The Good News of Repentance

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.’ (or: is at hand.)  3This 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.” ’ 

4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even 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 (or: in) 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 (or: in) the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His 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.’

 

We often have a problem with the preaching of judgement. Too often, such preaching seems to be the projection of the preacher's own prejudice. And too often in such pronouncements, God seems to be wreaking undeserved and indiscriminate violence against the innocent.

However, the prophetic tradition in Israel saw that God's judgement was just and merited. It begins even in Genesis 6:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. … 13And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

I am of the view that Genesis is in part commentary on the experience of the Exile in Babylon. It seeks to answer questions about the nature of God, and the nature of judgement and blessing; how Israel came to be in Babylon, and how the miracle of its return came to be.1  Genesis could only make sense of it all by including the concept of God's judgement against wrong living.

Yes, we have different ideas of corporate responsibility—the Gospel has done its work on us. We have different ideas about how much people are responsible for what they do, and how much they are enslaved or programmed by their environment.

And yes, we can pride ourselves on being able to discern natural disasters as being a function of the geography and ecology of the planet; we don't need naïve explanations about a wrathful God. But, our impending, and already actual climate disaster, might prompt us to rethink the relationship between human beings, God, and planet. It is clear that our behaviour is causing the disaster in which we must now live for centuries.

Perhaps we should revisit judgement. What is behind Israel's conviction that they had received only their due in their exile in Babylon? Might our problem come not so much from Israel's perception of judgement, as from our not rethinking what judgement means? If we did not leave the discernment of judgement to the preachers of hatred and exclusion, might we find good news even in John's proclamation that the axe is already at the root of the trees?

•••

Repentance is the key exhortation in this reading. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, are not only the first words of John; they the first teaching words of Jesus. (Matt 4:17)  Repent, or repentance is repeated three times in the reading.

Repentance is an active change of behaviour, not merely a claim to be sorry, or even sincerely feeling sorry. Sorriness must be backed by changed action, or it is not repentance. The old Anglican prayer makes this difference clear:

We are sorry and ashamed,
and repent of all our sins(My emphasis)

John in his camel hair is very clearly drawn as a prophet of the Old Testament style. He would almost inevitably be seen as the Elijah of Malachi 4.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse (or: ban of utter destruction.)

In Israel's seeing of the world, a day of judgement is inevitable; read any of the prophets! But in this world view, the coming of Elijah is good news which allows us to escape judgement. Today's reading is not the bad news of judgement; it is the preaching of Good News. God has remembered Israel. (Cf Noah.)

If we look at the words "the prophet Isaiah spoke" (Matthew 3:3b) in context, we see

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God. 
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins. 

3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain. 
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Isaiah 40)

The appearance of John the Baptist is not judgement. It is about return from exile! It is about escape from the Egypt of Babylon, in Isaiah's context, and escape from the Egypt of Rome, in Matthew's context. Already the exile has been served!!! The person John comes to herald is a coming home to the Promised Land!

In the wisdom of the lectionary, we began the year not with today's reading, but with an extract from Chapter 24. Chapter 24 is the great warning of Jesus against revolt against Rome. Repentance is not military revolt. The kingdom of Heaven is separated from that kind of political action:

Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way? (Matt 26:52-54)

•••

People heard John. They knew their need: the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan…

I guess some Sadducees and Pharisees were going out for John's Baptism because it was the socially appropriate thing to do, just as some people go to church or join the Masons, or proclaim their religious beliefs to get elected.  Yet I suspect the great bulk of us do wish to sit right with God, or with some sense of what is finally and ultimately right in the world; people come genuinely when something awakens and calls them to rethinking life.

John is not attacking an historical group of people; instead that group stands as a warning about a mindset, a way of thinking about life and God. If we miss this, we miss what John is warning us about.

For there is a part of us all, which is deeply imbued with the idea that doing the right ritual, espousing the correct proposition,  will somehow change reality. Today we are tempted to think that "liking" a link on Facebook which pleads for some social justice or mercy, is somehow doing something significant. That is; we intuit that these acts of ritual will appease God, avert judgement, and set the world to rights. This is the ages old confusion the prophets cry against. The correct description for it, is that it is a belief in magic. It is a kind of pious spell casting.

