Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Second Sunday of Advent

Standing in the Middle

In today's Gospel, we see and hear John the Baptist. He is one of my favorite Biblical characters. Just look at him. He's dressed in camel's hair (scratchy!) with a leather belt around his waist. As a Nazarite (which many scholars say that he was), he does not cut his hair. He eats locusts and honey. And he goes around yelling, “You brood of vipers!” at people. Let's face it, John is an interesting person in more ways then one. 

But he is also an important person. John stands right in the middle of the Old Testament and the New Testament, of the Old Covenant God made with the patriarchs of Israel and the New Covenant He is about to make through Jesus Christ with the people of the whole world. John looks both backwards and forwards, and he helps us grasp the bigger picture of salvation history.

For one thing, John is the very image of an Old Testament prophet. His strange clothes aren't the mark of an eccentric. John wears what Elijah wore before him, and he does so deliberately to present himself as a new prophet to the people of Israel. 

Further, John continues the message of the Old Testament prophets as he prods his listeners to repent of their sins and live as God expects them to live. He also offers a baptism of repentance, which was popular with some Jewish communities at the time. 

But John goes far beyond the Old Testament prophets, for he deliberately points ahead to something that God will be doing very soon, something that is imminent, something new that will change the world. John knows that he has been chosen to be the “voice crying out in the wilderness,” the voice that will prepare the path for the Lord to visit His people in a brand new way. His job is to get people ready to greet the One Who is to come.

Therefore, he spreads the word, openly and vigorously. Let's listen again to his message as he speaks to the Pharisees and Sadducees (the Jewish leaders) who have come out to be baptized:

“You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the One who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry His sandals.
He will baptize 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 His barn,
but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John doesn't beat around the bush. He knows that these Jewish leaders tend to be arrogant and presumptuous. He understands that they rely on their heritage and their position to make them right with God. But he warns them that this isn't good enough anymore. Their physical descent from Abraham means nothing. God can create children for Himself from stones if He so chooses. 

Further, their repentance cannot be an empty show. They have to change their lives to reflect the change that has supposedly taken place in their hearts. They must produce good fruit, or they risk being cut down and thrown into the fire. 

Because Someone is coming. Someone Who is far more powerful than John. Someone Who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Someone Who is so great that John doesn't even feel himself worthy to carry His sandals, a task of the lowest of servants. Someone Who will judge the world, gathering the wheat into His barn and burning the chaff in eternal fire. Someone Who has that much strength, that much authority. 

John's job is to warn the people that this One is coming and will soon be here. They must, therefore, prepare their hearts through repentance and love. They must be ready to greet Him when He comes. 

Indeed, John stands in the middle of the Old Testament and the New Testament. He looks back to see what has gone before, but he pushes forward to welcome what, or rather Who, will come. He reminds us of the past while he pushes us toward the future. 

May we always take his message to heart and welcome the One Who has come and will come again. 

John the Baptist, pray for us.

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