So I'm reading Matthew again, one chapter per day, trying to see the story of Jesus with "fresh eyes." Trying to catch that note of awe in Matthew's voice. Trying to remember how utterly shocking this strange tale is.
In the first chapter we learn of the extraordinary circumstance of Jesus' birth. He is the one foretold, born (of all things) to a virgin. Now, if you stop and think about it, that's a pretty outrageous statement, but one we have managed to turn into a line of bloodless doctrine. In fact, of course, it's a stunning indication that, well, something extraordinary is in the works.
Chapter 2 has eastern magi picking up and leaving their distant lands in pursuit of a star, for crying out loud. How strange is that? They realize, apparently, that the world is about to be turned upside down, and the evidence is on display in the heavens. Herod also realizes this, but his intentions are different. Yes, evil is stirred to action--dreadful action--by what is about to happen in little Bethlehem.
Then, chapter 3. Thirty years or so have come and gone. John the Baptist. Freaky desert guru, proclaiming the soon-coming fulfillment of ancient prophecy. His message: you better repent now, because the Lord is coming. Many people take him seriously. They seem to understand that life as-we-know-it has run its course. Something's happening. Something's on the way. Get ready!
It's useful to stop for a moment and look at the verbal formulations with which John describes these extraordinary at-hand circumstances:
v.2 - the kingdom of heaven is at hand
v.3 - the Lord is coming (quoting Isaiah)
v.7 - this coming will involve, for some, wrath
v.11 - the coming one
will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire
v.12 - His winnowing fork is in His hands (judgment)
Okay, this guy could be out of his mind, who knows? But people take him seriously, and many repent, coming down to the Jordan for baptism. Clearly, they want to be counted righteous by this coming one
, they want to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. They want to be wheat, not chaff.
Then Jesus shows up, down by the riverside. This one whose birth, recall, was extraordinary. He is baptized by the somewhat shocked and dismayed John, and then the Spirit of God descends upon him. However this was manifested, it was an apparently visible sign. And then, to top things off, people hear a voice. Does it thunder from the skies? Or does it whisper in the inner sanctum of each man's heart? "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
Just imagine being there. Extraordinary. Crazy stuff. No one will believe it when I tell them. But this guy, this Jesus, from Nazareth, this ordinary man, could he really be the kingdom-bringer that John keeps talking about? The Coming One, here at last? Here? At last?