The emergence of John the Baptist, Scripture scholar William Barclay states, was like “the sudden sounding of the Voice of God.” Why? Because the prophets of Israel had been silent for four hundred years and the Jewish people were sadly conscious of that fact. And in today’s gospel, we find large crowds of people coming to hear John preach and to stand in line to be baptized by him.
He gave people hope and challenged people to do what they ought to do; to be what they could be in a time when the world was crazy and mixed up, very similar to our own time. But he also denounced evil wherever he found it, in the state, in among the religious leaders, among the crowd.
The baptist was a wiry character, living on the edge of the desert; he wore a shirt of camel’s hair in the hot sun, which would have been quite uncomfortable according to our standards. The scriptures record that he also wore a leather belt around his waist and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. (Locusts are like grasshoppers.) Have you ever had a chocolate-covered grasshopper? Actually they’re not bad. Kind of crunchy, very nutritious, with lots of protein.
People were beginning to think great things about John. Large crowds came to hear him.
His message:“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”
(Yeah, I know. You’ve heard that a zillion times before by street corner prophets.)
In our respectable Sunday assemblies, he would probably be looked upon with scorn; he was certainly not the kind of guy we would expect to be the Advance Man for the Son of God. But that’s what he was. (And we better pay attention to his message because it is critical for our own times.)
He spoke fearlessly, unafraid of what the hypocritical religious leaders might do to him. Eventually Herod had him imprisoned and Herodias, his wife, demanded his head on a platter.
John was a prophet . . .
Presbyterian Scripture scholar William Barclay offers this commentary on this gospel passage.
The Baptist’s message summoned his people to righteousness. He pointed beyond himself. It was the Jewish belief that Elijah would return before the Messiah would come, and he would be the herald of the coming King (Malachi 4:5). So, they saw him as the new Elijah.
Then he makes this interesting observation: In ancient times in the East, the roads were bad. Ordinary roads were no more than tracks. But Solomon built a causeway of black basalt stone that lead to Jerusalem for pilgrims. They were built by the king and for the king and called “the king’s highway.”
A voice crying out in the wilderness
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Johnwas preparing the way for the king. The preacher, the teacher with the prophetic voice, points not to himself but to God.
He said he was not fit to carry the sandals of the one who was to come. Carrying sandals was the duty of a slave. John’s whole attitude was self-obliteration. “He must increase; I must decrease,” John the evangelist would have him say.
Then John warned the Pharisees. he called them “a brood of vipers!” trying to flee the wrath to come. Barclay suggests John was thinking of the possibility of fire in the desert. A river of flame could sweep across the desert and snakes and scorpions and other creatures could be sent scurrying for their lives. (He called the Pharisees “A brood of Vipers.” Jesus said, ” do not think you can say ‘ you have Abraham as your father.” And it was Jewish thought that the children of Abraham were safe from the “Wrath to come” simply by being Jews. But they were hedging their bets by coming to John for baptism!
Then came the promise. He said that “One would come to baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The word for spirit for the Jews was ruah, meaning breath; also meaning wind and, thus, power, because wind drives ships. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of power. The Spirit brought truth to God’s people.
And as for the fire, it connotes illumination, warmth, purification. But there is also a threat. The winnowing fan on the treshing floor will separate the wheat from the chaff. In Christianity, there is no escape from the eternal choice.
In John. there is the basic demand: “REPENT!” And that is the basic demand of Jesus himself, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).The Jewish word for repentance is itself interesting teshuba, from the verb shub, which means simply “to turn.”Repentance is a turning away from evil and a turning towards God. In Greek, the word is metanoia, and also means to turn around. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says “God allows U-turns.” Repentance is always available. No case is hopeless for repentance; no one is beyond repentance. The Rabbis said, “Let not a man say, ‘Because I have sinned, no repair is possible for me’ but let him trust in God, and God will receive him.(Barclay ~ The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 pp. 43-58.)
And so, the Christmas message is that Love has entered the world.
As we enter this second week of Advent, let’s ask ourselves:
How can I prepare the way for the Lord (or Love) ?
By being our own messenger of Jesus (or Love)
at home, at the office, in my neighborhood,
in our country, in our politics,
in our world ~ during this coming week.
God’s message to us in the Christmas story is Love.
That’s why he was born, entering our world as a vulnerable baby.
And that’s why he died – vulnerable / bound / nailed –
because the Father wanted us to have evidence that he loved us.
And in turn, his message is . . .
Love one another as I have loved you.
Try it. Be a messenger yourself this week in some little way.
Now, listen and watch Prepare the Way of the Lord from Godspell. Be sure to turn up your speakers and enter full screen .Click here.(Get a chuckle out of Jesus’ 1973 ‘Fro.)
There sometimes can be a lot of depression swirling around at Christmas.
People can feel lonelier because we’re expected to be more cheerful and we may just not feel it.
This blog is meant for us to pray and reach out and notice these folks.
Let’s be with folks who have lost a loved one and who still miss them.
With kids who are shuffled back from one parent to another to “celebrate” the holidays.
With soldiers far away from home and from their families.
And so, may we pray:
There are sometimes dark clouds in our lives, Lord.
Pierce the gloominess of our lives with Your very own Light.
May we allow You to dawn in us and on us this day.
May we be ready for Your dawning in a new way in our lives this Christmas.
May this celebration of Jesus’ birth bring meaning and joy in the midst of our worries and concerns.
