2nd Sunday of Advent
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4
The voice of John the Baptist and the Gospel of Jesus sound the same basic message that we hear on the second Sunday of each Advent. John‘s message is simple: we are to reform our lives because the Kingdom of God is at hand! With a sense of urgency, we are to prepare ourselves to meet the Lord, and reforming our lives is the only salvific way to face His judgment, which is surely coming, for “He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” John himself, pure and holy as he is, leads a severely ascetical way of life, living in the desert, wearing a camel’s hair garment and feeding on whatever this wild environment offered him. This greatest of prophets is an imposing figure leading a severe form of life, and he does so to make himself and to encourage others to be ready to meet the Lord. And the people are drawn to him to receive his baptism of repentance.
And Jesus likewise preaches this same message of repentance as we see at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, where, after fasting and being tempted in the desert, Jesus cries out, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” Both messages demand our repentance, John’s message to prepare for the coming of Christ, and Christ’s message to prepare because the promise is now fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is upon us. The message is the same in reality. We cannot be ready to meet the Lord, to enter His Kingdom, without reform and repentance. However, John proclaims this message within the context of the awful day of God’s wrath, God’s searing justice, while Jesus issues this call to repentance withing the context of the arrival of the Kingdom in Jesus Himself and His offer of mercy while there is still time. The day of God’s wrath, His justice, will certainly arrive one day. But now is the time of God’s mercy. Nevertheless, repentance remains the only way to escape God’s wrath at the end of time by taking advantage of His mercy now.
John the Baptist cannot be truly understood unless we see him as the herald of the end of time, and in a particular way the herald of the final judgement when God’s wrath toward all evil will separate good and evil forever. John herald’s the Messiah’s coming, but he does so within the particular context of God’s terrible final judgement, when John’s prophetic words will certainly come true: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This prophecy has its destined time of fulfillment, and this dreadful imagery reflects what will take place at the last judgement when men are separated forever, with the repentant gathered into God’s presence, and the unrepentant thrown into the unquenchable agony of hell. John was not mistaken when his cry is seen in the proper context. All this will happen, but not just yet.
This prophecy is an awful and frightening but true foretelling of the future, and it’s urgency explains not only why people were coming out to the desert to repent and be baptized by John but also why John was in the desert in the first place, why he seems like such a wild figure of a man, a man who is consumed by his mission.
Most people today don’t like intensely religious figures like John, or Jesus for that matter. A little religion is fine, many say, but one should not get fanatical about it. And John would certainly appear a fanatic today given his wild appearance and life style, not to mention the awfulness of his message. But the same might also be said of Jesus at many points in his Gospel, that he and his message is fanatical. For instance, there is all this business about loving him more than one’s own family, or his command to love even our enemies, or the condemnation of divorce and remarriage, or the business about it being better to cut off one’s evil doing hand and enter heaven maimed than to enter hell with both hands. Indeed Jesus several times mentions hell in his preaching, and that is just too much for many people.
But there is an important difference in the preaching of the herald and One he heralded. John had focused his message narrowly on the Messiah’s function as final judge. This is to be taken seriously, but it is not the whole picture. Jesus’ Gospel was much broader, focusing much more on God’s mercy and the present delay in the time of final judgement. This is not to deny God’s justice or the validity of John’s preaching. It is rather to be understood as an act of God’s patience and generosity to give us ample time to repent, so as not to have to fear that final separation from God. But whether the message was mainly justice (John) or mainly mercy (Christ) both ended up rejected, and branded as fanatics and out of touch, as we say today. Indeed, their common witness is proved by their common destiny in this world – both were put to death.
We can hope to truly understand the herald and the one heralded only if we realize how absolutely linked each of their messages is. John was fasting and living this austere life in the desert because he knew that what is at stake in Christ’s coming is nothing less than eternal life or eternal damnation. It is going to be one or the other for all of us, and since that’s true, it makes it abundantly clear why John was so severe on himself and so unflinching in his preaching to others. Salvation is what is at stake, and there is so little time really for each of us to make the decisions that will determine where we shall stand for all eternity. John is not trying to needlessly scare anyone, but he is desperately trying to awaken everyone, to waken us all out of our indifference and casualness toward our eternal destiny. That is also why John appears so “fanatical” to those who do not take their own salvation as seriously as he does.
The same is true of Jesus. He too is indeed driven by his determination that we should wake up and understand the stakes involved in our life in this world. The devil tries to lull us to sleep precisely on this vital matter of our salvation by making us think it really doesn’t matter, and the world lulls us to sleep by making us think we always have tomorrow to take care of such matters. But Jesus, like John, knows how short our time is, and how little time there really is for them to convince us of this truth. If a man is in risk of sleeping through a fire, it may take a loud shouting to wake him up and save his life. And so John’s voice is heard shouting out in the desert: Wake up! Prepare the way for the Lord who has come to rescue you from the wrath of God’s justice! And Jesus too cries out: Wake up! Recognize how God’s mercy has given you a time for reform, and do it now while there is still time! Neither message is meant to discourage us, but rather to encourage us; neither message is meant to frighten us, but rather to enlighten us. Now, now is the time of salvation! This is the good news of Jesus Christ, and John likewise. Let us respond to it with joy and with confidence, and with a sense of urgency to bring forth the good fruits which flow from genuine repentance, the fruits that prove that we have indeed become God’s children.