The Baptizer

The readings for Sunday, December 4, 2016, Second Sunday of Advent, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; and Matthew 3:1-12.

Today’s gospel reading centers on the ministry of John the Baptizer and his first public witness to “One mightier than I, whose sandals I am unworthy to carry.” Unlike Luke, Matthew gives his readers no background about the origin of the Baptizer. At his first appearance in Matthew, John is already proclaiming  his mission in the wilderness or desert area of Judea in southern Palestine. As the wilderness was a place of preparation for the People of God, so it was also a place of preparation for prophets like John and for the greatest of the prophets, Jesus himself. John’s first message: “Repent!” (Change your thought patterns, your lifestyle, your evil ways.) “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew never defines exactly how this kingdom should be understood, but here “kingdom of heaven” surely refers to the presence and ministry of Jesus and the opportunities offered by Jesus to bring humanity to God.

Matthew has an ongoing concern to unite his Gospel, his proclamation, with the Old Testament Scripture. His “Bible” was mostly the Septuagint — an Old Testament Greek version which came into gradual existence among the Jews of Egypt in the last few centuries B.C. He attributes to the Baptizer a quote from Isaiah 40:3, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” The original context of this quote is usually dated about 540 B.C. The Israelites (Jews) are in Babylon, in exile from their homeland since 587 B.C. An unknown prophet whom scholars call Second Isaiah is sent by the Lord to comfort his people, to proclaim an impending return to their homeland. For this prophet the message would have been as follows: “The voice of one crying out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, etc.’”   The exiles are invited to build a highway through the desert back to their homeland.

In the providence of God a given biblical quote can have an extended life whereby it is reinterpreted and applied in a new way to a new situation. That situation is about 30 A.D. The message of Second Isaiah now says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, etc.” No longer is this the voice of some unknown prophet promising a return to Jerusalem, but John the Baptizer is himself the voice. No longer is there a call to build a highway through a desert, but the appeal of the Baptizer to God’s people is to prepare through repentance for the impending arrival of their promised Messiah. Matthew is writing about fifty years after John’s preaching. For him the words of John speak to the heart of every Christian to repent of the sins that obstruct a clear path for the Mighty One into our own heart, into our very being. Therefore, “Repent!”

Next Matthew describes the wardrobe of the Baptizer: some kind of garment made of camel’s hair held together by a leather belt. By this description Matthew proclaims John a prophet, since this description  is a repetition of the wardrobe of the prophet Elijah (9th century B.C.), and a further reference in Zechariah 13:4.
Characteristic of Matthew is the use of exaggeration for emphasis, a legitimate literary device. Therefore “Jerusalem and all Judea and all  the region around the Jordan River went out to John.” They submitted to his baptism while confessing their sins. There was as yet no RCIA. Things were simple then. The people on Matthew’s usual “enemies list” also join the crowd approaching the Baptizer. John warns that God can reach outside the family of Abraham to create children for Abraham. This is not only Matthew’s teaching that salvation comes also to the Gentiles, but sounds much like the teaching of St. Paul that true children of Abraham are those who believe in Abraham’s offspring, the Christ.

Finally Matthew adds a comparison between the baptism given by John and Christian baptism: “I baptize with water for repentance, but he (the Mighty One) will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Thus ends today’s Gospel, but why does Matthew portray John’s humility, since John clearly says, “I am second!” All four Gospels had to cope with a large body of “Baptists,” as rivals of Christians. For these disciples of John and their later adherents in the last third of the first Christian century, John was the real Messiah and ultimate prophet. Therefore all our canonical Gospels strongly emphasize the secondary role of the Baptizer. He is only #2. Jesus is #1.