This Sunday we hear again the call of John the Baptist
It can be difficult to reconcile his fire-and-brimstone style with the joy that traditionally belongs to the third Sunday of Advent. Yet despite John’s harsh words for the crowds, the people seem eager for his teaching—”What then should we do?” They keep asking questions fervently, even when the answers call them to higher expectations of moral and selfless living.
It’s the kind of teaching that people associate with the Messiah: good news that business as usual is on the way out and something new is on its way in. The status quo of greed, selfishness, scarcity, and complacency no longer has power. A new day of mutual sharing and justice is almost here. Images of the winnowing fork and the ax at the root of the tree suggest clearing out old habits and fears to make room for something new. In calling people to repentance, John invites them to turn away from the old life and turning toward God’s new life.
As Lawrence Madden, S.J. writes,
What needs to be born in you, in us, this Christmas? Have we, as a community, given up on a noble mission because our courage or stamina failed? Has the fervor of our hope in the kingdom already arrived and is now cooling? “The Lord is at hand . . . the peace of God keep you.” There is no person frozen in destructive patterns that the Lord cannot free. Zephaniah’s prophecy commands us to hope: “The Lord is in your midst.” Have confidence. Look into the darkness for the light. It may not resemble the Easter sun; it might be the fragile, yet stable light of a star in the night sky. Christ is our hope even in the face of intimidating, paralyzing odds. He has baptized us in fire, as John prophesied in Luke. We, the holy people of God, can dream of new birth because God’s Spirit dwells in us, powering us to always try anew
[Lawrence Madden, S.J., in Homilies for the Christian People, 374-75.]
John the Baptist encourages us with hope-filled news: The Messiah is indeed coming, one who will not only call people to high expectations, but also enable that faithful living. Because the Messiah is coming to baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire,” life will never be the same. Through baptism business as usual will be replaced by a fruit-bearing, joy-yielding, grace-filled relationship with God. It’s an excellent reason to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16): The Lord is near!