The gospel takes us to the wilderness. There we find John the Baptist. Matthew wants us to understand that John fulfills an oracle of Isaiah about a voice crying out to prepare the way of the Lord. We have learned plenty about the Lord already in this gospel but now we know the time for his public ministry is getting closer. For the Baptist, being prepared for the kingdom of heaven means changing hearts. The kingdom of heaven does not come with all the fanfare of an earthly kingdom; it is unseen been because it has everything to do with the spirit within.
The difference between the kingdom of heaven and any earthly kingdom is already plain to see in the clothes of the Baptist and in the food he eats. No royal garments or banqueting for him! Instead John wears the rough cloak of a prophet, and he eats what little sustenance he can snatch in the wilderness.
Clearly John’s message strikes a chord with some of the people. Matthew tells us people from all over Judea and valley of the Jordan River were going out to hear his message. It seems they were looking for the spiritual riches he had to offer them, for clearly he could give them nothing of earthly value.
The crowd coming out to hear John’s message includes leading religious figures and temple personnel. But the Baptist has a challenge for these Pharisees and Sadducees. He demands they give evidence they have come for sincere repentance. They may pride themselves as noble children of the great patriarch Abraham. But John reminds them the criteria for claiming Abraham as an ancestor has less to do with blood-lines and more to do with spiritual disposition. He has some dramatic images to drive home his message. Like the trees in an orchard, they must bear good fruit. If they do not, they will be cut down and thrown into the fire. He baptizes with the cool water of the Jordan River but the Mighty Lord who comes after him will baptize with what is not of earth: the Holy Spirit and fire of divinity. If they are not ready to be baptized with things divine they will be found unworthy to nourish others and they will be sorted out and burned like chaff in the field.
In the first reading the prophet Isaiah, like the Baptist, uses tree imagery. He looks forward to the day a new shoot will spring up from what is left of the once tall trees that represented the royal house of David. Isaiah knew those once proud trees would be cut down. Pride was not compatible with serving the Lord God of Israel. The former kings who succeeded David put the things of God aside and pursued their own interests. Rather than serving God, the kings served themselves. This policy Isaiah understood would lead to destruction.
But Isaiah also knows God would be true to the promise made to King David that his line would be ongoing. One day there would come a new king who would value the standards of the kingdom of heaven. Wisdom and total respect for God would be this new king’s guiding principles. His royal robes would be of the spiritual kind: justice and faithfulness. This new king’s reign would be marked by peace and harmony. Isaiah describes it in images more suitable to the Garden of Eden: a lion eating hay, a innocent unharmed by a serpent.
In his letter to the Romans Paul urges his readers to foster peace and harmony among themselves. By preserving a spirit of unity they would glorify God with one voice. In this way they would serve God best. God’s plan of salvation would then extend beyond the chosen people and embrace the nations of the world.