Setting the Stage for Christmas

December 2, 2007 is the 1st Sunday in Advent, which means that there are just 22 days to go until Christmas is here! That’s 528 hours — minus time for working, sleeping, eating … and the rest of everyday life – so actually, you have just 88 hours left to get ready for Christmas! The clock is ticking….

Perhaps you will spend some of your 88 hours decorating for Christmas – Christmas trees, holy and ivy, mistletoe and so on – all symbols that we have come to associate with Christmas. Actually, each of these symbols once stood for something quite different and Christianity appropriated these symbols and made them its own. Symbols are very important as they lay out for the world to see what matters to us. The church has its own symbols to illustrate Advent to the world. An Advent wreath and candles, Advent banners, perhaps even a Jesse Tree (different from a Christmas tree). Each symbol points beyond itself to a larger reality and shows the way to something important. Symbols help us prepare ourselves for the coming of Christmas!

In our Gospel text for today, Matthew 3:1-8, John the Baptist symbolically prepares the way for Jesus to begin his public ministry…

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 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.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

As we recognize the symbols, we begin to see the larger reality to which they point. In verses 1 and 2 we see:

• “In those days” – an Old Testament phrase often associated with prophetic utterances.
• “John the Baptist” – apparently he is well-known to Matthew’s audience as he bursts on the scene here with little preamble
• “the wilderness of Judea” – the uninhabited region near the Jordan River – the desert was seen as a place of new beginnings [Jeremiah 2:2-3; Hosea 2:14-15]

The expression, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Is given with no explanation of what repentance means. That is because repentance was central in Hebrew thought. As an example, the rabbis asked, “What do repentance, paradise, hell, the throne of God, the celestial temple and the name of the Messiah have in common?” The answer is that even before God created the universe, God had already created Torah. But even before God created Torah, he created repentance, paradise, hell, the throne of God, the celestial temple and the name of the Messiah! In other words, in rabbinic thought the concept of repentance is fundamental to the underpinnings of creation itself. The centrality of repentance in Jewish thought is further illustrated by the rabbinic teaching that if all of Israel would repent perfectly for even one day, then the Messiah would come.

The expression “the kingdom of heaven” which we encounter here is Matthew’s symbolic expression for the reign of God (the Kingdom of God in Luke and Mark; eternal life in John) and it was the proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven that was the central mission of both John and Jesus.

In verse 3 we see a quotation from Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 (“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”), and a general allusion to the concept of the Suffering Servant as described in Isaiah 40 -53. While the expression, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Might sound like a spiritual utterance, in fact in those days, messengers went ahead of kings on journeys so that roads could be repaired for their travels. The symbolic language here clearly indicates that the one who is coming is a King!

The description of John’s clothing and diet (“Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”) casts John as the second Elijah [2 Kings 1:8 – “He was a man clothed in a coat of hair, with a leather band about his body. Then he said, It is Elijah the Tishbite.”], a legendary prophet figure. This is important because of the Jewish belief that Elijah must return before the Messiah could appear, as shown in the words of Malachi:

Malachi 4:5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.”

Further, Johns diet (“… his food was locusts and wild honey”) clearly identifies him with the poor and downtrodden of the day. Locusts – a clean food under the Law – were traditionally the food of the poor, as was wild honey (Proverbs 27:7 – “The full man has no use for honey, but to the man in need of food every bitter thing is sweet.”).

The story so far symbolizes John as:

• A prophetic voice – identified with Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah
• With a strong association with the poor
• Located in a place of new beginnings
• Calling on the central theme of repentance
• Announcing that a new king is coming who is associated with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant
• Announcing that the Kingdom (c.f. Isaiah’s “peaceable kingdom”) is at hand (as is the coming of the Messiah)

Next we read:

“Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

Baptism (baptizo) as John introduces it is a new symbol of repentance for Jews. The word comes from Bapto – a term used in the dye trade – dipping cloth to change its color. Although proselytes to Judaism underwent an immersion experience and Jews undertook ceremonial washings on entering the Temple, the idea of a Jew being baptizes appears to be brand new. Unlike modern-day baptisms, there was no sense that one “joined the people” in baptism. In Judaism, one was simply born a Jew (or – and this wasn’t so very common – converted).

John had harsh words to say for some:

“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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Many think John was an Essene and the various sects within Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, etc) all saw the focus of Judaism differently – they each used different symbols to express their faith. The term “Brood of vipers” seems to be quite a hideous insult as the legends suggested that vipers ate their way out of their mothers when they were born and so a viper was one that killed its own parent!

The reference to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Resonated in an agricultural community as everyone knew that f a tree didn’t bear fruit, it was chopped down! Hence, in our Old Testament reading today we heard the words:

Isaiah 11:1 “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

So, among all o
f these symbols, now 2,000 years removed from us, how would people have understood all this? They would have heard that:

• Something new is about to happen SOON…
• God is about to act SOON…
• The Messiah is about to come SOON
• It is time to get lives in order NOW…
• It is time to see the Kingdom being established NOW!

Well, we have just 88 hours to get ready for Christmas and the clock is ticking. Perhaps it is time for us to hear the message too:

• Something new is about to happen SOON…
• God is about to act SOON…
• The Messiah is about to come SOON
• It is time to get lives in order NOW…
• It is time to see the Kingdom being established NOW!

We need to pick our symbols carefully because they show people what matters to us and they point to things larger than themselves. So what symbols will you choose? Will you choose a snowman or a Nativity set? A Christmas tree mounded with gifts for each other, or a family outing to serve at the local soup kitchen? Symbols are important and you have just 88 hours to get yours in order!

Thanks for visiting!