John the Baptist appears in this morning’s Gospel in stark un-compromising fashion. His message is simple, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mt 3:2 ESV). It is a clear message, but to understand it takes some work. To repent means to change ones mind: to turn away from sin, and turn back to God. We are called to think differently, and as a result of this to act differently, to follow Jesus, and thereby to change the world, by co-operating with God to make the Kingdom a lived reality here and now, and to share in it forever. To repent is to turn away from sin, which separates us from God, and each other. Sin makes us selfish, self-absorbed, concerned with pleasure, wealth, power. It’s all about ME, how I feel, what I want. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God tells us that another way is possible, by the grace of God. It sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Freeing, liberating: living for others rather than ourselves. At its heart the Kingdom is a place of generosity and real love, life in all its fullness. The Church exists to proclaim this same message, and to say to the world: Another way is possible.
It is not surprising that in those times people came out into the desert to hear John. He was charismatic, his message was a refreshing antidote to the Religious Establishment of his day. People come, confess their sins, and are baptised, they are washed clean, to serve God, and to love Him. They also come because in John the people of Israel see prophecy fulfilled, and a new Elijah is in their midst. One who points to the Messiah, and has done ever since he leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb at the Visitation. Before John was even born he proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the One who would save Israel from their sins. We see this Messianic kingdom hoped for in the vision of Isaiah in this morning’s first reading. The branch which comes forth from the stem of Jesse is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who filled with God’s Holy Spirit, conceived and bore Our Saviour, the true King of all that is, or has been, or will be. He will be on the side of the poor and the meek, people who are left behind, and ignored because they are not rich or powerful. It’s a radical vision, which reminds us that we still have some way to go in order to put it into practice in the world around us. Isaiah’s vision of Messianic peace looks impossible, but it signifies a world-changing peace, which alters how things are, how we behave. For with, and through God another way is possible. It is not simple, or easy, but it is possible, if we rely upon God to help us. As St Paul says to the Christians in Rome, ‘May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’ (Romans 15:5-7 ESV) and again ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope’ (Romans 15:13 ESV). We receive the Holy Spirit in our Baptism and Confirmation to strengthen us to live out our faith in our lives.
Hope can feel in pretty short supply when we look at the world around us, and if we look to humanity we will be disappointed. Our hope comes from God, our hope is God, God with us, whose Birth we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas. Advent is a time of preparation, when we prepare for Christ to come, both as a baby in Bethlehem, and as our saviour and our Judge. As the son of Jesse, and the son of David, Jesus is Israel’s true king, who rules over all. Isaiah has hope in the peace the Messiah will bring. Injustice and affliction, the fruit of sin is dealt with on the Cross, where He ‘shall stand as a signal for the peoples’ (Isa 11:10 ESV). Christ comes to die, out of love for humanity. In Him God can make things put right, and restore Creation, so that the entire Universe may praise the God who created it.
Our Saviour is also our judge. ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Matt 3:12 ESV) It’s real, and it should make us stop and think for a moment. Are we living the way God wants us to? If we are not then we need to repent, say sorry, and live the way God wants us to live. This is how we flourish as people. John the Baptist calls us to make a spiritual u- turn, to turn our life around, to turn away from what separates us from God, our sins. He calls us to the waters of baptism, so that we can be healed and restored by God, filled with his grace, and prepared to receive the Holy Spirit: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11). The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John is that they do not show the repentance necessary, they haven’t made the u-turn, they don’t have the humility to recognise there sinfulness, and the need to be washed in the waters of baptism. They are confident that they are children of Abraham; they don’t have the right attitude for God to be at work in their lives.
As well as seeing Jesus as our Saviour, John the Baptist sees Jesus as Our Judge, he points to the second coming of the Lord when, as St John of the Cross puts it, ‘we will be judged by love alone’. It is love that matters – in Christ we see what love means it is costly, self-giving and profound. As we are filled with His Spirit, nourished by Word and Sacrament, we need to live out this love in our lives. This is how we prepare to meet him as we prepare to celebrate His Birth and look forward to his Second Coming. So let us be prepared, let us live out God’s love in our lives, let us turn away from everything which separates us from God and each other, let us live out that costly, self-giving love in our lives, as this is what God wants us to do. It is through doing this that the world around us can see what our faith means in practice, how it affects our lives, and why they could and should follow Him, and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.