SUNDAY’S READINGS | December 4, 2022
John the Baptist adapts himself to the demands of a wild and arid place. He wears clothing of camel’s hair and girds himself with a leather belt; he eats locusts and wild honey. His prophetic voice comes out of the wilderness, a place of testing, a time of trial, far from the city of viperous men. He is the forerunner, the one about whom Isaiah prophesied, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Matt. 3:3).
Preparation for the coming of the Lord requires moral transformation. So he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near” (Matt. 3:2). The straight path is narrow, demanding, and open only to those who “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). This seemingly stern message is greeted with approval by “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea” (Matt. 3:5). The call to repentance means that life can be different, change is possible, forgiveness and renewal arrive with the “kingdom of heaven.” Therefore, one can imagine the people confessing their sins with both remorse and joy. “Happy are they whose transgression is forgiven, and whose sin is covered. Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Ps. 32:1-2).
What Ananias said to Paul so long ago continues speaking to us today: “Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Although sacramental baptism is administered but once, the call to repentance and the offer of forgiveness and renewal are perennial themes for the Christian to contemplate. Every day is a day of renewal.
The crowds from Jerusalem and Judea go out to John. They approve his message and willingly submit to it. A small subset of the crowd, however, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who are also “coming for baptism,” fall under a harsh condemnation. John says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourself, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:7-10).
The Pharisees and Sadducees presume that their ancestry insulates them from “the wrath to come.” Furthermore, they do not live as those “bearing fruit worthy of repentance.” These hard words are a warning also to religious leaders today, and to anyone who presumes a privileged exemption from the hard work of bearing fruit, that is, living a life that befits the arrival of the kingdom of God.
John speaks of “one who is more powerful than I” (Matt. 3:11). He says of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). Strangely, this is a fire of love. It burns away sin and death, guilt and sorrow and pain, sighing and groaning. It purifies and makes all things new. When the chaff is burned away, a new being remains, a new life united ever more deeply to Christ our God.
John the Baptist calls us to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord by reforming our lives in conformity to the will of God. Christ is the loving flame that ignites this transformation!
Look It Up: Isaiah 11:6-9
Think About It: Here is a vision of Christ’s peaceable kingdom.