Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10 Romans 15:4-9 Matthew 3:1-12
LAST SUNDAY in our Advent preparation for Christmas we looked first at the end of our life's journey to help us focus our minds more clearly on the meaning of Christmas and the meaning of God coming to live among us as one of us. There is not much point in looking at the beginning of the journey, if we do not have a clear idea where it is meant to bring us.
Today, however, we now go back to the time before the birth of Jesus and we are introduced to a person who helped prepare the way for the coming of Messiah-King who was awaited for such a long time by the people of Israel.
John the Precursor
In Luke's gospel we are told of the origins of John the Baptist and his birth to relatively elderly parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. In today's Gospel, he is now a grown man. He is seen living in the desert, "in the wilderness of Judea" near the Jordan River and not very far from Jerusalem. He was wearing a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist and he lived on locusts and wild honey. Clearly he was a man of great austerity, not unlike the desert hermits in the Church of later times.
The words of the prophet Isaiah are seen as fulfilled in him:
"A voice cries in the wilderness:
'Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight'."
Call to "repentance"
In fact, his message was : "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand." In fact, this is exactly the same message that Jesus will proclaim at the beginning of his public life (Mark 1:15). The word for 'repent' here means much more than just being sorry for past misdeeds. The Greek verb metanoeite means having a radical change in one's thinking. It means seeing the world in a completely different way and taking on board a whole new set of values.
Nearness of the Kingdom
Linked with this call is the proclamation, "The kingdom of heaven (literally, 'the heavens') is close at hand." Instead of 'heaven' it would be better for us to read 'Kingdom of God'. The Kingdom of God as we have explained on other occasions is not a place and it is certainly not directly referring to 'heaven', the place of the after life, although the Kingdom finds its perfect expression there. In the Gospel it primarily refers to that complex of relationships where people are in perfect harmony with God and with each other and living their lives in his image.
Jesus personifies the Kingdom
John in announcing the nearness of the Kingdom is pointing to Jesus, who is the divine incarnation of the Kingdom. In his human person he images perfectly his unseen Father and calls us to follow him in the same Way. As he will say later, he IS in fact THE Way. To live in him, through him and with him is to reach the ultimate goal of our existence - perfect union with the Father. All of this is included in this simpler proclamation of John, to be repeated later by Jesus himself.
Hungry for the message
Great crowds we are told came from all the surrounding region of Judea and the Jordan valley to hear his powerful call to a change of heart. Those who truly repented of their sinful life acknowledged their sins and went through a cleansing ritual - a baptism - in the River Jordan.
All kinds of people were among them but when Jesus saw some Pharisees and Sadducees he had some hard words for them. 'Brood of vipers' was his vivid description. He sees in both groups, which were, in fact, very hostile to each other, forms of hypocrisy. On the outside, the Pharisees saw themselves as paragons of virtue while the Sadducees, holding much of the political power, saw themselves as a privileged elite.
Had they come to repent or had they come to sit in judgement on John to see whether his words were 'orthodox'? (We have such watchdogs in our churches also.) John says that it is not enough for them in the presence of the people to make a show of repentance. "If you are truly repentant," he tells them, "produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father', because, I tell you, God can raise children Abraham from these stones."
Danger of presumption
The implication is that there are people who think that, just because they belong to God's chosen people, they are as it are 'untouchable'. They have it made. John wants to disillusion them of this presumptuous thinking. All without exception are equally vulnerable to temptation and all without exception are in need of God's forgiveness. All need to have that change of heart which the Kingdom demands and which must appear in their words, their actions and in their interior attitudes. So, as John says and Jesus would tell his disciples later at the Last Supper, the tree without fruit will have its branches lopped off and they will be thrown on to the bonfire as useless.
Preparing the way
John, however, knows that what he is doing is merely the prelude to the real presence of the Kingdom which is about to appear. He speaks of One so powerful that John is not worthy even to carry his sandals, the task of a lowly slave. This One will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. The baptism of Jesus, which will be continued by his community of followers, will have the power to transform people's lives. It will do this not by some magical process but by the transforming power of being incorporated into the loving community which is the Body of Christ with the grace-filled and grace-filling elements such as the Scripture and the Sacraments.
Who is he who is coming?
Who is this Person whose sandals John is not fit to carry? We have a marvelously poetic description of him in the passage from Isaiah, which is our First Reading for today.
First we are told that he comes from the 'stock of Jesse'. Jesse was the father of King David and Jesus, through Joseph, is in the line of David. Like David he is a King but in a much greater sense. David, one of the most attractive personalities in the whole of the Bible, was also a man of many weaknesses. He was, among other things, guilty of both adultery and murder. But he was also a man of great integrity and very close to God. He repented bitterly for his sins and accepted the punishments, which came as a result of them.
Wisdom and integrity
The Person of whom Isaiah speaks is filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom and insight, counsel and power, knowledge and fear (i.e. deep respect) of the Lord. We see these qualities shine out from the life of Jesus. He does not judge by appearances as, for instance, the Pharisees and their ilk would do (and as we ourselves do so often) but judges with perfect integrity, with special sympathy for the poor, the weak and the sinful.
A bearer of peace
His coming brings an era of peace. He represents the end of all conflict and violence. This appears even in the animal world where animals of prey live in perfect harmony with their victims - the panther with the young goat, the calf with the lion cub, the lion eating straw like its vegetarian victims, and even the child is safe from the poisonous bite of cobra or viper. All these beasts, feared by man and the animal world alike, "do no hurt, no harm, on all my holy mountain, for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea."
Where is peace to be found?
And yet, where can we find such peace? It is true that the most serious divisions, the most appalling violence still is rampant in our world. And yet, where the Kingdom has truly taken root, people do live in great love and harmony. There is a much greater intolerance of violence in our world than in preceding generations. War as a solution to the grievances of nations and communities is becoming less and less acceptable. The Kingdom is coming. It is coming slowly but it is coming. It is for each one of us to play our part.
Wheat or chaff?
So now, as we prepare to celebrate the first coming of God among us in Jesus at Bethlehem, we may ask ourselves in John's words, Are we wheat or chaff? What fruits can we show for our life in Christ? Have we got the mind of Christ, of the Gospel? Have we made that radical change of thinking, that metanoia that John and Jesus call for? That change, above all, lies in the way we relate to each other in a loving and caring way. It calls for each one of us to contribute in a personal and unique way to making our families and our society a better place for all to live in. It demands of us a special care for those who need help both those who are weak physically, mentally or who are plagued by the many addictions that bedevil our societies. It calls on us to reach out to those who are angry, hostile and violent, driven by fears that they themselves are not even aware of.
What Christmas is about
Christmas is a time not just for conspicuous consumption and indulgence in escapist activity but much more a time for us to become aware of the needs around us. The Baby was born in the stable so that he might set in motion a spreading campaign of Truth, of Love, of Justice, of Sharing and Compassion, of Freedom and of Peace. Christmas is a time for us once more to become fired with this vision and become part of it.
Let us finish, then, with words of Paul in today's Second Reading: "May he help you all to be tolerant with each other, following the example of Christ Jesus, so that united in mind and voice you may give glory to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It can only be to God's glory, then, for you to treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated you."