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Our reading this week comes from the gospel of Matthew:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.”’
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12)
Our reading this week resonates with the context of Advent at this time of year. Advent is a time to commemorate not only the arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem, but also the coming of a just, safe, compassionate world here, one where every person, with all our differences, has space to feel at home.
Our present world doesn’t match that vision yet. In our world, some traits and experiences are privileged and centered while others are pushed to the margins. In this week’s reading, John the Baptist was not speaking from the center of his community. He was speaking from the margins of the wilderness. Ched Myers speaks of a possible narrative meaning for this detail in his book Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship:
“While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 12)
Our most cherished and sacred Jesus story begins and persists on the margins, on the edges, or in less centered social settings.
We’ll explore some of the social implications of this narrative element, next.
(Read Part 2)