The Gospel for December 4th, 2016: “The Preaching of John the Baptist”
Reflection: The Lost May Be More Likely to Repent in Response to Love than Criticism
On this second Sunday of Advent, we hear the words of John the Baptist in what I would call a quintessential Advent message—repent! The language of John’s message is harsh, critical, and divisive as he speaks to the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come with other Jews out to John in the desert to be baptized. I have not responded well to this sort of evangelization and find myself wondering about John’s intent in speaking this way. For example, he accusingly says to them, “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’” (7-9). John sounds like an Old Testament prophet. Perhaps, this is the reason he uses these words, a language these scriptural scholars can understand. While I don’t know the reason these men came out to see John, it is possible it was not to repent with an open heart. Instead, they may have gone to check out this crazy Rabbi who is drawing crowds for baptism, concerned that his popularity might cut into their own influence. His criticism of them suggests they are complacent in their quest for holiness. They may believe wrongly their birth and legalism has secured their favor with God. John is wasting no words to unveil the error in this view. He is preaching that all should acknowledge their sinfulness and turn to God for salvation. Despite the harshness of his message, he is giving them just what they need at that moment, in full agreement with God’s will. For how else will they be ready for Jesus’s message of selfless love for all, including Gentiles, if they do not question the beliefs to which they are clinging? If this view fits, it does make sense to me.
Still, regardless of John’s intent, which I do not question in the least nor claim to fully understand, I am more concerned with what this gospel means for me and my own efforts to repent this advent season. Certainly, I think it is a strong reminder of the need for the sacrament of reconciliation, to admit fully my own sinfulness and need for God’s grace, in order to prepare for the coming of our Savior. I also think it gives me pause to consider the possibility that this aggressive language is just what some need to hear to bring them back to God, even if I find it generally ineffective for me personally.
However, as I consider the use of this sort of evangelistic rhetoric as used by others and for my own efforts, I would like to share this insight. There is a righteousness John speaks with that few of us can carry off with authenticity. And even though at times, Jesus speaks with such brute honesty as well, the predominant theme of His ministry is love of God and neighbor. In fact when we consider this gospel in light of the supplemental readings, we see this is subtly present in John’s message as well. In calling for repentance in preparation for Jesus’s coming, he refers to “of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken” (3). So we go back to Isaiah’s words in the first reading. Notice the conciliatory language of love and unity Isaiah uses to describe the kingdom of Jesus the Messiah:
Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair (Isaiah 11: 3-8).
While I will not pretend to know what it feels like to be struck with the “rod of his mouth” or be slain by the “breath of his lips,” I think it is significant that Jesus is not using violence from the weapons of the world in this revelation to bring justice. Furthermore, the majority of this vision speaks to a level of peace and unity among enemies that is truly inspiring and comforting.
My point is a comprehensive reflection on what it means to repent this advent season should include a consideration of our evangelization efforts. And yet, I would argue that we should make sure that those efforts, whether by word or action, speak of love, peace, and reconciliation. For if we adopt the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric of the Old Testament prophets, not only do we risk turning away the lost who are put off by a self-righteous, apocalyptic tone, but we also may very well forget to tell and show the best reason to return to Jesus—love, peace, and joy. May God’s love guide our every interaction with others this Advent season as we prepare for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. His judgment speaks of mercy and peace and lasts forever.