Matthew 3: 1-12: John the Baptist and the Kingdom of God
“In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”.
John the Baptist is one of the more strange characters of the New Testament. He wore clothing of camel hair – which I imagine was rather itchy – and seems to have lived exclusively on locusts and wild honey. I imagine that getting wild honey out of a wild honey-bee hive is rather a tricky thing to do. So poor old John was probably covered in bee-stings as well.
John is traditionally viewed as the last of the Old Testament prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, let’s picture the scene – picture a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings and with honey stuck to his shirt, munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.
I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of North End – or even here inside the church. I think we’d probably try to get him arrested as a Vargrant! We certainly wouldn't take him very seriously.
But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message that, according to Matthew’s Gospel, had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5) And let’s remember, these weren’t Sunday drivers out for an laugh at the strange fellow in the desert. These were people who would have travelled many hours, and in some cases many days, in hot, dusty air – to hear for themselves the amazing – even scandalous - things that this man of the desert was saying.
John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)
But, despite his acid tongue, John still managed to draw people to him. One of those who were attracted to John was Andrew – the brother of Simon Peter. According to John’s Gospel, Andrew was a disciple of John’s – until, that is, John pointed out who Jesus was... at which point Andrew switched allegiances, and joined up with Jesus.
I find that an interesting little detail. It’s interesting that although John recognised who Jesus was, he did not himself, become one of Jesus’ followers. Rather, one of his own disciples (Andrew) left his side and went to be with Jesus (which would have been a very unusual thing for any disciple to do in those days).
There are, in fact, a number of strange inconsistencies about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah...despite having recognised him as such by the Jordon.
There may be a number of explanations for these strange aspects of John’s behaviour. One suggestion is that he had a different vision in his head of what the Messiah would do – he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in Matthew’s gospel:
“...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12) John’s mental picture of the Messiah was based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expected the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’. And when it didn’t happen quite as he expected, he perhaps proved more reticent to join up with Jesus. Maybe that’s why he sent word from his prison – saying to Jesus, “are you really the Messiah?”.
There are some historians who think that John remained ultimately unconvinced about Jesus – and that he actually went on preaching the coming of a another Messiah (having found Jesus to be, in his judgment, just a little bit wet). John continued to have disciples after he had met Jesus, and continued to baptise people in his own way. There are many references to the ‘baptism of John’ throughout the early years of the New Testament – suggesting that in some ways John was almost a rival to Jesus.
That may be... but it is clear from the Gospel accounts, that for at least the one glorious moment of Jesus baptism, John saw the light... he saw clearly who Jesus was, and heard the confirmation of that from heaven itself. But perhaps, just perhaps, John was never quite able to give up his own idea of what the Messiah would be like...should be like. From today’s reading we can see that John expected an imminent judgment to be enacted – he uses the metaphor of an axe which is being put to the root of the trees – a sense in which ‘any minute now’ the tree of human failure is about to be chopped down. John expects action – he expects the Lord to arrive with a winnowing fork – scattering the grain into the air and separating out the wheat from the chaff – and he expects it to happen soon.
But Jesus has a subtly different agenda. He also speaks of judgement, and of separating sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact. But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future. First, he has work to do – to call as many people as possible to turn towards God ( to repent), and to give the greatest possible opportunity for people to choose God’s way of living over their own. He is so committed to that path – and so reluctant to embark on the eventual task of judgement - that he is prepared to give up his own life so that we might find our way back to God. Jesus' first public words, according to Matthew, are 'Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near'. He echoes John's own words: the kingdom of heaven is indeed near. But for Jesus the kingdom of heaven was something tangible, something already present. The Kingdom of Heaven is something that can be experienced now...whenever there is love, whenever there is mercy, whenever there is kindness. In fact, whenever people do exactly what you are about to do when you bring your presents up to the front in a moment...that is when the Kingdom is brought nearest. For a moment, when love and mercy and generosity touch, Heaven touches earth.
And I wonder whether we ourselves can sometimes be a bit like John. Certainly, as a human race, we have often been guilty of making God in our image – instead of understanding that God makes us in God's image. How many wars have been fought in the belief that God is on our side? How many acts of cruelty have been perpetrated in name of God? Are there ways in which we conduct our lives which are inconsistent with the reality of Jesus – and the way in which he calls us to live?
Have you seen those bracelets with the letters “WWJD”? They stand for “what would Jesus do” – as I'm sure you know. Its an old question, but it’s still a good question. What would Jesus do in the face of the rampant poverty of the developing world? What would Jesus do in the face of corruption among leaders of so many nations? What would Jesus do when faced with the commercial pressure to ‘spend, spend, spend’ at this time of the year? What would Jesus do in the face of globalisation and climate change?
My daughter has a t-shirt with the question “Who would Jesus bomb?”... but that’s a subject for another discussion altogether!
During this time of advent, the story of John invites us to prepare for the coming of Jesus – the true Messiah. We are invited to prepare for the Lord who says “love one another”, and who seeks to draw us to himself so that we might discover God’s love.
May you know the peace of Christ as you prepare to celebrate his coming once again this year. May you know the reality of Jesus – and through soaking up the stories about him in the Bible, begin to gain an ever-more-fuller understanding of who he was and what he stood for. And may that knowledge transform you, day by day, so that you may truly know who you are...a loved child of God...and what you stand for.