Brad Reads the Gospels: Matthew 3:1-12

What’s past is prologue.  Now at last we come to the real meat of the story.

Repent!  For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

John the Baptizer.  It falls to another Evangelist than Saint Matthew to more thoroughly explore the ties and parallels between John and Jesus.  Matthew is more concerned with his ties to Isaiah.

“For this is he, of whom it is said by Esaias, the prophet, saying, A voice of a crier in desert, Make ye ready the ways of the Lord; make ye right the paths of him.”

A voice crying in the wilderness.  I like that.

The passage from Isaiah’s book that Saint Matthew aludes to here is the fortieth chapter.  It opens, you’ll note, with the word “comfort.”

Our God has said:
“Encourage my people!
Give them comfort.
Speak kindly to Jerusalem
and announce:
Your slavery is past;
your punishment is over.”

It’s a prophecy of hope, not ruin.  Joy, not judgement.  Not a funeral dirge.  A redemption song.

You may recognize the verses right after the one Matthew quotes.  “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.” Those words were borrowed, famously, by another voice crying in the wilderness.

But we were speaking of John Baptizer, not the prophet Isaiah.

John was an ascetic, a hair-shirt hermit whose meat was locusts and honey.  The deserts of Judea were teeming with such in those days, and the streets of Jerusalem with preachers and wonder-workers speaking Apocalypse and rebirth.  Long years of occupation and oppression inspire that sort of thing.  And, like most street preachers and mad hermits, he didn’t much care for the religious establishment.  “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

There is much to be said about both Pharisee and Sadducee, the two pre-eminent sects of first-century Judaism.  And more will be said about the Pharisees, and the somewhat unjustly bad rap they’ve gotten over the centuries.  But that’s for later.  For now, know that the Pharisees and Sadducees controlled the shape of the worship of the Lord God Almighty in that time and place, and that their power and influence were vast.  And all who hold power are loathe to lose it.  In time, holding onto that power becomes the sole purpose unto itself.  This has been shewn countless times in the history of Christianity itself.  It’s been shewn more recently by the increasingly insane actions of the RIAA.  And illustrating that point is the chief role that the Pharisees play in the story of the Christ.

And to those whose faith has become an excuse for their power, how will a mad desert prophet speak?

Therefore do ye worthy fruits of penance, and do not ye say within you, We have Abraham to our father; for I say to you, that God is mighty to raise up of these stones the sons of Abraham.  And now the ax is put to the root of the tree; therefore every tree that maketh not good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire.  Soothly I christen you in water, into penance; but he that shall come after me is stronger than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; he shall christen you in the Holy Ghost and fire.  Whose winnowing cloth is in his hand, and he shall fully cleanse his corn floor, and shall gather his wheat into his barn; but the chaff he shall burn with fire that may not be quenched.

Do you suppose these words do not apply to us as well?  Take heed: proud lineage will be toppled as the humble are ennobled, and it will take more than attaching the proper names and labels to yourself, ye who would ‘scape the cleansing flame.  Understand, soothly, that despite the ill repute six centuries of Protestantism have cast upon “salvation by works” the Gospels repeatedly warn us that it’s the fruit by which the tree is judged, and the axe is set to chop.

But the goodness of Jah Idureth forIver.  And though the wheat will be threshed from the chaff and burned, the fire of Iesous ChrIstos is a renewing flame.  The Incarnation came at a time of Apocalypse, and its Gospel, starting here with the Forerunner and continuing through to the final Ascension, is couched in terms of the imminent coming of the Day of the Lord.

Wheat and chaff.  Threshing.  This metaphor of separation will be returned to again.  Wheat and chaff, oats and tares, sheep and goats.  And many of us, chiefly among the Evangelicals, have latched onto this metaphor (with, in some cases, an unseemly glee) as the promise of damnation for the unsaved masses outside our church walls.

Take heed once more: the tares and unfruitful trees and shucked chaff are the detritus plucked from the midst of the wheat.  The wrath of the man Jesus is reserved, not for sinners, but for hypocrites.  The story of separation is not one of Us from Them in the way we’d be most comfortable with thinking.  It’s about purification turned inward.

The promised baptism we are to recieve is a divine whirlwind and a holy flame.


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