I went to Matthew 3 this morning to study that question, thinking, Okay, Matthew’s account of Jesus birth is in Chapters 1 and 2, so what comes next—in the story, in my life—must be in Matthew 3.
Imagine my surprise to find myself with John the Baptist baptizing his cousin Jesus, both already grown up, talking about repentance. I had patently forgotten what I had already written about this Advent: all the miserable bad news that accompanies the good news of the birth. The killing of all the little Jewish boys Herod thought might be the king the magi were searching for. Poor Joseph’s many nightmares. Jesus’ family’s flight to
Egypt as refugees of terror before settling down in upon Herod’s
death. I had forgotten, in the excitement of the gospel of Christmas, that meanness
goes on all around us and in us. That we are all, still, messed up—whether or
not we believe in the one God sent. Nazareth
One line, in what Jesus’ cousin has to say about the matter, confused me. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” he preaches specifically to the Sadducees and Pharisees. He calls them a “brood of vipers” and seems enraged that they have joined the crowds who “went out to him from
Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of
(3:5). I didn’t stop to wonder, as I do now, why the Sadducees and Pharisees—religious
experts who would have surely have known, or thought they knew, answers to
people’s questions about God and the future that John was answering in his
sermons (as I also often think I know)—were there at all. What did they want from John the Baptist and, later, Jesus? Confirmation?
Validation? But why would they need it? Could it be they were secretly insecure
in matters of faith—like the others in the crowd, like me? Jordan
Instead, I wondered—as those religious experts may have wondered—What does he mean? What does fruit have to do with repentance?
And so begins the assignment I have given myself for the coming spiritual year, to sort through the specific tasks involved in the only job God has given us of believing in the One God Sent. Believing in the One God Sent means bearing the fruit of my remorse for my own inherent, inescapable meanness.