The Gospel of the Day – 2016.12.04
The Preacher in the Wilderness
In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said:
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, 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 for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’
John the Baptist was a prophet. He was a social critic, and that is the role of the prophet. To stand within a tradition, and criticize the institutions of that tradition.
In his day John the Baptist was not alone in this, but he and those who saw the same troubles that he saw, they were on the margins. They were on the margins both figuratively, and literally, they represented a new movement, and preached a new path for his people, they were so controversial that they had to do their preaching away from the towns and cities. That is what they did, the preached in the wilderness and the people came out to see them.
Isaiah did not foretell the coming of John the Baptist. Isaiah was most likely not a real historical figure. But the school of Isaiah, those who wrote in his name, they offered their criticism of their tradition, and assured people that when they were gone others would come,
John did the same thing. He knew his days were numbered, and he knew another would come after him. He might even have known that this other was Jesus, but that fact is unimportant, because he knew that if not Jesus, then another would follow; sooner or later another would follow.
That is still true today.
The prophets are among us, they are preaching and teaching and pointing the way. They are present in every generation. The voice of the prophet is present in the heart of every human being; waiting, nascent, patient, desiring to be voiced and heard.
Do not believe that being baptized and being a Christian makes you special. Being a member of one of the tribes of Israel did not make the Sadducees or the Pharisees special.
What is special is doing good, loving justice, and being merciful to all of those within your power, or whom you have the power to help.
Do not be distressed or afraid of the harsh language in this gospel. Do not be afraid of the fire, because in scripture, fire is a symbol of the encounter with God. The fire that never ends, the eternal fire in the fire of God. We know this because God, and God alone is the arbiter of the eternal, and there is no other eternal being who is not God.
The encounter with God is a moment of transformation, transfiguration, it comes to every person, and depending on who you are or how ready you are to receive the encounter, it might be painful, but it is not destructive. The fire of God refines, just as the power of love, and justice, and mercy do.
Be like John. Preach the faith, love what is good, walk humbly in justice and mercy.
That is the good news.
2nd Sunday of Advent