John the Baptist and the Fulfillment of Scripture

December 10, 2013

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said…

Last week, we began the new Church Year with new readings. This year, most of our Gospel readings will come from the Gospel of Matthew. If you recall, last year we heard a great deal from St. Luke. In theory, they’re both working with the same source material, but these two writers end up with very different voices, and they emphasize very different aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. For Luke, the overarching theme was the Great Reversal. Luke is filled with stories of situations being turned upside down. Luke gives us the Magnificat, Mary’s great hymn where she prophesies that God “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” And Luke gives us the story of the Prodigal Son, who goes from tending swine to being restored to the love of his father. Luke’s Gospel tells us about things being lifted up and things being cast down.

But that was last year. This year, we hear from Matthew. And in Matthew, the overarching theme is fulfillment. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets and all the Scriptures. Jesus is the consequence, the end result of God’s love for his people. Matthew sees Jesus firmly in the tradition of the Scripture, and yet also the completion of that Scripture.

Some scholars also say that Matthew is the most Jewish of the four Gospels. At least, Matthew seems to get a lot of the details right about Jewish religion at the time. These same scholars believe that the community that first used the Gospel of Matthew as Scripture may have had quite a few Jewish Christians in it – Christians who proclaimed Jesus but also kept the Jewish laws. For these Jewish Christians, belief in Jesus Christ was the new way that God was speaking to his people. So as we go along, reading Matthew this year, this is the backdrop that we need to keep in mind. And that leads us to this morning’s Gospel.

In all four Gospels, John the Baptist lays the groundwork for Jesus ministry. In Matthew, John is also placed within the context of the Scriptures. John is also the fulfillment of the prophets. In this case, he is the forerunner of Isaiah. But he is more. He is also a prophet in his own right. That’s what the camel skin and the locusts and the honey are all about. Only a prophet would go to such extremes to ensure that he is ritually pure. And like most of the prophets, John says things that are extremely difficult to hear.

Now all of this history and analysis is well and good, but we should also ask ourselves the question what does this passage say to us today? And it is the same message that the first audience heard, and it is the same message that John spoke in the wilderness: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting – letting go of the evil in our own hearts and turning to God – is always the first step to welcoming Jesus. It is always the first thing we need to do, and it is something that we need to do over and over again in our lives.

This gospel passage has another warning for us. If we were back in John’s time, the good, law-abiding, synagogue going folks were actually the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And John is more than a little bit fierce with them. So these words that are directed to the Pharisees and Sadducees are also really directed at us. If we are ever tempted to think well of ourselves because of who we are or what we do for a living or anything like that, we need to repent. Because none of that matters. As John says, “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”.

But even in this word of judgment, there is Good News for us. Jesus, the one who is more powerful than any of us, has already come. And we have already been washed clean and baptized with the Holy Spirit. On our own, we would struggle and we would probably fail, but with the help of Our Lord, we can “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In Advent, we prepare the way of the Lord. While there is excitement and joy, there is also this element of spiritual housecleaning, because what we are doing is preparing ourselves to be face to face with Our Lord. So let us use this reminder to turn once again to God, and to prepare for his coming into the world.

– Michael Tuck+

Previous post:

Next post: