By Pamela Lewis
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.” 3 This 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.’ ”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, 9 and do 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. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His 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.”
Clad in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and living only on locusts and wild honey, John the Baptist must have cut an unusual figure, a “wild man,” who lived in the desert. But John was a member of a Hebrew religious class known as “Nazirites.” As explained in the Book of Numbers, the Nazirite took “a special vow, to separate himself to the Lord” (6:2). The vow included various restraints, such as avoidance of touching a dead body, and abstinence from alcohol. Cutting one’s hair or shaving was also forbidden, as a concrete symbol of unimpaired strength. Like Samson and Samuel, John was an “exceptional Nazirite,” having been appointed to this class from birth, per an angel’s instruction to Zechariah, John’s father.
John was markedly different from other religious leaders, and despite his forbidding appearance (or perhaps because of it), John drew many people, who were moved by his words, which he delivered with compelling authority. Unlike the religious leaders of the day, he forthrightly challenged listeners to repent of their sins in anticipation of the approaching kingdom of heaven, and baptized them in the Jordan River as a symbol of their repentance. And he was openly contemptuous of the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom he saw as self-serving hypocrites. His attitude and words to them anticipate Jesus’ condemnation of their letter-of-the-law legalism.
However, the purpose of John’s exhortations was not performative self-promotion, but preparatory. His role was to humbly “decrease” himself and to point, not to the Nazirite, forbidden to touch the dead or to drink wine, but to the Nazarene, who will raise the dead and change water into wine. John points to a more powerful preacher and the true Savior, whose baptismal elements will be more cleansing than mere water. Alongside his fiery, eschatological language and imagery are John’s recognition and acceptance of his unworthiness to even carry Jesus’ dust-covered sandals, and whose greatness lay in preparing the way for the one who is the way and the truth.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for 30 years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, New York, she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Monmouth – The Church in Wales
St. Anne’s Parish, Annapolis, Md.