The Gospel reading from Matthew presents us with quite a vivid picture of the preaching of John the Baptist. He’s in the wilderness telling all who will listen: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” People throughout Judea flocked to be baptized and to confess their sins. But Matthew also tells us that when the Pharisees and Sadducees arrived John rebuked them, and in a not very politically correct way, calling them a nest of vipers.
A vivid picture, yes, but a little dated, don’t you think? Two thousand plus years have not been kind to John the Baptist. After all, Pharisees and Sadducees don’t exist anymore, at least not under those names. It’s hard to imagine modern society trooping out to the wilderness and hanging on every word of a stranger from the desert, and a diet of locust and wild honey does not meet USDA dietary guidelines. It’s rather easy to put this story, this snapshot of salvation history from long ago, behind glass in a museum to be admired but not touched.
Except that is not how we view scripture. Scripture is inspired, ‘God breathed’, and God is outside of time. All scripture was written for the time in which its authors lived, but also for all times and all peoples. Not something to be put in a museum cabinet but rather God’s word that accompanies us today as a lamp for our feet, a light on our path.
So who is ‘John the Baptist’ in our world today? John the Baptist called people to repentance- “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. John wasn’t afraid to call out sinners-he warned that “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John was a prophet preparing the way for the Lord, making straight his paths.
So who is ‘John the Baptist’ in our day? The media- TV, social media, are hugely influential in today’s world. Can the media be our ‘John the Baptist’? The media makes celebrities, and you might say that all the people flock to see and listen to celebrities. You might also say that the media calls for repentance. How many famous people or even companies have had to retract, apologize for or otherwise repent for words and actions captured and trumpeted by the media? They risk derision and even hatred and death threats if they don’t.
Does the media bear good fruit? Does it prepare the way for the Lord? I don’t think many of us would say that. The vast majority of content (with the exception of Catholic TV!) celebrates excesses of money, luxury, and sensual pleasures that make us want to cling to the things of this world rather than long for the next. The repentance called for by media is always repentance in someone else, not ourselves.
If the media is not ‘John the Baptist’’ for us, then who or what is? Our politicians? There are many wise and faithful politicians but those aren’t the ones you hear about. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of peace and unity; politics nowadays is anything but unifying. Division and strife seem to be the order of the day.
Who is “John the Baptist” for us? Surely it is the Church. The Church which Christ founded to prepare a people for him and draw us from darkness to light. The Church who constantly calls for repentance and speaks out as a prophetic critic of society, as did John. The Church which prepares the way, offering encouragement and respite along the journey, filling in or at least smoothing the potholes and dangerous hills with prayer and sacraments, making straight the path for each of us to find the Lord.
We experience the Church, not simply as an abstraction or a spirit of community but concretely in our Bishop, priests and deacons. We experience the Church in our parents and catechists, in our lay ministers and volunteers. Through them all, the Church fulfills her mission to be a prophet who prepares the way of the Lord. Like John, the Church is not self-directed- its purpose and actions are defined by and for Christ.
And further, you, each one of us, are called like John the Baptist to be a prophet who prepares for the coming of the Lord. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that” [the baptized] must participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God” (CCC, 1270). So, we have an obligation to evangelize and to be prophets in this world, prophets who prepare the way for others to find the Lord.
John the Baptist preached to the people with his words. We too, as participants in the Church’s missionary activities, use our words- spoken and written- to help others on their path to Jesus. Refer to God reverently and not in profane language. Talk naturally about your life in Jesus, and let others see you praying. At the very least do not throw up roadblocks on the path by uncharitable words. At this time of Advent use your words to prepare people for the coming of Jesus on Christmas Day and don’t fall into the trap of speaking of Christmas only in terms of Frosty and Rudolph or of shopping and sales.
John preached to the people in his actions. With his severe dress and bizarre appearance there could be no doubt of his sincerity, of his being fully committed to his message. Again, this Advent let people see your sincerity and devotion. Don’t scandalize those seeking Jesus by speaking pious words and doing something very different. Demonstrate that you sincerely believe the message of Christmas- that God so loves us that God entered our world as a tiny human child in the womb of his Mother. Share God’s love in your world.
This Advent, and during the whole year, be John the Baptist to each other as we search for the way to the Lord. In conjunction with the mission of the Church and helped by the Baptist, make straight the way by your words and actions; by your prayers and sacrifices, by your very lives.
Prepare the way of the Lord!