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Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent 2, Year A

"Repentance is a correlate of freedom. The tearing away that takes place in detachment is only possible because a deeper, more powerful and superior attachment has come: the attachment of faith, the grip of the kingdom." 

The Matthean Advent Gospels, James Arne Nestingen, Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry, Luther Northwestern Theological School, 1992. 

Matthew 3:1-12 
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This 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.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
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?
Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do 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. Even 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. “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. His 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.” 

A Little Bit for Everyone

Some interesting articles on this passage:

With righteousness you judge the poor, O steadfast and faithful God, and with justice you decide aright for the meek and lowly of the earth.  Shatter the silence of Advent’s wilderness with the voice of the one who cries out to prepare your way and to make straight your paths that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance, lie in harmony with one another, and be gathered at last into the peaceable kingdom of your Christ who was, who is and who is to come.   From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year A, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts
It is clear that in the passage set for today we have two important and foundational messages, which add to our Advent work of preparation but, are also signals of what the Gospel of Matthew is all about.  On the one hand we have the expected “brood of vipers” speech of John the Baptist to begin our season and call us into repentance.  More importantly however, I believe we have an inauguration underway.
     We begin with words that tell us that times are changing. The simple statement of  “now in those days” is deeply rooted in the ancient psyche of storytelling within our scripture as an indicator that we are moving into a new time. 
     We are in a new play, we are in the desert, in the wilderness. An apt setting for an Advent message more importantly are the parallels with the ancient connection to the dessert and the wilderness wanderings of our Abrahamic ancestors. 
     The message from this man is clear: repent.  And here we begin to see something important and uncomfortable emerge in the Gospel.  Repentance is tied to the eschatological, our actions of changed mind (which is the literal Greek translation in this case) is very much a partnership with the coming Reign of God.  The kingdom of heaven is near and this act of repentance is a component of preparation.
     We then receive the quotation from Isaiah.  Here, the voice and the wilderness would have been powerful images in the minds of John's audience, and to the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel.  This is a new time, we are in a new place with ancient meaning, we must act in accordance with the drawing near of the Reign of God, AND it is a particular kind of reign.  Our deliverance, which is coming, is the fulfillment of God’s prophetic words to the captives in Babylon.  God’s promise is coming true in a new and revelatory manner which shows a link to God’s Word of the past with the incarnation, which is at hand.  The listeners could not help but hear the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah linked with John the Baptist’s quote: 

Isaiah 40:2-5
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.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (

These are words of great comfort and wisdom from a new Elijah.  The clothes that he is wearing are clearly the clothes mentioned in the text from Malachi 3:1.  This is not only a prophet with powerful words calling people to repentance, but he is also and must be promising great deliverance and hope for all those who feel trapped and consumed by their sin and brokenness.
     Then our author, our narrator tells us that ALL were going out to him. This was powerful--a new time was coming, a new emerging message and revelation. It was a time of renewal for the people and they wanted to be a part of this ritual.  These first images of baptism are rooted in this hope for something new and for change.  In the text this model of baptism is clear: the word is proclaimed, the individual is moved to change their way of being, they are baptized to mark this repentance and confession.
     This was a powerful movement and the Gospel’s witness to the fact that John was a powerful actor and player in the politics and religious life surrounding Jesus’ own emergence.
     We then add a second scene to our already meaty story of proclamation and repentance.  It is here that we begin to see the architecture of Matthew’s story telling. The narrator moves us quickly from the idea and the Word to action and then into community and community action.     
     John sees that some of the people (Pharisees and Sadducees)  who are coming for baptism are arriving and that perhaps they are seeking something other than true amendment of thinking and being that will lead to transformative action.
     John and the Gospel are clear: your heritage does not save you, your fruit will reveal who you are.  The scholar Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. writes: “The Pharisees and Sadducees are warned not to imagine that the mere ritual of baptism will preserve them from God’s wrath.  Rather they must do the good deeds that are appropriate to genuine repentance in view of the coming kingdom … Belonging to the children of Abraham will not protect those who refuse to repent and do good works.  There may be an allusion here to the rabbinic idea of the “merits of the fathers” according to which, the righteousness of the patriarchs is charged to the account of Israel.” (Matthew, Sacra Pagina, 56)
     I want to be very careful here by identifying too much the Pharisees and Sadducees, and to name and recognize the all-too easy-way Christian preachers scapegoat them and the anti-Semitism prevalent in our culture.  When we make too much of them we miss the powerful message of the Gospel.
     You and I are the ones to hear John the Baptist charge.  We are the ones who must hear that perhaps we are about our religious life in a manner that must change.  We are the ones who must look at the fruit of our faith and what it is or is not bringing about in our community. The question is not for someone else, but for us: Have we for too long stood on the shoulders of our ancient traditions and ancestry as Anglicans and Episcopalians? Are we bearing the fruit of the kingdom of God?
     Are we, as we sit in our pews on Sunday morning, able to bring to the altar labors that are not simply prayers and offerings of our hearts, but the glorious work of changing people’s lives?

     You and I, as we sit and ponder the words of John the Baptist, can see that the Gospel of Matthew holds a clear message that we are to be at work in the world around us, bearing fruit fitting our loving God’s reign.  The proclamation of the word leads to transformation and repentance, which leads to real works of faith.  Bearing fruit for the reign of God is not ancillary to a life of faith but an essential component to healthy spirituality in the family of God.  “Repent and return to the Lord” --those words from our Baptismal Covenant are essential keystones in a life well lived with a God who reveals himself incarnationally.  We must make real in our world – outside of ourselves -- our heart's transformation. 

The Lambeth Bible Study Method
This Bible study method was introduced by the African Delegation to the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church. It is known by both names: "Lambeth" and "African." This method is derived from the practice of Lectio Divina. The entire process should take about 30 minutes.
Question #5: "Briefly identify where this passage touches their life today," can change based upon the lesson. Find lesson oriented questions at this website:
Opening Prayer: O Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that we may embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. One person reads passage. This person then invites a member of the group to begin the process.
2. Each person briefly identifies the word or phrase that catches their attention then invites another person to share.
3. Each shares the word or phrase until all have shared or passed using the same invitation method.
4. The passage is read a second time, preferably from a different translation. The reader then invites a person in the group to begin the process.
5. Each person briefly identifies where this passage touches their life today, and then invites someone who has not shared yet.
6. The passage is read a third time, also from another translation, and the reader invites a person to start the process.
7. Each person responds to the questions, "What does God want me to do, to be or to change?"
8. The group stands up in a circle and holds hands. One person initiates the prayer “I thank God today for …” and “I ask God today for…” The prayer goes around the circle by squeezing the hand to your right.
9. When the circle is fulfilled, the person who initiated the prayer starts the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father…”

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