Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Voice Worthy of Our Attention

Matthew 3:1-12, the gospel lesson appointed for the Second Sunday of Advent, is a familiar text probably because it is one of the few John the Baptist texts that appears in all four of the gospels.  That is not to say that the entire Matthew account appears verbatim in Mark, Luke and John, but that pieces of this account are in all of them.  In all four the Baptist is announced as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness," and also he is the one who announces that he is not worthy to carry (or even untie) the sandals of the One who is coming after him.  If this Voice Crying in the Wilderness is thought worthy of inclusion in all four gospels, then surely we ought to listen with keen interest as he speaks to us in this age.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but to open up some of the central issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For an explanation of this particular mode of preaching, you may purchase my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  John's opening line couldn't be more clear:  "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near."  The remainder of the text simply fleshes out this call.  John is shown to be a prophet like Elijah, calling the powers-that-be, in this case religious powers, to "bear fruits worthy of repentance."  This is clearly the Word functioning as Law.  The Law shows us our need for Christ, and the ways even our repentance falls short.

2.  How is the Word not functionng in the text?  A word of Gospel is tough to find in this text.  The promise that he "will gather his wheat into the granary" may be seen as a promise that all will not be burned up, but this is a meager announcement of good news, if it even qualifies.  The Old Testament text appointed for this day, Isaiah 11:1-10 is a much more complete announcement of the Gospel than anything in this account of the Baptist.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This text compels us to identify with those to whom John speaks.  We are the ones coming to be baptized, confessing our sins.  We are the ones who fail to bear fruits worthy of repentance.  We are the vipers who slither out of the fields when the fires are lit.  We are the ones who need to hear these words of warning.  As preachers it is not our place to identify with the one speaking the Word, but only with the ones who are spoken to by the Word.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the call that invites us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in our lives.  "Bearing fruits worthy of repentance" is certainly that.  It could be argued that this text is functioning primarily as a call to obedience except that the call to repentance is so prevalent. If there was a clear word of Gospel here, that also would signal a call to obedience in a more clear way.

5.  Exegetical work:  A fine source of insight into this text comes from the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures.  I would highly recommend this series.  In it are centuries of commentary on every text, collected for easy reference.  Saint Jerome's commentary is insightful:  "One's confession is morally valueless when one does not believe in the punishment of future judgement."  "Vipers are beautiful on the outside... but on the inside they are full of poison."  "The hypocrites showed the beauty of holiness on their face while they bore the poison of malice in their hearts." (ACCS, NT, vol. 1a, p. 42-44)  Hilary also comments:  "Succession to Abraham in the flesh is not required, but the inheritance of Abraham's faith."  "This passage [about stones] indicates the power of God, who made everything out of nothing." (p. 45)  Finally St. Chrystom weighs in:  "Axe is laid to the root means it is poised right next to it.  He first heightened their fear in order to fully awaken them and press them on to repentance."  "The axe signifies the power of the divine word."  "Through the designation of fire... the life-giving energy of the Spirit is given."  "Fire is appointed... which is in itself neither wicked nor evil but powerful and able to purify from evil." (p. 45-48)

Blessings on your proclamation!

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