Calling In The Desert
Advent Two Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 3: 1 — 12
As we take our first steps into St Matthew’s Gospel we need to take the greatest care that we get the real gist of his account, and do not project onto it current popular attitudes or any particular bias. Let us therefore take time to observe carefully how St. Matthew has been inspired to present this magnificent account.
Some Reflections On the Text
In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the
desert of Judea
Our reading commences with the expression, “In those days”. This refers to the time of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, which is the main topic of the Gospel. It does not refer back to Joseph’s arrival in Nazareth, as several years (perhaps up to 30) had elapsed since then. We might say something like: “some years later” or “some time later”.
So, John the Baptist came preaching in the desert of Judea. By “desert” is meant a wilderness tract about 10 miles wide to the West of the Dead Sea, including also the West bank of the Jordan near its mouth. There it is hot and arid, but it had some pasturage, which supported a small population.
The term “desert” had ancient prophetic overtones. The Law as it is often called, or more correctly, the Divine Teaching, was given (proclaimed) in the desert wilderness. Here the new Word, the new Teaching, is also proclaimed in the wilderness.
(and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Notice how John the Baptist suddenly appears on the scene. He seems to be so well known that he needs no introduction. His message is succinct and piercing, and conveys the meaning, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has already come near.” There are three points of special note:
a) The word “repent”.
This has largely fallen out of use in modern languages, even that of Christians. If we are truly disciples of the Word we would be wise not to let the Biblical understanding of this term pass out of our use.
First, to repent always means (in the New Testament) to turn from ungodly ways to the Commandments and love of God, remembering that the Commandments are called by Judaism the Words of God, the Way God laid out for His People, the Teaching He wanted always to be on their lips. It means that as individuals and as the Body of Christ we return to the Covenant with God: not to a self-styled idea of the Covenant but to that revealed in the Sacred Scriptures.
Secondly, to repent does not just mean to be sorry or to feel bad about or regret offending God. It actually demands two things:—
• to change one’s attitude, and
• to demonstrate by conduct a new way of life: to return to the
Way God designed!
b) The Term, “Kingdom of Heaven”
As most commentators on Matthew will explain, this phrase does not mean just heaven in the sense of a dwelling place of the redeemed. Here it has the meaning of God’s rule now in time and history. It means the same as the Kingdom of God, used elsewhere in the Gospels. The use of the word “heaven” reflects the Jewish habit of avoiding using the name of God as a matter of profound respect and piety.
c) The Nearness of the Kingdom.
The impact of St. John’s testimony reflects an urgency. It is already beginning to unfold and demands our immediate and appropriate attention. This aspect of John’s message will echo throughout Matthew and will confront us with the challenge to demonstrate that we really believe it.
In this Gospel we will be challenged to believe that the Kingdom:—
• began with Jesus and His preaching and miracles;
• was confirmed in another perspective with his death and
• will come in all its fullness at the end of this age.
John the Baptist’s proclamation is, indeed, loaded with the full power of Scriptural prophecy and divine authority. Those of us who find all this rather hard to take in will probably recognise that in our modern society, we feel uncomfortable about talking like this. But it needn’t be that way, and gradually, by reflecting on the Scriptures we will develop robust skills by which to express our Faith.
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of
the LORD, make straight his paths’.”
St Matthew now adds a comment about the Baptist from the Prophet Isaiah:—
“A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall
be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all
mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD
has spoken.” (Isaiah 40: 3.)
This is a call to be ready for the Lord’s coming. It is also a call to provide the necessary conditions or circumstances that would make it possible for the Lord to come to his people.
We are warned here not to be distracted by temptations towards a preoccupation with seeking endless miracle sessions or spiritual titillation but to take on and persevere in the hard preparation of building foundations for straight paths for the Lord to come to his people.
This is not the popular religious pursuit of some Christians today; but is nevertheless the declared required preparation forcefully announced from Heaven through John the Baptist. And it demands our meditation on all that it means to us individually as well as collectively.
A good example for us of a devout believer is the Prophet Daniel. Three times daily, (following the customary prayer times of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) he would go to the room of his house in which he normally prayed, open the windows eastwards towards Jerusalem, “doing reverence on bended knee” (that means bowing, forehead to the floor). His actions symbolised removing all obstructions between himself and the High Place of Worship. This is a practical application of the principle written by Isaiah and the beginning of its fulfilment in the proclamation of St. John the Baptist pointing to the coming of the Messiah.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a
leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts
and wild honey.
The Baptist’s appearance in camel’s hair etc. and his way of life, were like that of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1: 8 ), underpinning the sense of fulfillment.
Verses 5 and 6
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region
around the Jordan were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as
they acknowledged their sins.
Interestingly, people took the trouble to leave their townships throughout the Jordan region, and go out to listen to his preaching. The devout responded there and then by confessing their sins and asking John to baptise them; an act normally self-administered, in the ritual cleansing of the mikvah bath.
Verses 7 — 9
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming
to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have
Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise
up children to Abraham from these stones.
