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Daily Devotional • December 15

Pamela Lewis
A Greater Baptism
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 3:1-12

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, 9 and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

With his demanding lifestyle and unusual appearance, John the Baptist is as rugged and challenging as the Judean landscape in which he carries out his ministry. As some scholars have noted, this gospel’s opening phrase, “In those days,” suggests that the Baptist’s arrival on the scene, some four centuries since Israel’s last prophet, signals a kairos moment; that is, one that inaugurates something new and that forever shifts our history and alters our lives. That moment is declared by his call to repentance, to make a clean break with the sinful past and to live a fruitful life (v.10). The people who throng to the Baptist want to hear his stern and forbidding words because they are authentic, make demands on the conscience, and require confession of sins. Only repentance produces this kind of fruit, which the Pharisees and Sadducees, despite their Abrahamic pedigrees (v.9), know nothing about.

Several years ago, I attended the full immersion baptism of an adult. Dramatic and frightening, it powerfully symbolized the dying to old ways of thinking and being and was likely the kind of baptism John gave to his repentant followers. His is a one-time rite, and he knew and stated that he is only the one who points to the one who will perform a greater and ceaseless baptism, comprised of the Holy Spirit and of the fire of his love and forgiveness of sins. In recent years, we have had to confront a range of repentance-worthy truths about our society, world, and even about personal selves. Water is a good cleanser; but Christ’s fire is better.

Pamela A. Lewis taught French for 30 years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, New York, she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.

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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Southern Ohio
Christ & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, New York City
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