Cristofano Allori, John the Baptist in the Desert, 17th Century
Matthew 3: 1-12
Parallel Mark 1: 2-8, Luke 3: 1-17
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.”
Some time later we arrive at the beginning of story of Jesus as an adult and to set the stage for that story we are introduced to John the Baptist who will share a common message with Jesus but a different role within that message. John will be the Elijah character who proceeds the promised messiah, but there is much more to the story than just preparing the way for the messiah’s coming. Here the story builds on what was revealed to us in the first two chapters to prepare us for the advent of the kingdom of heaven.
Place matters in the gospels and the wilderness of Judea along the Jordan river is a place that is rich in meaning. Wilderness indicates a place away from Jerusalem, Judea and all the inhabited region along the Jordan. It is unsettled and because of that it has the connotation of being a place where one may encounter danger or the divine. The wilderness is the place of baptism, of being joined to the community of the faithful and it is the place of devilish temptation where one’s identity is continually questioned. It can be a place where the voice of God may speak to the one who is listening, and it can also be a place where the demonic voices drive a person to madness. Israel had to pass through the wilderness to become the people of God, they would pass through the Red Sea on leaving Egypt and the Jordan on entering the promised land. The wilderness can also be the place where God’s creative power does new things, particularly the rich language of Isaiah is relevant here:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43: 19, see also Isaiah 35 and Jeremiah 31: 2)
The beautiful and hopeful language of Isaiah 43 along with Isaiah 35 and Jeremiah 31 add resonance to this theme, these hopeful passages spoken to an exiled people about God making a way in the wilderness and creating a new people enrich our hearing of the hope embodied in this strange prophet in a wilderness space.
The message that John the Baptist is summarized with the exact words that Jesus will use later in the gospel (Matthew 4: 17; 10:7). Both Mark and Luke include the ministry of John the Baptist to introduce the ministry of Jesus, but Matthew links the proclamation of John the Baptist explicitly to the later proclamation the good news that Jesus will proclaim. Both will run into challenges with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herod and the other political powers, yet according to Matthew they are both sharing a common proclamation. As O. Wesley Allen Jr. state, “the difference between John and Jesus is not their message but the role they play in relation to that message.” (Allen, 2013, p. 35)
Scripture now speaks to give its direct voice to the role that John the Baptist will play in this story. Matthew instead of adopting the mashup of multiple verses used in Mark uses Isaiah 40:3 to identify John as “the voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight.’” Isaiah 40 is a message of comfort and hope to a people who have been exiled and may have felt forgotten by their God, but now Isaiah announces that God is indeed coming and that the people shall see the glory of the LORD together.
John is linked visually with Elijah by wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” As mentioned above there was an expectation that Elijah would proceed the coming of the messiah, this hope comes both from the manner that Elijah’s death is recorded in 2 Kings 2 and in Malachi (the book that immediately proceeds Matthew in the way many bibles are organized) in the final chapter we hear of a time when God will judge the unrighteous and will lift up the righteous and in this judgment and exaltation:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4: 5-6)
The God of Israel is a God who desires repentance. As the prophet Joel can remind the people, “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Joel 2: 13, see also Deuteronomy 30:2, this portion of Joel picks up the language of the thirteen attributes of God from Exodus 34: 6-7) and we hear in Malachi that the expected Elijah was to go before the advent of the Lord to turn families back to the way they were intended to embody so that they would be among the righteous and not the unrighteous ones. They would be those who were greeting the advent of the kingdom of heaven with joy instead of with lamentation.
This first herald of the advancing kingdom of heaven is not the lavishly dressed and well fed ambassador we might see attempting to negotiate a peace treaty between two nations but is instead a strangely dressed (but typologically familiar) prophet who eats the diet of the poorest in the desert (but which was ritually clean). In a kingdom where the poor in spirit are blessed and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, where the merciful and peacemakers are those who embody what this kingdom is about, the kingdoms of this world will look more like the kingdom of Egypt that the Israelites escaped from than their hoped for reign where God was their king in the promised land. This heavenly kingdom will be different than the kingdom of Judea or the empire of Rome, but that doesn’t mean that Rome and Herod Antipas wouldn’t hear this proclamation as a challenge to their own kingdoms and wouldn’t oppose it with every tool at their possession.
