In preparing to be liturgist this Sunday, I've been reading Matthew 3:1-12 and some commentaries. Here it is in The Message translation:
3 1-3 While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills [some 60 miles north], John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:Thunder in the desert!Prepare for God’s arrival!Make the road smooth and straight!4-6 John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.7-10 When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and flourishing? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.11-12 “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.
I want to share some brief thoughts on this. It is estimated to have been written between 75-80 CE by a Jewish Christian. All of the Gospels were anonymous, only being given names sometime after the year 150 CE. So far the earliest copy found is in some tiny fragments from the 2nd century. In the 4th century, there was a new testament, the Codex Sinaiticus -- a copy is in the British Library in London. It is different in what it includes from the current New Testament.
The book called Matthew has several purposes: to tell the story of Jesus, be a catechism for new converts, and be a guide to the people of The Way who were facing persecution from all sides.
In this passage above, John is preaching and baptizing. People were coming from a wide area. At that time baptism meant a person was giving their allegiance and obedience to the coming king. I had always thought of John in some rough costume, but here we are told it was camel hair, a soft and warm fabric woven of camel hair.
John knew that some who came to him were not sincere, and admonished them. It seems that going to hear John and being baptized by him was a sort of "in" thing to do. He taught that true repentance meant change within and new behavior, a new heart. He told them that it was not enough just to be a descendant of Abraham, one had to be made new, inside out.... and someone was coming to help with that.
Can you hear John the Baptizer speaking to us today? He speaks the same timeless message still. Can we hear him? Will we listen and do as he says?