ADVENT II - A - 16 MATTHEW 3. 1-12
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” thus Isaiah predicts the coming of Messiah some 700 years before the birth of Christ.
Israel longed for the day when God’s anointed one would appear. But the One whom God sent to be the Savior and Redeemer was not just for the benefit of Israel, as St. Paul points out, “the root of Jesse shall be the Gentiles hope,” making the Lord’s anointed a universal Savior.
Between the infancy of Jesus and his entry into Israel’s history as the last redeemer is an interval of 30 years spent in the obscurity of a Galilean village. While Jesus dwelt unknown in Nazareth, there appeared suddenly like a new Elijah John Baptist. The Jewish expectation was that Elijah would herald the coming of Messiah.
For some, John Baptist was Elijah, and he fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ His means of preparing the people to meet the promised one was by preaching repentance and baptizing those who confessed their sins.
Who was this John Baptist and where did he come from? He was the son of the priest Zachariah. The same Zachariah Luke tells us was informed by the angel Gabriel while serving in the Temple that he would have a son in his old age. The news came as a shock to the old priest, so much so, that he hesitated to believe the news. For his unbelief he was struck dumb and unable to speak until John was born.
Elizabeth was John’s mother. She was a cousin to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary visited Elizabeth near the time of John’s birth and Luke reports that the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy at Mary’s presence for she was carrying the Christ child.
We hear nothing of John as a child and nothing as an adult until he appears in the wilderness proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
By the manner of his dress, as Matthew describes him, it possible that John could have been a member of the Jewish sect such as the Essenes. They were a community of ascetics who lived an austere life in the wilderness and whose sole purpose was to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God.
There had been no prophets in Israel for over 400 years. Thus John’s unannounced and unexpected appearance drew large crowds from the surrounding area. People were curious. They wanted to know who he was and what he was up to. John’s dress was typical of a prophet and he sounded like a prophet.
Many of those who came down to see and hear him responded to his message. His message was simple “repent.” To repent means literally to do an about face; to turn around. It implies a radical change of one’s spirit, mind, thought, and heart. At the Jordan, it was accompanied by the confession of sin and the act of baptism, and was intended to be followed by a life filled with fruits worthy of the change.
When John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he knew they had come for the wrong reason. They were insincere. There was no true repentance on their part because of their self-righteousness and their pride blocked any chance of a change of heart.
The only thing that would make John change his mind about them would be if they really behaved differently. Going through the motion of baptism was not enough. Real repentance meant a complete and lasting change of heart and life. John even attacked their confidence in their ancestry implying that the kingdom of God was open to all.
The Advent season, although short in days, holds lessons for eternity. Like John’s warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees who placed their confidence in the fact that they were God’s chosen people, we cannot rely simply on the fact that we are Christians.
Our baptisms have marked us as belonging to Christ forever. Therefore we are held to a higher standard than those who are not. Our life in Christ should be one that bears fruits worthy of repentance; a life lived consistent with the kingdom of God.
As Christians we need to hear John’s words as if we were hearing them for the first time. If a fruitful life does not follow our baptisms, no number of sacramental acts and or spiritual discipline will be of use.
We live between Advents. Each new day is a time to prepare for the day when He shall come again in power and great glory to judge.
John did his part. He prepared the way, not knowing what it would actually look like when God’s kingdom arrived. Likewise, we are to do our part in anticipation of that day when the fullness of God’s kingdom will be ushered in. We do this by witnessing to our faith in Him who died and rose again in ways that demonstrate that His life, death, and resurrection have indeed changed our hearts, the way we think, and the way we act.
Admittedly Advent can be a time when we are tempted to jump to the end. Christmas is so wonderful with all the lights, spirit and food. Its all too good to pass up. These four weeks of Advent, however, anchor us in the “now” while we look forward. Our focus is not only on the coming of Christ into our lives, but on us and how prepared we are for His arrival.
Where do we find ourselves on the road to fruitfulness? Where do we begin? As always, we begin at the beginning - where we are. That’s where God finds us. We look at our relationship with Christ and see it as it actually is, and then we commit ourselves to transforming it so that it is consistent with the kingdom of God.
Advent is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on our Christian pilgrimage, our personal walk to Bethlehem, but more than that; to reflect on a lifetime journey from the crèche to the cross to an unfading crown so that when Christ comes again, He will find in us a mansion prepared for himself. AMEN+