Thought for the week - 4 December
One of the dominant figures in the early chapters of the gospels and in this Advent, season is the figure of John the Baptist. "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness." John the Baptist is the forerunner; the one who heralds the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. To really understand John the Baptist and his purpose in the gospel story, we need to know something of the Old Testament; for John the Baptist is very much an Old Testament figure who has somehow strayed into the New Testament. He is, as it were, the last of the prophets.
Matthew describes him as wearing clothes of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. If you go to the second book of Kings, you will find Elijah described as a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist. John the Baptist fits into the pattern of the Old Testament prophets.
His message, like that of the prophets before him, is one of urgency: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
Now look at Malachi who makes it clear how God will prepare for the coming of his kingdom: "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes." (Malachi 4:5)
Next, look at where John is preaching. He is not preaching in the city or in the temple, the obvious place to preach, but in the wilderness. Now look at Isaiah: "A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
Even what John the Baptist is doing calling on people to be baptised as a sign of repentance echoes the Old Testament. Isaiah likewise proclaims:
"Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean.
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;"
The people who flocked to John the Baptist to be baptised would have recognized him for what he was a prophet. His message was simple and clear.
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." A prophet proclaiming the coming of God's kingdom. No wonder the people flocked to him from Jerusalem, the whole of Judea and all the region along the Jordan. No wonder the people flocked to him, for he was proclaiming the coming of God's reign. Israel then. as now, was a troubled country. It was under foreign, Roman occupation. The people, or some of the people at any rate, looked to a time when the Roman occupation would be overthrown; the land would be restored to its people; and God himself, in the person of his anointed one, the Messiah or Christ would rule over them. There were even those actively working for the overthrow of the Romans - what these days we would call terrorists. No wonder the people flocked to hear the message of John: "the kingdom of heaven has come near."
But, of course, John's message was not as simple as that. He wasn't simply proclaiming that God's kingdom was drawing near. He was also preaching the need for repentance: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." In other words, it is not enough for the people to sit back and wait for the coming of God's rule. They, as it were, are called into active involvement. They must repent of their sins.
There were those, particularly the Pharisees and Sadducees, but no doubt many of the people, who thought it was sufficient that they were "children of Abraham", children of the covenant, God's own people. John destroys their confidence:
"Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
It's all very strong and frightening stuff. What then is John's message? In one sense it is fairly straightforward: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This means of course, that the coming of God's kingdom demands a response. This means, of course, that the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, demands a response. That response is one of repentance, a turning from sin, a total reorientation of one's life. The coming kingdom demands that. The coming Christ demands that. The kingdom will come; but only those who repent of their sin will be able to enter it. That, I take to be the message of John.
But John, as I have said, is very much a remnant of the Old Testament. The Gospel that we proclaim, and especially at Christmas, is that Christ has come to take away the sin of the world. The Gospel we proclaim is that through our baptism in Christ and through our Eucharistic communion with him our sin is taken away. He affects what we on our own are unable to do. In Jesus Christ the kingdom draws near.
Is that it then? Can we sit back complacently in the assurance of our salvation, just as the Pharisees and Sadducees rested in their assurance of being children of Abraham? The answer of course is no, we can't. The kingdom draws near. But we know full well that God's kingdom, his rule on earth is far from being accomplished. That's why we pray "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." That is why in our Eucharist we pray "Lord of all life, help us to work together for that day when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth."
We have our part to play. That part began in our baptism of repentance and our Confirmation with the power of the Holy Spirit. It did not end there. We need to continue to turn from sin and evil, resolved to do that which is good, resolved to "fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil." We do this in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Christ, fortified by his Eucharistic presence with us, and working together for that day when his kingdom comes, and justice and mercy is seen in all the earth. Amen.