By Chuck Alley
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 3:1-12
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2”Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This 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.’”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even now the axe 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.
11 “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. 12His 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.”
John the Baptist’s call to prepare for the coming of the Messiah was not that the people of Judah should open the gates of Jerusalem and gussy up the temple. Neither did he call for people to prepare a great festival or to become his followers and thus a holy sect of Jews. In a humility equal to his surroundings, John pointed only to the One who was to come: the long-awaited Messiah. Likewise, he proclaimed a humble, even humiliating plan of preparation. His call was that the people should repent, not just privately, but repent and be publicly baptized.
The contrast between John and the religious leaders of Israel was stark to the point of opposition. The religious leaders were proud of their position and wielded their influence with flare. They lived in the respected society of men and dressed in finery in order to call attention to themselves. They were quick to proclaim Abraham as their father and flaunt the privilege of being God’s chosen leaders of his chosen people. Like the bite of the viper, the potion of their example and teaching was a fatal poison to the people.
If Jesus is to dwell with us and we are to be led by his Spirit, then we must make room for him by cleaning out the clutter of self-centeredness and sin. Without repentance we are simply replacing the “Abrahamic pride” of the Jewish leaders with the “Christian pride” of proclaiming that we are of Christ when we only believe in a Christ of our own construction. The only antidote to the poison of false teaching and selfish ambition was then — and is now — true repentance.
Chuck Alley is a retired Episcopal priest and an adjunct associate professor of anatomy on the medical faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University. He and his wife, Scottie, have three children and nine grandchildren.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
Diocese of Qu’Appelle (Canada) and the Rt. Rev. Robert Hardwick
Diocese of Costa Rica (Central America) and the Rev. Orlando Gomez
Diocese Kontagora (Nigeria) and the Rt. Rev. Jonah Ibrahim
Saint James School, Hagerstown, Md.