Matthew 3:1-12 – Second Sunday of Advent
John the Baptist is a historical figure that each Gospel writer needs to address. Many commentaries will remind us that there was some competition between Early Christianity and followers of John the Baptist. Addressing this tension and using it to their advantage, Matthew and the other Gospel writers use John the Baptist to lift up and give additional authority to Jesus. This is made explicit through John’s words in 3:11 “…but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…” and even further in the deference shown at the baptism in v.14, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
In contrast to the other Gospels, Matthew does not assign a role to John at first. Whereas Mark clearly defines John as the forerunner by using Malachi 3:1 (“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”) at the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew is content to leave John as just a prophetic figure who catalyzes and lifts up the ministry of Jesus. It isn’t until chapter 11:14 that Matthew calls John “Elijah” (after Jesus has already distinguished himself and his ministry more clearly after the Sermon on the Mount). Matthew is clearly not lifting John to too high of a status at the start, distinguishing Jesus as far greater.
Still, John’s role is essential in this Gospel. He is a prophet that paves the way for Jesus. He is beginning with the message that Jesus will pick up and proclaim as well. John proclaims the coming of the kingdom (and is the only Gospel where John makes that proclamation). He also begins with a message of foreboding and need for repentance as this more powerful figure comes with the impending kingdom. Jesus, the Beloved, will pick up this mantle and call with even more authority after the wilderness.
As I mentioned last week, Matthew portrays Jesus as prophetic figure more than any other Gospel. True to other prophets in the scriptures, there is a handoff that occurs from one prophet to another: Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha. Matthew’s use of this tactic is for the purpose of recognizing the transition of authority from John to Jesus but also to make it abundantly clear that, for Matthew, Jesus is playing the role of a prophet. And as prophet, Jesus will continue speaking the hard truths that we have just heard from John.
So, this section immediately sets up what we will be hearing throughout the rest of the Gospel (and throughout Year A).
- “Bear fruit…” (cf. 7:16-20; 13:23,30) – Bearing fruit implies that God wants us to act in this world and make it a better place.
- “Repentance” – Repentance calls us to reflect on our actions and our living so that we can do better for ourselves, our neighbors, and the world around us.
- “Proclamation of the coming kingdom” – Proclamation of the coming kingdom calls us to reflect on ways that the world is not how it should be but also gives us hope for a day when all will be made right.
- “Judgment” and a “Judgment Day” – Matthew’s emphasis on judgment is more pronounced than any other Gospel. In order to adequately honor this author’s meaning, we have to be comfortable with judgment language. Similarly to how we look at the Hebrew scriptures, the prophetic calling of Israel to judgment was a focus in which God wanted God’s people to reflect on their ways and turn toward right living. And this typically focused on matters of justice and communal living (i.e. caring for the poor, sick, widows, and orphans). So, when we hear words of judgment, are we fearful because we don’t like a vengeful God or are we fearful because we don’t want to be held accountable?
A lot of mileage can be found in the quote from Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord” and there are a lot of great commentaries on that verse. But as we prepare, as we celebrate the incarnation of our God, what if we prepared our folks for what we will hear from Matthew through Year A.
How can we prepare ourselves to hear a message of repentance this year?
How can we prepare ourselves to be uncomfortable hearing words that call us to live better?
What does it mean to bear fruit?
How do we prepare ourselves and our congregations to be more comfortable with sitting in tensions and even in judgment?
Grace and mercy are wonderful messages. But John the Baptist (in Matthew especially) reminds us that if the world is not right, then we should not pretend that it is or turn our back on the world and ignore it. How do we lean into that message this year?
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 156.
 R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 55.