Matthew 3:1-12 (2nd Sunday of Advent)
by Rev. Dr. Bob Jon
In all four Gospels, John the Baptist plays a significant role as the forerunner to announce the coming kingdom of God. Standing in the middle of the wilderness, he proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2).
One needs to pay attention to the importance of the location where John is found – the wilderness. What is the wilderness, and why is this important? I confess that whenever I hear the term “wilderness,” I often visualize the desert full of sand. No water. No life. However, the wilderness often indicated a place with “tangled thickets and scrub” where the wild animals found their homes. (Collins Bible Dictionary) Due to its barrenness, the wilderness was often a place where those who broke the law often fled to preserve their lives (Isaiah 21:13-15). It was also where the Israelites were driven to journey for forty years and transformed as people of God through hunger, miracle, providence, conflict, and war.
John the Baptist not only proclaimed the message of repentance but also baptized people at the Joran River. Therefore, the wilderness where John stood was not necessarily a waterless place but somewhere near the Jordan Valley. While it might be challenging to pinpoint the exact location of John’s ministry of preaching and baptism, Raj Nadella’s commentary is insightful to point to the socio-political implication of the wilerness compared with the city. He believes that the cities in the Roman Empire represented the “empire’s oppressive economic practices,” constantly moving resources from the margins to the center (Connections, 30). It was a place of hoarding for the rich and privileged. On the contrary, the wilderness is where people escaped, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, to face their fear, embrace emptiness, struggle with scarcity, or encounter God.
This is what I find interesting as we are in the season of Advent. As Christmas approaches, many of us want to be where there are many other people, such as the shopping mall, fancy restaurants, or big Christmas trees. Many of us often find the empty space dreadful and try to fill it with the sound of TV or Christmas carols. However, we suddenly encounter John the Baptist, who does not wear a fancy suit like some famous televangelists but wears something unfit – clothing of camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, probably intended to draw a comparison with Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). John shouts, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” While many Christians wish to focus on the blessings, joy, and peace during the Advent season and Christmas, the scripture passage invites us to find a place of solitude, whether literally or symbolically, to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, who nudges us to renew our hearts and be drawn near to God.
According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, almost forty-five percent of Americans claim that the US should be a “Christian nation.” As these people proudly call themselves Christians and insist on calling the US a Christian country, John’s words sound poignant. “You say, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (v.9). Meanwhile, Marvin McMickle, an author known for Where Have All the Prophets Gone, comments what it might look like if we as people and nation truly repent. He argues, “We need to repent for centuries of racism and sexism. We need to repent for saying “in God we trust” when we really trust in the money on which those words are stamped” (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, 15)
In this season of Advent when we actively wait for the birth of Christ as well as his second coming, what would be other ways that we can show metanoia, a change in our heart that reflects the heart of God for us and our world today?
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)