3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 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.
7But 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 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. 11“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. 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.”
What I am Learning:
Once again we read a scripture in which every word and every phrase is filled with meanings. In many cases the words we overlook as mere filler are important. In others the words we think we understand have depths of meaning we did not imagine.
But this is not an exercise in smarty-pants-Bible-geekery. It is about God’s vision for our being human and living in human community. In other words, it is a matter of life and death for us and for the planet and creatures in our care.
John appears in the wilderness. Wilderness is a powerful word for first century Hebrews. It is a place of danger where rebels and deviants go. It is also where God Moses led the People of Israel for 40 years after their time in Egypt, where they experienced slavery in Egyptian Empire. The wilderness was, in the words of Dan Erlander, a “wilderness school.” In that school they learned how to be human again, and how to live humanly with each other. Over and over again, the people showed that they had both suffered from Egyptian Empire and learned its ways. They had forgotten that there are other ways to live than the ways of empire. The Ten Commandments and other instructions were not rules to obey for God to love them but were an attempt to teach people a radically different vision for being human.
So when John is in the wilderness, he is symbolically saying that the People of Israel have once again learned the ways of Empire, this time from the Romans, and have forgotten there are other ways to live. It was time for a “wilderness school” refresher course and John would be their first teacher.
One word down, more to go!
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near:
The kingdom of heaven is the same as the “kingdom of God” or what I tend to call “God’s reign of mutuality.” The reason it is called the “heaven” in Matthew is that Matthew wrote to a Jewish Community. Jews tended refrain from saying certain words for “God” as a sign of respect for the mystery of God. But the intent of the phrase is clear: John was announcing a this-worldly change of orientation and allegiance from the Roman Empire to God’s way of mutuality. Another way to say this is a change, both internally and externally, from culture of “power over” people to one of “power with” people—a change from dominating over and submitting to each other to holding each other in mutuality.
Repentance means just this sort of change. Jewish people understood repentance as a total change of orientation.
John wasn’t asking for much, was he?
How can we describe the shape and scope of this reorientation? It sounds pretty complicated, undefined and even overwhelming.
The early church defined this repentance, this complete change of orientation and allegiance, in baptism. The imagery of baptism is death and rebirth.
Internally we die to our rejection of a life that includes both vulnerability and power, life and death. By rejecting a life that includes all these contradictory elements, we tend to imagine we are all powerful one moment and only vulnerable the next. Like the oscillation of A/C current we shift by the moment from passive to aggressive. This oscillation is the result of a deep alienation from and a rejection of our complicated human condition. In baptism we recognize that our human condition is fully accepted by God—so much so that God became a human just like us. If being human is good enough for God to fully embrace, then it is good enough for us.
One of Luther’s re-discoveries was the idea that God embraces our lives, even in the moments when we can’t.
Externally we die to the cultures that humans that reject life as-it-is tend to produce: societies of dominance and submission. In these dog-eat-dog societies the rich get richer and poor are blamed for their poverty. In domination culture “god” is seen as the powerful god of the powerful. This “god” establishes a universe in which there are privileged and oppressed and blesses injustice. Such were the gods of Egypt and Babylon and Rome. Such empires take advantage of and amplify our rejection of life by making us feel powerless to change things and powerful over those who are different from us. John calls his people from the ways of the Roman Empire, to active resistance to a culture of dominance and submission.
Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This phrase expresses a deep truth: that our capacity to evoke change in the larger world and our internal work to become fully human are intertwined.
Baptism for early Christians embraced both the internal work to embrace human life as-it-is and to the external work of transforming the larger culture to more fully reflect God’s intention for human beings – what he called the kingdom of heaven.
The people were going out to him:
This repentance was not just about individuals. John was calling his whole people to this change of orientation. How easy it is for us to hear “individualized and monogrammed personal post-mortem salvation” here.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
This phrase is from the book of Isaiah, in which the People of Israel are enslaved. The “way of the Lord” was an image of hope for people oppressed by the Babylonian Empire that they would be allowed to go home and that they could travel the road safely.
In this jam-packed passage, Matthew puts in references to two memories of escape from Empire by the People of Israel: escape from Egypt and Babylon. Matthew squarely places John’s ministry, and therefore Jesus’ ministry, in the context of the internal and external struggle to move from dominance and submission to mutuality, from empire to God’s reign.
John then calls the Pharisees and Sadducees “snake bastards” and implies that they had accommodated themselves to the ways of empire and called it righteousness. These religious leaders had confused matters by using religious language mask how empire was deforming the People of Israel.
A Few Reflections:
How tempting it is for us to use religious language to mask empire. We most often do this by mistaking love with the avoidance of conflict. John the Baptist loves. He loves enough to call his people on the ways they have been warped by the ways of the Roman Empire. But he is very clear: he places himself in direct conflict with that Empire by announcing that another government was coming to replace it. He called his whole people to join him in that conflict.
There is, of course, a lot of conflict that does not flow from love. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference!
He calls us to join him in the hard interior work of accepting our true humanity and the work of transforming culture from domination/submission to mutuality. It is not easy work. But many left Jerusalem and all of Judea because the burden of living life in empire, of living a life alienated from our complex nature is excruciating.
I am sure they felt better once they left their homes and began the journey to hear John, one who reminded them of God’s beautiful vision for human beings and human societies.
We feel better too, even when the journey ahead is long, when we take our first steps toward repentance—our own reorientation and new allegiance to God’s reign of Mutuality.
It is near.