from beginning to end. Writing around the year 80, Matthew wanted to reassert an eschatological expectation among his readers after some fifty years of waiting for Jesus to return without it occurring.
For Matthew, however, it is not that Jesus’ first coming was historical with his second coming being eschatological. No, the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection comprise an eschatological event that means the church is already living and always will live in the turning of the ages. John the Baptist helps Matthew’s readers see the eschatological nature of Jesus’ ministry.
John the Baptist himself is portrayed as an eschatological figure. Matthew’s details of his clothes, food, and locale signals to his ancient readers that he represents the return of Elijah, which was to occur before the coming of the messiah (Matthew 3:1, 4; see 11:14). John announces the advent of God’s reign using the exact language Jesus will use (verse 2; see also 4:17; 10:7), but John does not initiate the turning of the ages. In language Matthew and Luke (Luke 3:1-17) add to Mark’s version of this scene (Mark 1:2-8), John himself declares that he is but an inferior forerunner to the “one coming after” him (verses 7-12).
Even though the narration of Jesus’ ministry consistently begins with John the Baptist (for example, see Acts 1:5, 22; 13:24-25), the focus of the story is not on John. As John points to the one who comes after him, so should preachers on Advent 2 focus through John’s story to John’s description of the eschatological character of Jesus’ coming ministry.
For Matthew, then, the difference between John and Jesus is not their message, but the role they play in relation to that message. In his address to the Pharisees and Sadducees, John announces the coming judgment. Jesus, on the other hand, is the eschatological judgment. John baptizes with water (like cleansing in the form of washing the surface of something), but Jesus baptizes with fire (like purification in the form of refining or smelting metal to remove unwanted elements).
For Matthew, salvation and judgment are two poles of the same magnet. Many of us like to preach about justice but avoid any talk of divine judgment. If God decides between what is just and unjust, then God is judge. If God decides that we need to be saved from our sin and liberated from oppression, then God has judged our sinfulness and our situation as not according to God’s will. God’s mercy and love are meaningless if God cannot choose to see us and our situations in different ways. For Matthew, to meet and know Christ is to be judged and saved at the same time. The proper response is repentance. This theological claim and existential response will need to be central to an Advent sermon on this lection.
It is important to notice who comes out to be baptized by John. Matthew says it’s the people of Judea, all of Judea, and all of the region around the Jordan (Matthew 3:5-6). Matthew uses hyperbole to show the level of impact the birth pangs of the gospel are having at the center of Israel’s religious and political life. This also shows that Matthew is not anti-Jewish, even though it has often been interpreted this way. John accepts the repentance of and baptizes all these people. It is only the religious leaders with whom he takes issue. And although preachers often speak of such leaders as adversaries of Jesus who challenge and attack him in the Gospels, in Matthew they are not the ones to strike the first blow. John challenges them, not the other way around. This sets the stage for Jesus to do the same (for example, see Jesus’ similar use of “brood of vipers” and “good fruit” when addressing the Pharisees in Matthew 12:33-34).
This is not an easy text to preach. The difficulty is not in identifying what is emphasized in the text, but because what is emphasized is so clear. The problem is that what is emphasized is so hard to hear and to respond to appropriately. Three points of identification invite three different sermons in relation to eschatological advent of judgment/salvation and the invitation to repent. First, the easiest approach may be to ask our congregation to identify with the faceless crowds who come out to be baptized by John. By doing so, we call our hearers, as individuals, to prepare for the coming of Christ with repentance and confession of sins. In other words, we call them to change their lives and to be open to Christ changing their lives.
Second, if we ask the congregation to identify with the religious leaders, we must be willing to name honestly that we religious folks may be the ones most challenged by Jesus’ coming. We have domesticated the gospel into polite news for the middle class instead of being saved by confrontation with our judge. In a sense, this identification leads to the same kind of sermon as the first, but with a stronger call to reflect on the need for the church to repent, not just the individuals gathered into it.
Finally, we can also ask the congregation to identify with John himself, placing ourselves in the role of those who are to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, the arrival of the saving judge who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. In this case, we call the church (and individuals within it) to take up a critical role toward the world, toward our particular society, and indeed, toward our church. We call the church to speak words of judgment and work radically for justice so that all might know God’s forgiving and providential care.