In the traditional liturgical perspective, the main purposes of Advent are for remembering and re-experiencing the birth of Jesus at Christmas, and to prepare for his second coming.
For this season, who can be a better Advent guide than John the Baptist, whose instructions for preparation can be condensed into one word: “Repent!” John preaches the simplest homily ever: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
The book of Malachi closed with a messianic promise in which God declared: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes”.
Matthew makes the connection between that promise and John the Baptist. John signifies the return of Elijah; we read in Matthew 11:14: “…he is Elijah who is to come…”. In the passage before us, John is in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming the day of the Lord has arrived. John is preaching in the wilderness to drive home a point, namely that God’s people were in the wilderness. They may be back in the Promised Land, but spiritually speaking, they were still struggling with their sin and rebellion.
John called people to repentance and baptized them in the Jordan River “as they acknowledged their sins”. John’s baptism can be understood in light of ancient Jewish proselyte baptism. When gentiles were received into membership in the Jewish community, they (both men and women) were baptized (males were also ritually circumcised), signifying a ritual cleansing.
But according to John the Baptist, the people of Israel are no better off than gentiles; they are not prepared for the coming of the Messiah. John’s baptism was thus an occasion for the Jewish people to repent, confess their sins, and thereby be prepared for the coming of the Messiah.
Matthew is more specific, saying that it was “many Pharisees and Sadducees” who came to be baptized. He brings the most pious of Israel on the scene. Matthew speaks of the Pharisees more than any other Gospel writer and here we meet them for the first time. The Pharisees were people who considered themselves righteous, but whom John denounces as a brood of vipers. They do not bear fruit in keeping with their alleged repentance. They rely upon religious pedigree, being children of Sarah and Abraham, as a guarantee of their good standing.
In antiquity, when it was known that the sovereign was coming, every effort was made to ensure that the road was as smooth as could be. The great one must be able to travel easily and quickly. Thus John quotes Isaiah in saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Indeed, the King is coming and John is pressing the people, are you ready for the drawing near of this King? When he begins his public ministry, Jesus himself will proclaim this same message, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It remains his proclamation.
What does it take to prepare for the arrival of the King?
Repentance—a change of mind that stems from a change of heart – not just a change of opinion about something. It is a change of heart that spills into a total change of life, a change in the way one lives; a reorientation.
Our lives must show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God. Repentance is how we prepare for the arrival of Messiah. Repentance includes feeling sorry for one’s personal sins, but it is much more. The root meaning of “repent” is “to turn”; to have a dramatic change of mind and direction. To repent is turn away from those things, habits, people, who draw us away from God and turn towards him. It is to turn away from our own desires, and turn toward and into God’s deep desire for us.
The reforming power of God’s advent must penetrate our lives. This was the message of John the Baptizer. We may, like the Pharisees, go through the external motions of piety, but we are commanded to “produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” And not just once but daily. It is not enough to proclaim that we are saved. We must live as if we are and yield our entire being for purification by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
We may think we can get by with allowing God to enter our interior “prayer lives” and try to hold the reform to that area. But if we restrict the entry of God into our lives, we limit the power of God’s transforming grace. When we wonder why our path of discipleship seems to lead nowhere, it may be because we have set up too many roadblocks. The narratives of the Advent Gospels, seek to reach down into our heart and out into our lives and in those around us.
The Kingdom of heaven is at hand. What’s in your fruit basket?