(John the Baptist: El Greco)
"The kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
Matthew 3: 1-12
Why do we pour such attention on famous Hollywood movie and television stars? Why do we exalt the athletic accomplishments of impressive sports figures? Why do we laud the heroism of ordinary people who step in at times of crisis and save those in danger?
I think it has something to do with our need for impressive heroes and courageous leaders. When we recognize those among us who stand head and shoulders above the ordinary and do impressive things, we more easily follow them.
The problem is, we may be misguided and find ourselves scandalized by the flaws of those we thought were without flaw. Think of fallen sports figures and movie stars who do scandalous things. If we’ve placed our full attention and hopes on that person, we find ourselves sadly disillusioned.
On the second Sunday of Advent there is a mighty figure who definitely stands head and shoulders over others. His voice cries out in the desert: “Repent . . . Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist appeared literally out of nowhere. He preaches with fire and fury in the line of the prophets of old. Yet, it had been hundreds of years since the Jewish people had seen or heard a prophet of God among them. So John’s appearance caught the attention of the crowd and the religious leaders of the time. He preaches along the Jordan River, crying out to various groups of people such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, gathered along the river shore. He confronts their hypocrisy in no uncertain terms and demands they repent of their two-faced behavior.
John’s reputation, despite his unconventional and strange appearance in camel’s hair and his yummy food choice of grasshoppers and honey, was deeply charismatic. In the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, his message cuts to the truth: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” His warning to the Jewish elite makes one squirm. He labels them a: brood of vipers (children of snakes!) who presumed to be above reproach due to their birth right as children of Abraham.
Obviously, John was far from politically correct and used these images of a “coming wrath” and the tree that does not bear good fruit “will be cut down and thrown into the fire” not to frighten people as much as to wake them up! We may become settled and enamored by our complacency and a false sense of security and self-righteousness, that God slaps us on the cheek for our own good. John knew his time was limited and he had a sense of some great person about to appear and he had a mission and a message to deliver. God is at work and we had better be ready or loose the whole point of his coming.
Our first reading from Isaiah the prophet, about 600 years before the coming of Christ, speaks to spiritual emptiness with a word of hope. “On that day, a short shall sprout from the stump of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” What may seem small and nearly lifeless will, through the intercession of God, bring about greatness. This savior will be verified by the nations, peace will prevail, natural enemies will reconcile and even the Gentiles will come to acknowledge this “signal” for the nations. It is, then, John the Baptist, who appeals to our deepest hunger for wholeness and peace, to prepare the way for that person who is imminent. It is John who we can put our faith in that what he proclaimed, was indeed to take place.
So, in the wilderness John preached. And it may still be true today. The wilderness of our day may not be a geographical location but more a pervasive attitude of indifference towards God. One commentator once said that the danger today is not so much hostility towards religion as it is simply indifference and the fact that many live as if there is no God, rarely if ever bringing the truth of his presence to mind or heart. The casual attitude towards sin and evil today should be enough to wake us up and consider the ultimate consequences of a life detached from our Creator.
So at the word of John, still heard today in this season, we long for the one he is speaking about. John’s words are filled with both hope and warning. Don’t miss the chance because his presence among us will be very brief. Pay attention! Jesus is the one who will bring baptism in “the Holy Spirit and in fire” and bring about mighty change in the history of humankind. Not by means of violence and fear but by the power of God’s mercy, love, forgiveness and reconciliation. In order that we too might be ready to receive him, we must identify what may be keeping us from making his path straight for we can be an integral part of personal conversion and repentance.
It brings us to the heart of the matter. That this is no ordinary child whose birth we remember each year. Jesus is not just another teacher among teachers. He is Lord and Savior of humankind. For that reason he rises above any other historical religious figures.
We welcome him in the Holy Eucharist, in the power of his sacred Word, in the faith we share, in the mercy he extends to us despite the sin we find in ourselves, in the many opportunities that come our way to serve selflessly in his name. Pope Benedict XVI once said that our Catholic tradition is not so much street corner evangelization or house to house visiting but rather to create a community of attraction that those who visit find the Church attractive enough to take a look, to come home, to bring about a change of heart and life. But, we must begin with ourselves first and find the desert in our own lives that needs to hear that voice.
Prepare your way for the Lord!
Almighty and merciful God,
may no earthly undertaking hinder those
who set out in haste to meet your Son,
but may our learning of heavenly wisdom
gain us admittance to his company.
Who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Collect for Sunday Mass)