“The Kingdom of God Has Come Near” (Joy)
December 4th 2016
Matthew 3:1-12 John the Baptist Prepares the Way
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Jesus’ teachings are best understood as apocalyptic in nature, and to understand any of them it is important to remember what the world view we call Jewish apocalypticism entailed.Jewish apocalypticism was a very common view in Jesus’ day – it was the view of the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the Pharisees, of John the Baptist, later of the Apostle Paul – and almost certainly of Jesus. This is a widely held view among critical scholars – by far the majority view for over a century, since the writings of Albert Schweitzer.
What did early Jewish apocalypticists believe?
Jewish apocalypticists were dualists. That is to say, they maintained that there were two fundamental components to all of reality: the forces of good and the forces of evil. The forces of good were headed by God himself, the forces of evil by his superhuman enemy, sometimes called Satan, or Beelzebub, or the Devil. On the side of God were the good angels; on the side of the Devil were the demons. On the side of God were righteousness and life; on the side of the Devil were sin and death. These were actual forces, cosmic powers to which human beings could be subject and with which they had to be aligned. No one was in neutral territory. People stood either with God or with Satan, they were in the light or in darkness, they were in the truth or in error.
This apocalyptic dualism had clear historical implications. All of history could be divided into two ages, the present age and the age to come. The present age was the age of sin and evil, when the powers of darkness were in the ascendency, when those who sided with God were made to suffer by those in control of this world, when sin, disease, famine, violence, and death were running rampant. For some unknown reason, God had relinquished control of this age to the powers of evil. And things were getting worse.
At the end of this age, however, God would reassert himself, intervening in history and destroying the forces of evil. There would come a cataclysmic break in which all that was opposed to God would be annihilated, and God would bring in a new age. In this new age, there would be no more suffering or pain; there would be no more hatred, or despair, or war, or disease, or death. God would be the ruler of all, in a kingdom that would never end.
According to Jewish apocalypticists, this vindicaton of God was going to happen very soon. Standing in the tradition of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, apocalypticists maintained that God had revealed to them the course of history, and that the end was almost here. Those who were evil had to repent, before it was too late. Those who were good, who were suffering as a result, were to hold on. For it would not be long before God would intervene, sending a savior — possibly on the clouds of heaven in judgment on the earth — bringing with him the good kingdom for those who remained faithful to his Law. Indeed, the end was right around the corner. In the words of one first-century Jewish apocalypticist: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that that kingdom of God has come with power.” These in fact are the words of Jesus (Mark 9:1). Or as he says elsewhere, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30).
Our earliest traditions about Jesus portray him as a Jewish apocalypticist who responded to the political and social crises of his day, including the domination of his nation by a foreign power, by proclaiming that his generation was living at the end of the age, that God would soon intervene on behalf of his people, sending a cosmic judge of the earth, the Son of Man who would destroy the forces of evil and set up God’s kingdom. In preparation for his coming, the people of Israel needed to repent and turn to God, trusting him as a kindly parent and loving one another as his special children. Those who refused to accept this message would be liable to the judgment of God, soon to arrive with the coming of the Son of Man.
Exploring the Scripture
The Gospel of Matthew was written several decades after Jesus lived and died, (about 80 CE). The identity of the author of Matthew is unknown but this Gospel message is clear: Jesus is the Messiah! How do we know that? Because Jesus believed it and taught it to his disciples. And from the first chapter of Matthew the author tells the story of Jesus in ways to explain this message. Jesus is the Messiah and in him was to be found all the authority and power of God’s kingdom.
In this chapter 3, John the Baptist is introduced into the account of Jesus’ life and mission. John the Baptist was a well-known figure with a large following. John dressed, spoke, and acted in similar ways to the prophets of old. His clothes resembled the prophet Elijah, he spoke the words of Isaiah, and he preached a message of repentance and reform.
In this passage people went into the wilderness to be baptized by John. The wilderness was a place that brought to mind the exodus of the people of Israel. In the wilderness the Israelites experienced God’s guidance and comforting presence. It was from the wilderness they emerged as a people of God. Here at this time, in the wilderness, John is calling people to “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. The word repent does not mean to confess one’s sins or offer regret for bad behavior. To repent —is to change one’s mind, think in a new way and is to turn away from an old way of being and to adopt a new way more closely aligned with God’s purposes. This new way is the way of the Lord, a way of justice, liberation, and faithful living.
Included in the groups coming from Jerusalem were Pharisees and Sadducees, Jewish religious leaders. Pharisees were the educated men who interpreted and enforced rigid adherence to religious law. Sadducees were leaders who were of the elite priestly lineage. These two groups of leaders were not in religious agreement (rather like present-day conservative or liberal divisions) but both came to be in opposition to the message John, and soon Jesus, would proclaim. John the Baptist is quick to denounce these leaders. He tells them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” In other words, baptism alone is not enough for true repentance, nor is religious status or heritage. Repentance requires new actions that bear the good fruits of justice making and peace.
This passage ends with John pointing to the coming of Jesus. John proclaims that while he can baptize with water, one far superior to him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It is through Jesus and the gifts of the Holy Spirit that the reign of God comes near. Through baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, disciples are strengthened and refined to act in ways of mercy, justice, and peace.
With the right vision of Jesus’ teachings, we discover an ethical framework that consistently challenges all aspects of our lives… to bring us closer to God’s will here on earth. We don’t get to apply Jesus’ teachings like a buffet from which we choose this over that, and leave behind whatever we can’t stomach. What Jesus’ teachings call for is a universal life ethic that knows no bounds, that counters religious hypocrisy and the unjust structures in the world.
I see God challenging us to love radically and pursue peace and justice boldly. For me, a central question is “How can we love God…a God whose divine image is in each of us…and yet not stop and question all the ways in which that image is crucified over and over again in our world.
We have to ask ourselves, “Am I a faithful witness, as a neighbor and as a steward, for all which God deems good and worthy of my love and attention?”
As a citizen of the United States, I must acknowledge that in my home country, one out of six of my neighbors faces hunger…this in a place where we have a surplus of food and are literally throwing away a great deal of it into the trash.
Yet, I still have faith. To ensure that our religion is a force for good, I assert that the heart of the matter is how we view God. Is our God vengeful and violent, or reconciling and peaceful? Our definition of God will determine our definition of justice, and the viability of our peace. Our definition of God will be the definition of ourselves; we are continually invited to be created in God’s image.
Peace is a central mantra of Community of Christ….but speaking peace alone isn’t enough, because many would sell us a cheap peace that doesn’t address the injustices of our world. As individuals, we need to examine ourselves and determine what changes we can each make to invite God’s Spirit to lead us to see God’s kingdom among us. Amidst all the violence we see in today’s world, the kingdom of God is still on the earth. If we can see beyond the violence which is pictured so graphically in the news and find the good that is being done each day in our world, we can catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom. And we can see Jesus in the faces of the people we meet.
The divine vision Jesus had in mind for the world is contained in the Sermon on the Mount and is an entirely nonviolent program. Jesus defines a disciple in the Beatitudes, as one who is meek, that is, exercises self-discipline, hungers and thirsts to do what is right, forgives others beyond what justice requires, is pure in heart and is honest, is a peacemaker, and returns good for evil as found in Matthew 5.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered “The Kingdom of God is among you!” Sometimes that kingdom is hard for us to see but it is there if we know where to look for it. The reign of God is understood in Community of Christ as the “coming triumph of love, justice, mercy, and peace” as found in our Basic Beliefs statement. Let us consider: What changes can we make, and what changes can our congregation make, to bring about the fruits of justice making and peace in our communities and even in our homes?