When the Pharisees and Sadducees arrive in the wilderness to investigate what is occurring with the movement around John the Baptist, we may be surprised by the confrontational language that John uses towards them. For most people who have been trained in reading scripture recently there has been a reappraisal of the Pharisees and Sadducees viewing both movements in a more positive light than the previous generations of scholarship. Often the Pharisees and the Sadducees became embodiments of a legalistic and rigid worldview in Christian writing and like Judaism in general most writing about these two movements was polemical in nature. Hopefully I can provide a more nuanced approach to the topic as we move through the gospel, but it is worth noting that in general both the Pharisees and the Sadducees will find themselves aligned on with the forces opposed initially to John and later to Jesus. Neither group is completely aligned with the goals of the political powers of Herod Antipas in Galilee or Pontus Pilate in Judea, but they have negotiated a way of working with these powers and maintaining their position. There is no separation of church and state in the ancient world, and any close look at the political world of the time of Jesus will quickly illuminate a connection between the religious authorities and the political.
The Pharisees and Sadducees are both movements within second temple Judaism that are connected with both local and national power, and they have struggled with each other for influence for generations, but they are still tied to the existing networks of power. I believe this alliance with the existing networks of power is behind the criticism of John the Baptist when he calls them a brood of vipers fleeing wrath and challenges them to bear fruits worthy of repentance. In John’s view their reforms are not enough, God is doing something new. This symbolically rich baptism of repentance is reconstituting Israel to begin again in a new and forgiven state. The Pharisees were a reform movement attempting to be faithful to the law by reclaiming practices of holiness and the Sadducees were focused on maintaining proper worship at the temple by the priesthood, but John stands within a long line of prophets who continually call the people of Israel to see that repentance is more than ritual or religious practice. As Anna Case-Winters can state, “If they “change their minds” it will change their lives. Where is the evidence of this? Ritual purity without righteousness counts for nothing. This message is strong in the ethical tradition of Judaism.” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 46) 
Matthew wants us to hear John the Baptist in concert with Jesus and just like John using the language of the kingdom of heaven to introduce what his proclamation is about we will also hear almost identical words come from Jesus’ mouth towards the Pharisees about being a brood of vipers and bearing fruit worthy of repentance.
Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12: 33-37)
Jesus, in Matthew, can be both gracious and direct. He will embody both the prophetic hope and the prophetic critique. John foreshadows this by letting us know that Christ’s coming and the advent of the kingdom of heaven will not be a painless process for everyone. Forgiveness often means that something must die, repentance means that one must turn one’s back on something to turn towards that which you are returning to and grace while it is given freely may indeed cost the recipient much in terms of their relationship with family and the existing power structures of the world. The coming of Jesus means that some trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire so that those with good fruit have the space to flourish providing their fruit in each season for the healing of the nations.
Even though Matthew begins his telling of Jesus’ story with a genealogy he lets us know early that genealogy is not enough. Here in John’s accusation taps again into language from the prophet Isaiah:
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. (Isaiah 53: 1-2)
In Isaiah’s time he is speaking to an Israel that has already drained the cup of the Lord’s wrath (Is. 53:17) but now John is speaking to a people who are being offered a cup at the banquet of the Lord, but like those who will later refuse their place at the wedding banquet (see Matthew 22: 1-14) they will find themselves receiving the king’s judgment because they refused the invitation to turn away from the things that concerned them, their own negotiated settlements with the powers of the day and instead would mistreat and abuse the messengers of the banquet.
J.Ross Wagner in 2000 published a work called Heralds of the Good News: Paul and Isaiah in Concert in the Letter of Romans and if you haven’t guessed by the string of quotations from Isaiah referenced in these initial chapters I believe that Matthew as a herald of the kingdom is placing John the Baptist and later Jesus’ ministry in a key that would be in harmony with the prophetic hope and challenge of Isaiah in particular and other prophets as well. For years Christians have mined the prophet Isaiah for prooftexts that, cut off from their context, could be used as predictors for Jesus’ life and ministry but what if, instead, we actually allowed Isaiah’s words and hope to provide language and richness to the experience of Jesus narrated by Matthew. As I have argued from the beginning of these reflections, Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ story is a uniquely Hebrew way of reading the story of Jesus and as we immerse ourselves in Matthew’s gospel we should expect to be swimming in waters deeply infused with the words of the law, the prophets, the narrative and the poetry of the Hebrew people. Yet one of the major rivers flowing into the deep sea of Matthew’s gospel is the prophet Isaiah with his vision of hope and reinterpretation of what Israel’s identity is to be.
