This is a stern gospel about a stern John the Baptist. If you were making up a list for a Christmas Party, you would leave his name off. What we might not realize is that John is not speaking to the bad people. The deranged, the wicked, the doers of horrendous deeds. He is speaking to good observant Jews. Those who kept the Law of Moses, those who went to the Temple to pray.
He vents his anger on the church-going people, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. In spite of their bad press in the gospel. They were the good people; the faithful people.
We have all seen on TV or read in the papers what bad people can do. Terrorists, suicide bombers, and we look back at September 11th in stunned disbelief. It cannot be true, what kind of people would do such a thing.
It is beyond our comprehension.
Such horrors tend to justify us; they can sedate the call to deeper holiness improving our relationship with Christ. By this, I mean we tend to say to ourselves. “For all the little mistakes I make… for all the tiny sins I commit. My God, I will never, ever, think of taking a life. True enough, thank God.”
And when you look at what has been happening around us lately, we end up looking pretty good. That is precisely why this gospel should disturb us. John the Baptist will not let us settle for such complacency. There is too much at stake. When good people are content with the comfort that they are good because they are not bad. In the spiritual life you either go forward or you go back, never stand still. In today’s gospel, John is castigating the sins of the good. Not the horrors of the wicked, and that can be disturbing to our complacency.
What disturbs John are not the works of darkness of people who ignore God. But the self-destructive behavior of those who love God. He says, “Demonstrate to me that you are repentant and that you want to improve.” Today he might tell us, “Yes, go to church say your prayers make friends with someone you are at odds with.” Pick up the phone and talk to somebody you have not talked to in months or years. Be the first to hold out a hand of reconciliation even though it gets slapped or rejected.
Do not turn your head at shady dealings at work; or take part in gossip. Give evidence that you mean to come closer to the Lord. This is what Advent is for.
But there is a hopeful side to John the Baptist. Behind his call to repentance stands the persistent, pursuing Christ. The one who always waits for us to come to Him.
It reminds me of a man I got to know when I was a prison chaplain. His son was in jail and every single week the father would show up at the prison, wait in line and ask to see his son. Every week, year in and year out, the son would refuse to see his father.
For whatever reason, hatred, shame or guilt, the son would never say. Nevertheless, the father still came every single week asking to see his son. Waited in line every single week and the son still refused to see him every single week. This father is a reflection of Christ who stands behind the challenging words of John. We are coaxed and shouted at by John, but only to guide us to the one who does not grow weary of us. The one who keeps asking for us every week.
We will never fathom the wickedness of mass murders. Or the sickness of minds and hearts of those who do terrible things. But we can fathom what is in our own lives and know that we need to hear the words of John. Repent, prepare the way of the Lord. For to whom much is given, much is expected.
Let us close by paraphrasing a prayer written nearly 1,600 years ago by an early Christian named Origen. “Jesus, my feet are dusty and dirty. Pour water into your basin and come and wash my feet, as you washed the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper. I realize that I am terribly bold in asking you to do this. But I fear the warning you gave to Peter when you said to him, ‘If I do not wash your feet, you cannot have companionship with me.’ Wash my feet, then Jesus, because I do want your companionship-more than anything else in this world.”