The book of the prophet Isaiah has sometimes been called the ‘Fifth Gospel’ because so many of Isaiah’s prophecies look forward to the Messiah and find their fulfilment in Jesus. We too are currently in a time of anticipation. Advent is 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.

‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.’ (Isa 11:1-3)

Isaiah has hope in the peace the Messiah will bring. Injustice and affliction, the fruit of sin is dealt with on the Cross, where Jesus ‘shall stand as a signal for the peoples’ (Isa 11:10). This is the great demonstration of God’s love to the world, love which heals and reconciles humanity. 

To prepare the way for the Messiah, Israel needed prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist both to announce His coming and to get people ready. Being a prophet is difficult because they are often required to tell people home truths. Prophets point out the sorts of things which we would rather ignore, if left to our own devices. John’s message is simple, plain, and direct:

‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Mt 3:2)

To repent is to express sincere regret about one’s wrongdoing. Literally the word used —‘metanoia’— means to ‘change your mind’. It is a proclamation rather like a road sign which reads: ‘You are going the wrong way!’ Repentance is recognising this and turning around. For two thousand years the Church has existed to continue John’s proclamation, and to say to the world: turn around, and follow Jesus! The season of Advent is penitential because it highlights this call to conversion and says to everyone, both inside and outside the Church, that our lives are supposed to be a perpetual turning back to Our Lord. We all need to be reminded of our shortcomings, and be encouraged to let God be at work in and through us.

John the Baptist’s blunt message struck a chord and sparked something of a revival in Israel. People took him seriously.

‘Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.’ (Mt 3:5-6)

It is not surprising that in those times people came out into the desert to hear John. He was charismatic, and 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 us from our 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. Filled with God’s Holy Spirit, she conceived and bore Our Saviour, the true King of all that is, or has been, or will be. He is on the side of the poor and the meek, people who are left behind, and ignored because they are not rich or powerful. This is a radical concept, one which we still have some way to go in order to for it to be put into practice in the world around us. Isaiah’s vision of Messianic peace may appear impossible, but it signifies a world-changing peace, which alters how things are, and 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),

and a little later in the same passage:

‘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).

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. In Advent we prepare for Christ to come as 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.’ (Mt 3:12) 

Judgement is  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 any repentance. They haven’t made the u-turn, and they don’t have the humility to recognise their sinfulness, and their need to be washed in the waters of baptism. They, therefore, do not have the right attitude to allow God to be at work in their lives.

As well as recognising 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 Jesus as we prepare to celebrate His Birth and look forward to His Second Coming. So let us be prepared to 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 Christ wants us to do. It is through doing these things that the world around us can see what our faith means in practice, how it affects our lives, and why they should follow Him, and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

St John the Baptist and the Pharisees – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

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