We are introduced here with the actions of John the Baptist baptizing those coming into wilderness a key piece of what Matthew will continue to reinforce: the identity of the chosen people. In a context where the people of Jerusalem and all Judea is now attached to the Roman empire and its emissaries (including the religious authorities in Jerusalem) John is making a prophetic break from the temple and its leaders. What will define the reconstituted Israel will be the God of Israel rather than the newly rebuilt temple but instead an orientation towards the approaching kingdom of heaven. They stand at the Jordan river awaiting a new Joshua to bring them into the kingdom that their Lord has promised them. And to use one final image from the prophet Isaiah they are reminded:
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear for I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you, Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43: 1-7
Yet John the Baptist is merely a herald of the good news, but the gospel (and the play on words here is that gospel and good news are the same Greek work euangellion) is not merely about the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven but its advent. One greater than John is coming, John can stand in the waters of the Jordan and reorient the people of God, but he cannot bring in the kingdom. Ultimately, for Matthew, he wants us to see that God will be with the people calling them by name, passing through the waters with them and gathering them from the ends of the earth. John sees God’s harvest approaching where the faithful will be gathered together and not consumed by the flames that are to come.
I’ve hinted that this will be a gracious reading of Matthew’s gospel and if John the Baptist and Jesus both can advocate this type of division between chaff and wheat some might ask from our context where the grace can be in the judgment. Working through Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Jeremiah and Revelation you have to come to terms with the judgment of God against those forces either within or beyond the boundaries of the community which have set their will against their creator: Egypt, the people of Israel and Judah, Babylon and Rome all come under God’s judgment for the sake of the life and witness of God’s people and the prosperity of the world. Yet, God’s judgment is always preceded with an opportunity for repentance, with a chance for those who will be sorted to return to the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is not content to allows things to remain the way things are, to allow the ways of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Rome to be the truth. As Miroslav Volf can state insightfully, “In Pilate’s world, truth and justice were fruits of Caesar’s sword. In Jesus’ kingdom, truth and justice are alternatives to Caesar’s sword.” (Volf, 1996, p. 275) John in heralding the advent of the kingdom of heaven is offering the people to turn to an alternative to Rome or Herod Antipas’ reign, the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the empire of Rome. A God who changes the world without judgment is, in Volf’s words, a pleasant captivity of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, p. 304)
The challenge of John to the religious authorities of his day should also give pause to those with ears to hear when they are tempted to closely align with the political powers of their own day. As one of my readings outside of the work I’ve done on Matthew I’ve been going through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings in the critical years of 1932-33 where the National Socialist Party rose to power and successfully asserted influence on the state churches (Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed) in Germany and effectively coopted the majority of practicing Christians into the rise of the policies that would unfold while the Nazis remained in power until the end of World War II and the destruction of much of Germany. Even though in the United States there is a separation between church and state there is still a great lure to being closely situated to those in political power. Like the people of Israel being reconstituted here in the wilderness of the Jordan, there are times where we will need to return to our own baptism and be reminded that our trust is in the Lord our God who created us and who passed through the waters with us and that we as people of God are called to an alternative to the empires of this world.
 See for example Isaiah 29: 13 or Amos 5: 21-24 as two examples of times where God speaks to a people who may be worshipping correctly and yet are not living reformed lives, I also believe that this is behind much of the critique of the prophet Jeremiah during the reforms in reign of Josiah: the people may be worshipping correctly but their lives are still oriented around a way of life that does not reflect the values God desired for Judah (and Israel as a whole).
 The liberal mind has little to do with liberal verses conservative politics and instead references the liberalism that arose with the age of Enlightenment upon which both conservative and liberal political groups find their reference. Key to this disenchanted view of the world is a God who is no longer active in the secular sphere but is concerned only with the spiritual realities. This is a very different God than we encounter in the Bible.