2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT (A) DEC 4th, 2022

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15: 4-9; Matthew 3: 1-12

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Things are certainly warming up, aren’t they. The Christmas season is in full swing. There are the decorations in the yards and stores around us. Many homes already have inside decorations and have set up Christmas trees with the stable scene at their base. Even with all the turmoil in our world these days fill a lot of people with the warm glow of the season, especially if they have children. The kids’ excitement is contagious.

But for those who come to church maybe we should apologize for putting a damper on the season. John the Baptist is featured in today’s gospel and he doesn’t look like, or sound like, what we might expect at this time of the year. He is a grisly looking prophet, wearing camel hair clothing and a raw leather belt. His diet matches his clothes, "locusts and wild honey." John calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a "brood of vipers." Hardly the "Christmas spirit." He sounds more like Ebenezer Scrooge than a voice preparing for Christmas.

We live in quite a different world than John and the people who went out to hear him preach did. Our world is so hi-tech, with all our advanced forms of communication. (Some friends just went to Europe and it took just minutes to exchange messages and pictures with them across the ocean.) What could John possible say to us in our world that would have any meaning?

Perhaps we should call John an eccentric and dismiss him and his message. Except that something must have made sense to the people because they went out to the desert to hear him. John wasn’t invading their space. He wasn’t walking through their neighborhoods, knocking at their doors, or showing up in their market places. He lived in the desert, far from their towns and villages. People had to put their lives on hold to travel into the wild desert where John lived to hear him.

He was a prophet in the old style, a firebrand. God had sent similar prophets to the people before and people must have sensed in him traces of the God of their ancestors – the God who rescued them from slavery, brought them across the harsh desert for forty years and led them into the Promise Land. God did it once, maybe God was going to deliver them from another tyrant, the Romans and maybe John was the bearer of that good news. The people who heard John must have been excited with anticipation, finally God was about to help them.

The people John spoke to were mostly poor people, not well educated, except for the Pharisees and Sadducees. But they knew their tradition, and they knew their scriptures. They believed the words of the prophet Isaiah, the words we heard in today’s gospel: "A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths."’ Having felt so low, so oppressed, so tired of bad news, the people were excited by John’s presence and message – God was coming to help them.

John isn’t just speaking to people in a distant past. He is speaking to us as well: who want to change, have attempted in the past, but come here today willing to admit our need for help: who want to become the compassionate people Jesus calls us to be; to make good career choices that are filled with integrity and purpose; who keep our relationships strong; who hope to end our negative, even destructive, patterns of behavior. John’s voice encourages those who are discouraged, or unsure of their self worth and abilities.

As harsh as John the Baptist sounded he did draw a crowd. He was popular because they needed help and he was a voice of clarity and sanity. They and we hear his promise: someone is coming bearing a fire for spirits that are chilled by boredom, aimlessness and routine. John promises that our spirits, which are bloated with excess, can be revived by a new spirit. What has been chilled and feels tepid in us can be heated again by the fire of the coming Christ. He is coming, John tells us, with a baptism of the Spirit and fire. That must have been an exciting message to hear! We cannot revive our spirits on our own. We need what John promises us – the gift of a renewed spirit. Unlike other gifts at this buying season, this spirit of renewal cannot be bought, or charged to Visa. It cannot be owned and possessed only by the rich and powerful. It can't be cornered and monopolized by any special religious elite. It is a gift that only God can give, a baptism, John says, "with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Behind John’s voice is God speaking with love and concern for us. God is sending someone out looking for us to bring us home, the one mightier than John, who will baptize with water and the Spirit. With that Spirit guiding us we will not lose our way. With that fire burning within us we will share what we believe with others who might still be on "cruise control."

We want more than just a jolly Christmas filled with tinsel and jingles. We want more than receiving the perfect Christmas item, or latest hi-tech gadget. John spells it out quite clearly what we want and need for Christmas. We want a renewing Spirit that will make us more attentive to God in our daily lives. We wait for that Spirit to move our faith beyond routine and formalism. We wait and long for a fire that will make more real, tangible and intense our love of God and neighbor. That’s what John tells us God wants to give us, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand..." for us too!

Knock, knock. Who’s there? John the Baptist, with some bad news – you have got to change. And some pretty good news too – God is coming to help with those changes.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: