2d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 4, 2016
Matt 3: 1-12
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” (Matt 3: 1-2).
|John the Baptist preaching by Alessandro Allori|
The earliest announcements of the Good News of Christ our Savior began by recalling to listeners the preaching of John the Baptist. The preaching samples that we find in the Acts of the Apostles show this, and so do the beginnings of the written gospels of Mark and John. Likewise, Matthew and Luke introduce the public ministry of Jesus with John’s preaching of repentance and readiness, after 1st preparing their readers for Jesus with the fascinating stories of his birth.
So John appears in the desert regions near the Jordan River—appears out of nowhere, as it were, altho St. John’s Gospel says explicitly that he was sent by God (1:6).
John the Baptist’s message is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” When Jesus starts his preaching, he’ll deliver the same message. When the apostles go forth with the Good News after Jesus’ resurrection, repentance will be their starting point too. Evidently it’s something fundamental to the mission of Jesus, which is our redemption.
What does repentance mean? The Greek word the gospels use means literally a “change of mind,” a change of outlook, a turning around of oneself, a conversion. Beyond that interior change of our hearts, repentance or conversion demands exterior change. John scolds the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him at the Jordan: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (Matt 3:8). As we say, you’ve got to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
Advent, this season of preparation for the coming of the Lord, is a challenge for us, too, to repent; to get ready for Christ’s coming by conversion, by changing our evil behaviors into “good fruit,” into virtue. Advent reminds us not only that Christ has come in history thru his birth at Bethlehem but also that he will come again at the end of history as the universal judge—as the judge of my words, actions, thoughts, and omissions. In his daily homily on 11/22, Pope Francis cautioned: “If you do not take care of your heart so that the Lord is with you, and you always live far from the Lord, perhaps there is this danger, the danger of continuing to be distanced from the Lord for all of eternity.” If I have good fruit to present to him as evidence that he owns my heart, he’ll invite me into the kingdom of heaven that he has established; or, as John the Baptist says, I’ll be part of the wheat that Jesus will harvest into his barn (3:12).
What evil behaviors do we need to change? What conversion in us would prepare a way for the Lord to come into our lives (cf. 3:3); or to be present in us in a more obvious way?
Isaiah and the responsorial psalm gives some suggestions of the good fruit we should be producing: justice and care for the poor and afflicted.
Justice: Do we treat people fairly? Do we judge people fairly? Without regard to race or ethnicity, gender or social standing, religion or political persuasion? Do we forgive injuries rather than hold grudges or seek payback?
Care for the poor and afflicted: What do we actually do for the poor, the unfortunate, people driven from their homes by war or natural disasters, or for the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, the sick?
Maybe our repentance needs to address the ways in which we speak about others—gossiping fault-finding, bearing false witness. Or perhaps the ways we use our time at work. Or the attention we give to our spouse and children. Or what we view on TV or the computer and what that does to our minds.
So there are external behaviors or visible fruits that we may need to be concerned about if we want Jesus to rule us.
But let me return to the root meaning of “repent” in John’s preaching. The word, as I said, means “change of mind,” change of attitude, change of outlook. An interior change of heart or a conversion is required if we’re going to change our outward words and actions. To offer a personal example, if I wish my words to be kinder, gentler, less sarcastic, then I have to address the arrogant tendencies of my soul and be converted from them toward the spirit of Jesus. I have “to put on the Lord Jesus,” as St. Paul says (Rom 13:14); have “the same attitude that Christ Jesus had,” as Paul also says, an attitude of humility (Phil 2:5,8).
To the extent that we personally repent and are converted to Christ-like words and actions flowing from a Christ-like heart, “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt 3:2). To that extent Christ rules in our families, workplaces, city streets, and government buildings. To that extent the vision of the prophet Isaiah of the Messiah’s reign will be closer to realization (cf. Is 11:10). How many times a day do we pray, “Thy kingdom come”? May it come to your heart and mine, brothers and sisters, and from there to the world around us!