And may we BE the dawning of your light and love and justice
in our homes, our neighborhoods, our jobs, our world.
And there are dark and ominous clouds over our world right now, Lord.
Pierce our greed and hate, fear and complacency, violence with hope, Lord.
May we pray earnestly for a new dawn for our beloved country and our world. We need healing in our nation right now, Lord.
May we BE the dawning of your light and love and justice in our land.
Lord Jesus, come! May we be ready for the dawn of your coming in a new way this Christmas,
May the light of that dawning transform our lives and our land.
We need Your Light and Your Love more than ever.
COME LORD JESUS!
And this morning the Winter Solstice occurred in the northern hemisphere at 5:44am. It’s the shortest day of the year, and is a major celebration for our pagan brothers and sisters, most notably at Stonehenge in Great Britain. I do not use the term pagan pejoratively; they are the peoples who are reverently close to the earth.
Did you know the date of Christmas was taken from the winter solstice because it marks, in the northern hemisphere, the beginning of the ascendency of the sun? It connotes the phrase in Scripture in which John the Baptist says the “He must increase, I must decrease”(John 3:30). And the Baptist’s feast day, likewise is near the summer solstice on June 24th. Thus, the church did not hesitate to borrow from the existing pagan customs. Christmas trees, for example, came from Germany and the wreath symbolized eternity were again pagan customs.
Did you know that in the middle ages they lit real candles on their Christmas trees? How ’bout that? Times were more quiet and peaceful back then, with less anger to upset the trees, I would surmise, and more well-behaved kids?
Some Christians today misunderstand our “cross-enculturation” of things that once had a pagan origin and sometimes berate those of us who celebrate Christmas.
Now before you go, here’s a charming version of Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, everyone” from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, composed and sung by Andrea Bocelli. Click here. Be sure to enter full screen and turn up your speakers.
And here are today’s Mass readings, if you would like to reflect on them. Click here.
I’ve decided to take a deeper turn in this Advent blog.
As I get closer to Christmas, my prayer is opening up to two things in the last few days.
(1) a deeper realization of my sinfulness and frail human nature.
and (2) an ongoing surrender to the process of transformation that is occurring in me as I turn my life and my will over to God.
That, ongoing dual process ~ “a kind of coincidence of opposites,” dear friends, is what gives meaning and joy to my life.
The Church invites us to enter into that process of ongoing repentance and conversion each year during Advent.
To step out of the rat race. To take a look at our maneuvering ~ scheming ~ elbowing for status or power or success or prestige. Or any of the things American society tells us we’re supposed to “have” to make us happy.
The wise person realizes they won’t!
Let’s reflect a little more on what we can learn from John the Baptist what it’s all about . . .
He was a pretty successful preacher. People were streaming out into the desert to listen to him; he was persuasive. People were willing to change their lives after listening to him.
But he didn’t let it go to his head. He realized what his role was. He was just the “advance man.” And was content with that.
He knew who he was. He didn’t want to be the star. Even though many thought he was “The Man.”
The saying of John that I love and pray often myself is:
“He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
My spiritual director reminded me to stay focused on Jesus. To make all my plans provisional.
I was a young, cool, creative priest. I was a rising star. I thought I was pretty hot stuff.
A bishop once told my father, “He’ll be a bishop someday.”
But God had other plans.
Today, I’m just a little guy, content with a tiny flock to care for and writing a little blog few know about.
Arrogance was my greatest character defect and it has taken till recently to whittle that away.
And so today I pray inspired by the one who was content to live in the wilderness . . .
Jesus, You are the light of my life.
Without You I would be nowhere. Nada. Nothing.
And that’s fine with me.
I want You to be in all my relationships,
in all of my writing,
You help me to be humble, Lord.
You cast me down and raised me up again.
You chastise me; You heal me.
With St. Paul, You have helped me realize that in the midst of my brokenness,
it was ~ and is ~ You who make me strong.
Not in the ways of this world, with ambition or striving for power or success or influence,
but in knowing You are right here: You are enough for me, Lord!
Whatever flows from my relationship with You will be good
as I allow You more and more to increase
and allow my false self, my little (Big) ego to fall away.
To be humble is to be close to the “humus” — “muck”.
So, I’m content with the muckiness of my life.
And yet, You have surprised me ~ delighted me ~ ravished me with Your love.
And you know what?
There, I found You!
You raised me up! You drew me to Yourself!
You bound up my wounds! You clothed me with Your LOVE!
What a joy!
And now I’m eager to share Your Love.
To help others realize that You love each and everyone ~ no matter what.
But You want us to love You in return.
Yes, Lord Jesus, You must increase; I must decrease.
Let me never ever forget that. No matter what.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
In the coming days I will try to have us take a deeper look at the mystery of the Incarnation — God’s love affair with our messy ~ mucky ~ crazy human race as it appears in Luke’s story that God came into our world as a vulnerable, homeless baby who cooed and pooped in his pants like the rest of us. That story ~ even if you just accept as a story ~ has much to teach us. Let’s take a fresh look at it and go down to a deeper level. We’ll do that in the coming days.
Here is an inspiring YouTube orchestral and voice arrangement of J. S. Bach’s lovely Advent piece sung by Josh Groban. Click here. Be sure to turn up your speakers and enter full screen. Prepare to be goosebupped!
And here are today’s Mass readings, if you’d like to reflect on them. Click here.