The Fear of Punishment: Advent Reflections on Matthew 3:1-12
November 29, 2010
By Alyce McKenzie
This is the second reflection in our Advent Series, "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years," by biblical scholars and preachers John C. Holbert and Alyce McKenzie. For an overview of the series with links to all the reflections, click here.
First Sunday in Advent:
Last week we considered the pervasive snow globes of the season, and the ways that often they seem so removed from real life. Our text for today could yield one poignant snow globe scene and several grim ones.
The poignant one would be a man in rough garments baptizing people in a river. "The people of Jerusalem and all Judea went out to him and all the region along the Jordan. They were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mt. 3:6). I wonder why these people went out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins? I wonder why they underwent this water baptism symbolizing their repentance for past sins?
I hope nobody ever encases this poignant scene in a glass dome with little snowflakes circulating around it. It's too serious, too mysterious for that. John seems to view the people from Jerusalem and all Judea in a positive light, as if they were motivated by a genuine desire to repent and turn toward God to know God better.
By contrast, Matthew 3:7-12 would yield several grim, ominous snow globe scenes.
Snow globe scene one: A man with an angry face wearing clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, locusts and honey dripping from his mouth.
Snow globe scene two: A tree with an ax at its root.
Snow globe scene three: Jesus with a winnowing fork in his hand clearing the threshing floor.
Snow globe scene four: Jesus burning the chaff. (I don't think this last one would work, because the liquid in the snow globe would put out the "unquenchable fire" [Mt. 3:12].)
Somehow, I don't think that grim scenes of punishment fit the snow globe genre. But they seem to fit the genre of John's preaching to the Pharisees and Sadducees. I have often wondered why he lit into them like he did. They are coming to the River. It looks like, from the outside, they are doing what God wants them to do.
I wonder if the dynamic is that he doesn't want them to turn and be saved. I wonder if this is a Jonah and the Ninevites' dynamic. I'll preach good news, God, just not to them. I'll preach repentance, God, but I'm hoping they won't listen.
How does John know what they're thinking? "Do not presume to say to yourselves . . ." He has an insight into their hearts and the fact that they are complying outwardly but inwardly their hearts are not repentant. He believes that their sense of entitlement has soured the core of their religion. He contrasts what they do (flee from the wrath to come, 3:7) with what they should do (bear fruit that befits repentance, 3:8). They are motivated by a fear of punishment rather than by a desire to turn toward God and love their neighbor. (See Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew, [Trinity Press International, 1996], 46.) Those who are not willing to bear fruit that befits repentance are not eligible for the baptism of repentance. Repentance is not the attitude of evildoers but of good doers.
For Matthew, repentance is turning toward God to allow all one's motives and actions to flow from obedience to God as one's supreme authority. Confession of sins is pointless (it is fleeing from the wrath to come) if it is not part of the process of submitting one's entire life to God's authority. (See Patte, 49.)
Daniel Patte calls this passage "From John's Ministry to Jesus' Ministry." In comparing John's ministry in 3:1-12 with Jesus' ministry described in 4:12-25, he notes that John's ministry includes promises and potentialities that are fulfilled in Jesus' ministry. John rebukes and rejects people (Pharisees and Sadducees, 3:7-10). Jesus calls people to follow him (disciples, 4:18-22). John stays in one place, and people from Judea come to him (3:5). Jesus goes to various locations (from Nazareth to Capernaum, to the Sea of Galilee, 4:13, 18). He is constantly on the move and is followed by people from Galilee and the Decapolis as well as from Jerusalem and Judea (4:25). (See Patte, 43.)
John overturns the secular definition of Advent as number of shopping days left until Christmas. John the Baptist's version of Advent is number of repentance days left until judgment. Judgment is not the same as punishment. It won't work for preachers to use fear of punishment as an incentive to fill our pews this Advent, to get them out of the malls and into our pews. But we do have a message for those who fear punishment. Some people fear being punished for things for which they deserve to be punished. Others are abused for no reason, and their abuser calls it punishment. Others fear punishment because the teaching and preaching they have grown up with presents God as an angry punisher.
I was driving my son to school one morning and a police car was behind me. It wasn't following me; it was just driving along behind me. Still, I pulled over. I figured it was only a matter of time until I committed some traffic violation, so I just pulled over to get it over with. Then, of course, rather than passing me, he pulled over too, to see what was wrong, and that led to a completely ridiculous conversation. He should have given me a ticket for public paranoia.
In her book Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Leonora Tubbs Tisdale outline seven qualities of prophetic preaching:
1.Rooted in the biblical witness: both in the testimony of the Hebrew prophets of old and in the words and deeds of the prophet Jesus of Nazareth.
2.Countercultural and challenges the status quo.
3.Concerned with public issues, not just personal ones.
4.Requires the preacher to name both what is not of God in the world (criticizing) and the new reality God will bring to pass in the future (energizing).
5.Offers hope of a new day to come and the promise of liberation to God's oppressed people.
6.Incites courage in its hearers and empowers them to work to change the social order.
7.Heart that breaks with the things that break God's heart: passion for justice, imagination, conviction, courage, humility, honesty and a strong reliance on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
It seems to me that John's preaching excels in #s 1-4. But for #s 5-7 we look to one who comes after him. He has a winnowing fork; he seeks to destroy sin, but he offers hope, courage, and compassion in the meantime. There is still time to prepare for the coming of this righteous judge.
Judgment is not the same as punishment. The peaceful kingdom described in Isaiah 11:2-11, this week's Old Testament lectionary text, is a kingdom of righteous judgments in which the wicked face the consequences of their actions, but in which the ultimate goal is peace and justice in the land. The way to prepare for punishment is to flinch. The way to prepare for judgment is to repent.
The good news of the Incarnation is that God meets our fear of punishment with the hope of peace. It is the hope of one who "shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth" (Is. 11:3, 4).
Phillips Brooks wrote the lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem" after a Christmas visit to the Holy Land in 1865.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to all the earth!
Read John C. Holbert's Old Testament reflection for this week here.
For more resources for preaching, visit the Patheos Preachers Portal.
Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Visit her Patheos Expert site here.