And John says it makes us into a brood of vipers.

When ritual replaces acts of mercy, when correct belief trumps love, we begin to hate and exclude those who do not bind their hand in the glove of our worship. We begin to breed the evil nastiness that is a nest of snakes. We become an embodiment of all that is accursed about our being— except that we are not the single serpent of Genesis, but a whole nestful.

Bearing fruits worthy of repentance is the doing of mercy, and the allowing of the act of mercy to melt our heart, so that it flows to the shape of the Christ's heart:

The power of the table is great. I watched seven decades of racial tension born in Mississippi melt away from my grandmother, replaced by respect and kindness, as we gathered at the dinner table one evening 35 years ago. As we broke bread, the content of a man's character triumphed over the past. (JamesG3)

In my own life I have seen this: Desperate to be right with God, the conforming of my heart was enabled only as I began to act love. Without the act of love, all my other seeking, learning, and espousing, sincere as it was, served only to harden me— to make me "cold as charity"— and to move me toward bigotry. It was focussed upon me,  and upon me pleasing God.

Yet in the act of heart-melting love, is the mystery and the scandal we cannot avoid. Repentance means judgement. Either, we judge ourselves lacking and begin to change ourselves— we set ourselves to a new direction, or, the Greater Reality we call God, will find us lacking.

The abandonment of love for the sake of material gain— more money and a beach house— is reaping a harvest. We live in a kleptocracy.  30% of large private companies in Australia pay no tax. Our politicians mouth the rituals of "the fair go," equality, and social security, but the public sector is being defunded for lack of taxation. Hospital waiting times increase. Social security regulations, and even the phone queues to get attention, seem designed to keep people from seeking help, and punish the very poorest. Poor children become more impoverished. Generational poverty becomes entrenched. Civility is eroded: behaviour, language, and emotional outpouring which would once have expressed the most extreme distress or fear— and even then, been felt as a failing for which one would later apologise— have become normal discourse. (While the rich flee to the "better" suburbs and gated communities.) Bitter and resentful racism, sexism, ageism, and classism generate new words of ritual repeated by the politician-priests of the nation. This is called judgement. We are reaping a harvest and being winnowed.

At the beginning of Chapter 24, Jesus is already walking away from the temple, leaving it, sitting on the Mount of Olives in judgement.  (Zech 14) For Matthew, the axe lying at the root of the trees was actuality, not possibility. To be immersed or baptised in holy spirit required absolute repentance. Matthew's community had seen the judgement of Jerusalem. It was experiencing the failing civility of its own city, (Matt 10) and yet it still proclaimed kingdom of heaven at hand. (See last week.) It saw its life as one of hope! It saw that good news and return from exile had been proclaimed to it. And it saw that without repentance, all that was nothing. Without living by loving God's way, life is judgement!

We might not like the word judgement, but at the centre of the gospel is a clear message. If we do not watch, if we are not ready, if we do not repent, we will not find the kingdom at hand, near to us. We will find only despair, only destruction, as the world falls apart.

Or by some unfortunate luck or foul play, join the very rich. I have been there. I have been as rich as a Rhinehart compared to the starving people I have met hot bedding in slum houses, living in sheds, and crawling into the drains at night, in my own city. The money offers no  peace past a warm bed and decent food. Such peace is only found in the loving of people.2 Riches are empty poison. What will we choose?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Notes: 

  1. The understanding of Genesis which I find in the introductory chapters to Thomas Brodie's Genesis as Dialogue,goes beyond my assumption that Genesis is "resistance writing" during the Exile, to the understanding that Genesis is likely written afterthe Exile. It is seen as a deliberate reflection, with the perspective of time distance, upon God and Israel and the exilic prophets. It is not a "cut and paste job" of poorly matched sources.
  2. This is not mere "Christian talk" or jargon. Love is what humanises anyone. It does not belong to the church.
  3. Also at One Man's Web:

Matthew 3:1-11 - The Tapestry of Repentance
Matthew 3:1-11 - John the Baptist at Uluru
Matthew 3:1-12 - A most serious insult


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