Among the people coming to John were members of two very different groups: the “Sadducees and the Pharisees”(Click here for the appendix). John discerned that they were only receiving his baptism in case it protected them from punishment for sin. John calls them a “brood of vipers”, meaning they were as clever as snakes. He cuts immediately to the core of his message since they simply have not taken it in:—
“Produce good fruit (or, perform deeds) as evidence of your repentance!” Before they can open their mouths he gets in first:—
“And don’t tell me you have Abraham as your father, expecting
that to exempt you from what we must all do to enter the
Kingdom of Heaven. God is perfectly able to raise up abundant
descendents of Abraham. and will do so.”
(The Apostle Paul pointed out in Romans 9: 6 — 8 etc. that all those who share Abraham’s faith are his true descendents. This is an extremely important understanding which the infant Church treasured. Hebrew Catholic spirituality is entirely inclusive in the way it gives testimony to this great truth.)
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore
every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down
and thrown into the fire.
In an oral tradition, without the aid of modern teaching resources, John makes this very vivid illustration. A sober warning indeed, intended not only for the Pharisees and Sadducees, but for any person or group who down through the ages evolve the attitude that the warnings are for anyone else but them!
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the
one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you
with the holy Spirit and fire
John went on to distinguish between his baptism and that of “one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals”.
His baptism was to be coupled with repentance before and after. It was to prepare a way for the Lord by calling people to repentance, to see the need for repentance and to turn their lives around to conform to the revealed Law or Teaching of God.
John continues his comparison of baptisms:—
“He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Baptism in the Holy Spirit, informed commentators remind us, is not a specialised term in the New Testament. Its Old Testament background includes Ezekiel 36: 25 — 27; and 39: 29; as well as Joel 2: 28. The Baptist would have been very familiar with these and sensed the moment of their fulfilment. The One who was to follow would administer Spirit-fire baptism that would both purify and refine. After a long period of more hidden activity by the Holy Spirit in Jewish affairs, John’s announcement must have been greeted with excited anticipation.
His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing
floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will
burn with unquenchable fire.”
Continuing his graphic warning the Baptist presents a clear and uncomplicated image. The Messiah will gather the repentant into His presence and the unrepentant will be sentenced to indescribable punishment. As moderns we may think of this as scare tactics, but St. John is so aware of the horror of being deprived of God’s presence that he makes the strongest possible plea for people to listen and act.
Much of the power of St. John the Baptist’s preaching is lost today because he is looked upon as a momentary figure in history now long past! The Church presents this magnificent call to genuine renewal of heart and mind at the beginning of the Church year in order to keep its vital message ringing in our ears. If we want the Messiah to come into our lives with all His power and glory, we must take to heart the constant call of God through His prophets, and return to Him by our repentance and personal sorrow for sin.
We can be so accustomed to decrying all the evils in the world that we easily overlook the essential message of St. John. He taught, as our Lord was to continue, that the true enemy was a person’s own sinfulness, and not the evils of others; not Rome, but the impure Jewish or Christian heart! Christian groups who label other Christians as “the anti-Christ” and so on, have looked in the wrong place for the enemy. The Gospel accounts insist on the principle of putting your own house in order before you dare to criticise others. In other words, turn from your personal sin, and return to God! How much we need the Baptist’s message to stir us out of our slumber!
As Christian culture appears to be collapsing all around us, we have some very good advice from the Baptist who spoke the truth with clarity and great courage. The challenge will be for us to listen to and absorb the message, as our Lord insists: “be of good cheer“, and go forth humbly but confidently to follow Him. He is the Head of the Church and He is, despite appearances, at the front, leading those who dare to follow as His disciples.
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Calling In The Desert
Advent 2 Year A St. Matthew 3: 1 — 12
1 St. Matthew’s Gospel will be showing us many parallels with ancient Judaism.
2 Daniel demonstrated by word and deed, the venerable tradition of praying
3 “Don’t think that because you can call Abraham your father, you are a cut
Let us pray for one another that God may give us the grace to listen
May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob bless us
Matthew 24: 37 — 44
Advent 1 Year A
37 23 For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the
38 In (those) days before the flood, they were eating and
39 They did not know until the flood came and carried them
40 24 Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and
41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken,
42 25 Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which
43 Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the
44 So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do
23 [37-39] Cf ⇒ Luke 17:26-27. In the days of Noah: the Old Testament account of the flood lays no emphasis upon what is central for Matthew, i.e., the unexpected coming of the flood upon those who were unprepared for it.
24 [40-41] Cf ⇒ Luke 17:34-35. Taken . . . left: the former probably means taken into the kingdom; the latter, left for destruction. People in the same situation will be dealt with in opposite ways. In this context, the discrimination between them will be based on their readiness for the coming of the Son of Man.
25 [42-44] Cf ⇒ Luke 12:39-40. The theme of vigilance and readiness is continued with the bold comparison of the Son of Man to a thief who comes to break into a house.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,