ADVENT II - C - 15 LUKE 3. 1-6
Between the infancy of Jesus and his entry into Israel’s history is an interval of some thirty years spent in the obscurity of a Galilean village. While Jesus dwelt unknown in Nazareth, there appeared suddenly one like a new Elijah - John Baptist, the son of Zachariah the priest. The Jewish expectation of the return of Elijah was herald of Messiah and John Baptist met the expectation and then some.
The prophet Malachi predicted John’s coming 500 years in advance: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…” While Isaiah declared the activity of John some two hundred fifty years before Malachi: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…”
The old prophets had spoken of a time when God himself would come back to his people. As N.T. Wright says, “they only had a sketchy idea of what this would look like, but when a fiery young prophet appeared in the Judean wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance, they were ready to listen.”
John’s mission was to proclaim the immediate coming of the kingdom of God, conceived on the old line of the prophets and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Thus John Baptist takes center stage two weeks in a row during this short season of Advent. John introduced, if you will, Jesus to the world by preparing God’s people, not only to receive him, but to recognize him as Messiah, the promised one. The prelude to the mission of Jesus was the mission of John Baptist.
St. Luke goes to great lengths to introduce John within the historical, political and religious scene of his day: “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee…” All of the political, that is, earthly powers are listed; a virtual “who’s who” of the time. However, the important event of the time is the coming of the “word of God to John.”
John was doing what the prophet Isaiah had said: preparing a pathway for the Lord himself to return to his people. The time was right for the message to be delivered and John Baptist was the man God chose to deliver it.
No doubt John caught people off guard. He seemed to have come from nowhere. However, the people were drawn to him, not because of his dress, but his personality, his sense of conviction and dedication; his enthusiasm for the message he brought, a message of repentance in preparation for the coming of Messiah.
John just didn’t deliver a message of repentance he called for an outward and visible sign - baptism preceded by confession. In the Jewish religion the primary mode of removing impurity was “mikvah” that is, full immersion in a body of living water. John’s immersions in the Jordan River were not baptisms into faith in Jesus, but Jewish ritual immersions.
What John did was to add a heightened spiritual significance to the rite. It became a ceremony of admission to the new Israel. The washing in the waters of the Jordan represented a death to the old life and a birth to the new. The correspondence between ritual purity and atonement, then, was made explicit in the career of John Baptist.
A new Israel must be fashioned such as God can accept and use. What is wanted here is a righteousness of the sort demanded by the old prophets. John emphasized the ethical requirements as a condition of the entrance into the kingdom of God; but the essential meaning of the baptism was a dedication of the new covenant.
The movement found wide support among the common people, little among the religious leaders. No surprise here.
We might find ourselves looking at John Baptist as an historical oddity today; as one whose message of repentance and activity was applicable only to Jesus’ first coming. The “way” might appear to be so scrambled to us that there is no way in which we might conceivably make it “straight” in our own day.
These can be discouraging times, to be sure, but we must keep in mind that God is the ultimate source of confidence and strength. Even though we might seem to be working against much greater odds than our ancestors did, God has never failed to provide his people with the strength and courage they need to meet the challenges that face them.
Our world around us today seems to be going mad. And it would be easy to wish that the Lord would come now in all of His power and glory and end it once and for all by ushering in His kingdom of justice and truth. But as I said in last week’s homily what we, as God’s people, are called to be engaged in between Advents, is a patient waiting.
This transient world we live in conspires to keep our attention focused on the here and now. It takes intention and effort to keep our eyes on the goal of God’s coming kingdom. No matter what happens in the world around us, we are called to remain faithful and not lose hope, as we anticipate and expect the Lord’s return.
If the Advent season teaches us anything it is that we can’t just jump to the end. John Baptist’s message was one of preparation; of making the paths straight in one’s life in order to be prepared for the coming of the Lord. The Advent season is a time for just that - preparation. The question is what are we preparing for? Christmas or eternity?
These four weeks also give us an opportunity to reflect on our personal journey with Christ from crèche’ to cross and to practice being the person God has created us to be in anticipation of His return; so “that we may (indeed) greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” AMEN+