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. 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. Even now the axe 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. ‘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. 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.’
In yesterday’s reading, Matthew introduces us to the charismatic character of John the Baptist. With camel’s hair and leather belt, we picture a wide-eyed figure extolling the faithful to repent in the waters of the Jordan. If the rhetoric wasn’t amped up enough, today’s reading hits a new high. With old-school street-preacher venom, John lays into the approaching Pharisees and Sadducees, saying: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’
Matthew’s narrative here is a metaphorical ‘changing of the guard’. Yesterday’s reading revealed John as the current protagonist in God’s saving work. Today, the Jewish leadership take centre stage as the new antagonists, following Herod’s demise at the end of chapter 2. Monday’s reading ushers in the new messiah and our first encounter with the adult Jesus. John’s fiery judgement will give way to stubborn reverence as Jesus too makes his way through the waters.
John’s injunction to ‘Bear fruit worthy of repentance’ is significant, and sets the tone for much of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s John, and his Jesus for that matter, doesn’t do lukewarm. If you claim to be a disciple of Jesus, a Walker of the Way, then it can’t be ‘all show and no go’. The measure of your faith, and your claim on the saving love of Jesus, can only ever mean as much as what we’re prepared to do, or to sacrifice, to bear fruit for the Kingdom. That might seem a bit ’black and white’, but that’s Matthew all over. Better to be wheat left on the threshing floor, waiting to be gathered, than chaff for the fire.
Two thousand years on, we may not feel the same urgency as Matthew did as he awaited Jesus’ imminent return, and our theology might be more nuanced than wheat and chaff. But should our zeal to bear fruit worthy of repentance be any less passionate? I sincerely hope not!
Saving God, increase our zeal; our hunger; and our longing to bear fruit worthy of your redeeming love. Risen God, deepen our love; our wonder; and our passion for your life-transforming Word. Cleansing God, remake us; refine us; restore in us your image, through the fire of your Holy Spirit. In the name of Christ. Amen.
The Rev’d Tim Searle, Minister, The United Church, Winchester