SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
“John went through the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Lk 3:3
Think of it: Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas.
Luke includes them all in his introduction today. Why? Because all of them held high positions of power in the Roman Empire, and because each of them lived a life of unconscionable greed, violence, torture, theft, and massive wickedness.
The mood of that time can only be hinted at with words like: fear, terror, poverty, slavery, and hopelessness. In fact, as one writer puts it, “When was there a more hopeless hour?”
And then … in the midst of all this darkness:
“the word of God came to John.”
Every Advent the person of John the Baptist is presented to us. And every time most of us find ourselves a little uncomfortable with his presentation: a kind of wild-man figure who eats strange food, lives in the desert and dresses in even stranger clothes. Not exactly the type of person we look forward to inviting to our home for dinner!
But his importance is so large in Scripture that Jesus calls him “the greatest of all the prophets.” So, what’s so great about him?
Maybe it’s this: the central importance of Jesus’ gospel of love cannot be properly understood until we first come face-to-face with John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance, conversion, and the development of a new mindset.
We all respond positively to the whole concept of “love.” Our popular songs constantly remind us of that. It’s like a pounding drumbeat: “All you need is love;” “Love is the answer;” “Love makes the world go ‘round.”
All of these refer to a temporary, make-believe, romantic, idealized experience, like the kind of “love” young people often get caught up in.
What we often forget, though, is that without radical change taking place in a person’s life, without a real conversion experience, without true repentance for all of our sinfulness, the kind of love that’s taught in these songs and in our romantic ideals is not sustainable or credible. It can’t last because it’s missing a major piece in our journey towards an adult relationship with God.
This is again why John is so important.
He represents the heroic first stage of the God journey. Conversion and repentance are the first step, he would tell us, the beginning of the great adventure that leads us ultimately to what Jesus and Paul would call “love”: a dying to self, a sacrificial ridding of our ego demands, a surrendering of our desire for greed and ambition and power.
Love without conversion will not lead to a deep, lasting love. Many people, married and unmarried, know this. They’ve often had to find their way through disappointment and discouragement before they were able to break through to the other side where true, lasting love resides.
John the Baptist defines genuine repentance by its fruit – what we today might call “results.” One scholar puts it in these words: “If you are repentant, the Baptist would say, produce the appropriate fruits. Don’t just talk about it, show it. Produce something new in your life. Make changes.”
And if you read on beyond today’s scripture reading, John is very practical in his insistence on change. For example, to the tax collectors he said: if you really want to change, “charge no more than your rate.” To the everyday person he said: “if anyone has two tunics, share one with someone who has none.” To the soldiers he said: “Don’t intimidate people. Don’t manipulate them. No bribing, blackmailing, or extortion.”
How much more practical can you be?
Untransformed people will always be preoccupied with power, with controlling others, with manipulating them, with demeaning them, with using them for their own gain.
What John the Baptist is saying to us all is that we have to be converted so that we can become people who realize that we are called to share. The gospel of Jesus is essentially a gospel of sharing, a gospel of generosity – including the most generous act of all: mercy.
If the kind of practical acts of caring and sharing that John speaks of aren’t happening within you, then you’re not open to the next step: the gospel of love. The conversion has to come first. Only then comes the experience of true, lasting love.
That’s why John the Baptist is so important.
He got it right. Conversion, repentance, developing a new mindset.
Then we’re ready for the next step: Jesus.
Jesus is now able to lead us on to the more developed stages of the God journey – those that will involve death and resurrection; those that will give us the necessary tools to be freed from anxiety and open us up to a life of gratitude and abundance. Or, in a word, Love: the embrace of a life highlighted by generosity and mercy.
But we have to begin at the beginning, on the ground floor: conversion, change, repentance.
We have to begin with John the Baptist.
Then we’re ready to move on to the manger. There we will find a Child who will lead us on to the next stages: the journey to the cross and, finally, to the empty tomb.