Year A – Advent 3 – Matthew 11:2-11

Matthew 11:2–11  When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Overview – This important passage tells us about John’s doubts and Jesus’ word of assurance to John, as well as the astounding word that, “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” It may be helpful to remember that in the era just before Jesus came, the Jews wanted to know if the exile was over. On the one hand, they were back “in the Land” from Babylon (at least many were). They had walls, a city, and a temple. On the other hand, they were still oppressed by foreign powers (the Herods and Rome). Had God returned to Zion in fulfillment of the prophets (e.g., Is. 40:1-10)? Now enter John.  John was preaching a “baptism” of the renewal of Israel. Theologian Colin Brown wrote, “John was organizing a symbolic exodus from Jerusalem and Judea as a preliminary to recrossing the Jordan as a penitent, consecrated Israel in order to reclaim the land in a quasi-reenactment of the return from the Babylonian exile . . .”  In addition to the “crossing,” John may have sprinkled water on people as they passed, as a ritual of cleansing. This is suggested by the words of Jesus about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matt. 11:7). This could be merely metaphorical, but throughout the Bible such branches are used to apply rites of cleansing (Lev. 14). “A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there…” (Num. 19:18). “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Psalms 51:7). It is unlikely that John physically immersed all the people in Jerusalem, all of Judea, and the district around the Jordan” (Matt. 3:5-6). John’s baptism focusing on crossing the Jordan makes more sense of the theme of Israel’s renewal and the end of exile, just as God was returning to Zion in the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth.

Insight – We all experience doubt. Perhaps one of the reasons for John’s doubt, despite the work he had done and the works of Jesus which evidence Him as Messiah, is that John’s story was not working out according to plan. John the Baptist was to go “in the spirit and power of Elijah” who divided the water of the Jordan (2Kgs. 2:8ff). John clearly “prepared the way” for Jesus. However, let us recall that Elijah completed his difficult prophetic ministry, but then was taken off to heaven! 2 Kings 2:11: “As they [Elisha] continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” This is “swing low sweet chariot” situation for Elijah. But what of John? John was imprisoned by the Ahab and Jezebel of his day and ultimately was murdered by them (Matt. 14:3ff). How may we understand this? Jesus said that John was more than a prophet, John prepared Israel to receive Jesus. John’s life and death are emblem of the One for whom he prepared the way. Jesus was not only the Anointed King, but, as even John taught, the Lamb of God. So this Messiah of Israel would also be murdered as part of God’s plan of redemption for His people.

Child Catechism – Who was John the Baptist and what did he do? John the Baptist “prepared the way” for Jesus by calling Israel to repent by leading them through Jordan river in baptism.

Discussion – What does Jesus mean by saying that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John]”?

Prayer (BCP Collect for the Baptist) – Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by the preaching of repentance: lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Year A – Advent 2 – Matthew 3:1-12

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 the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and 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? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 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; 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. 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.”

Overview of Matthew’s Gospel – Matthew shows Jesus as a Priest, filled with teaching like that of faithful priests. Jesus is shown to be a greater Moses who provides a new Exodus in Himself. Thus, there are five “books”/sermons in Matthew which relate to the five books of Torah, ending with, “When Jesus had finished saying these things . . .” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; and 26:1). This first Gospel is a “priestly” foundation for the Church and thus is a recap of the history of Israel to fulfill the Law/Prophets (5:17) (outline below). Jesus is called out of Egypt, i.e., apostate Israel. Herod is like a new pharaoh. “Herod” signals that innocents die (ch. 2, 14, Ex. 1:16). The miracles and fulfillments of Matthew demonstrate that Israel is unfit to be the priestly nation, hence 12 miracles in chs. 8-9 “restore” Israel. Jesus is a new David (king) and prophet (Elijah) (12-14). Followers of Jesus are to be a true “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6) cleansing the nations. Yet, this new Torah does not end with the death of Moses (Dt. 34:10), but with the resurrection of One greater than Moses. Finally, Jesus is a greater Cyrus (the Lord’s anointed) and just like the last verse of the Hebrew Bible (2 Chr 36:23), there is a commission: Since this anointed One has all power and authority in heaven and on earth, He commands: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (28:20).

Insight – As the overview indicates, Matthew is very connected to promise and fulfillment in the Hebrew Scriptures. John the Baptist’s actions may seem bizarre until we understand the background. Throughout Matthew there is a frequent use of this kind of phrase: “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled” (2:23). So also did John fulfill prophecy as the forerunner of Christ. Many people miss the fact that his baptism is like the previous baptisms of Israel. He was to go “in the spirit and power of Elijah” who divided the water of the Jordan (2Kgs. 2:8ff). John “prepared the way” for Jesus quite literally. John was “preaching a baptism of repentance” at the Jordan river (Mk. 1:4). Literally, John was in the wilderness beyond the borders of the Land where they “went out to him” (Mk. 1:5). He called the people to follow his “path” outside of Israel and to “turn” (repent) and cross the Jordan to enter the Land in renewal. John’s baptism for Israel was a sign of passing or crossing into renewed Israel to prepare for Messiah. Deuteronomy looks to a time when they “cross the Jordan” being led by Joshua (Dt. 4:21). The rest of the New Testament draws upon various threads of this crossing into Christ, through death and into resurrection life on the other side (Rom. 6:3-4, Col. 2:11-12). Therefore, John was baptizing a renewed Israel in preparation for Jesus.

Child Catechism – Why did John baptize? John baptized to call Israel to repent and get ready to believe in Jesus.

Discussion – Do you remember who John’s father was and what he did?  . . . If Zacharias was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem, then why did John lead people away from the temple to be washed?

Prayer – Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Year B – Lent 1 – Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Summary – John’s ministry had always been done in preparation for and pointing towards someone else.  He had said this someone would be much more powerful than himself (v7) and now that Someone has shown up.  And powerful indeed, that someone ends up being the King of the Universe!  What an important moment in history and an exciting time of fulfillment.   Notice also how our Triune God used very special and tangible ways to mark and empower this start of Christ’s ministry.  God the Father and God the Spirit speak and lead the Son’s mission.

Insight – This week is the beginning of our Lenten season; a special time of devotion and preparation before Easter.  Lent particularly points to Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  But notice the similarities between our observance of Lent and John’s ministry:   John was calling the people of God to acknowledge their own sinfulness as well as marking this soon coming and special occasion of God’s presence in Christ.  For us, that is a part of Lent as well.  We always live as a people conscious of Christ’s forgiving presence.  But during this season we can especially consider and set apart our thoughts, feelings, and actions before we celebrate forgiveness and eternal life found in Easter.  In this way, we will not only be better prepared to meet and serve our King, but we will be better prepared to face life’s temptations.

Child Catechism:  Who and what was John the Baptist preparing for?   For the soon coming presence and message of the Messiah, who is our Lord Jesus Christ.

Discussion – What are some ways you might personally recognize and mark off this season?

Prayer – Father, we devote all of our lives to you,  but in these coming weeks help us to especially reflect upon your Son’s preparation in the wilderness; we acknowledge our own sins and how they may cause us to wander; but please lead us with your Spirit and prepare us well, for your glory, as we build your kingdom, in the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Contributed by Malcolm West