This Advent, let the message of John the Baptist guide you
This Sunday’s readings challenge the hearer to surrender easy theological answers and false security in order to attain a more expansive sense of the kingdom of heaven.
It was of him that prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. (Mt 3:3)
In what area of your thinking do you need to apply the balm of John the Baptist?
Have you ever preferred to rest upon falsehoods for a sense of security?
How can you make the peaceful kingdom a reality today?
Take, for example, the paradox of John the Baptist’s charge against the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospel reading from Matthew. The prophet’s words sting like strong medicine, a balm for obtuse thinking. John the Baptist, who is Jesus’ precursor in the ministry of repentance, with typical prophetic charisma says to these religious professionals, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath” (Mt 3:7)? These learned and pious men desire the baptism of repentance offered by John, but the Baptist challenges their understanding of it.
John the Baptist subverts the false security many felt as descendants of Abraham, descendants from within an “in” group. They drew their sense of righteousness from their birthright and loyalty to the covenant God first established with Abraham. John the Baptist rejects this sense of entitlement, “Do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Mt 3:9). The “balm” of the Baptist started a healing process when it invited them to a reflection deeper than their pharisaical thinking and a conversion deeper than birth in a particular group. It can do the same for believers today.
Advent is a time to apply the balm of John the Baptist, and to repent of any sense of entitlement or narrowness of vision.
John the Baptist cautions his listeners to think beyond the constraints of their false security. He directs this challenge especially at the religious professionals of Jesus’ time, who, he believed, lived by many falsehoods. Settling into entitlements and falsehood can be a problem for believers in any era. How easy it is even today to deaden one’s faith with statements like, "This is just how the world works," or "My Sunday obligation is enough," or "I can rely solely on being saved in the name of Christ," or "The poor will always exist and I have no responsibility for their fate."
In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah issues a poetic version of the same challenge: Stop settling for false security and open your mind to the extravagance of God’s mercy. Throughout the Book of Isaiah, the prophet has much to say about the lack of justice for the poor. In the first reading, Isaiah offers a lyrical reimagination of the peaceful kingdom, a reality that has been longed for but never yet achieved. “A just order,” writes Joseph Blenkinsopp, “in which the poor and powerless can enjoy equal rights with the wealthy and powerful” (Isaiah 1-39 [Anchor Yale Bible 19, 2008] 263). Only then, says the prophet Isaiah, will the wolf be a guest of the lamb, with a little child to guide them (Is 11:6).
The peaceful kingdom has not yet arrived, and the empty safety of falsehoods carry too many through the joys and struggles of everyday life. For these reasons Advent is a time to apply the balm of John the Baptist, and to repent of any sense of entitlement or narrowness of vision. The kingdom of heaven is close at hand whenever it is reimagined through the lens of the coming Prince of Peace (Mt 3:2).