What kind of Messiah did God promise to send to his people and how would he bring God’s kingdom to them? The prophet Isaiah foresaw the day when God would raise up a Messianic King long after King David’s throne had been overthrown and vacant for centuries. God promised that he would raise up a new king from the stump of Jesse, the father of King David (Isaiah 11:1). This messianic king would rule forever because the Spirit of God would rest upon him and remain with him (Isaiah 11:2).
What the world longed for was a Messiah who was a “SUPERSTAR.” They wanted someone with talent, sharpness, and raw muscle-power to out-shine everything that’s bad on this planet. Someone charismatic enough to make everyone who opposes him slink away in defeat. What was God’s answer to that? A baby lying helpless in the straw! But God’s answer didn’t exactly meet our expectations even as it surpassed them. What was born with Jesus’ birth and what still lies seemingly helpless in mangers all around the world wasn’t exactly what the world expected.
The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more. You can’t argue with a baby! Babies don’t try to compete, don’t stand up to you, don’t try to best you in an argument, and don’t try to impress you with their answers. They can’t speak at all. You, for your part, have to coax everything out of them, be it a smile or a word. That effort, which demands great patience, usually draws out what’s best in you. Moreover, you can’t push at a baby too hard, it will begin to cry and the session is over.
That is the Savior who was born in Bethlehem, and that is how God is still basically in the world. Like a baby. God does not outshine anyone, out-muscle anyone, threaten anyone, or overpower anyone. The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more, nothing less: innocence, gentleness, helplessness, a vulnerability that can soften hearts, invite in, have us hush our voices, teach us patience, and call forth what’s best in us.
The Second Sunday of Advent marks the shift from the future eschatology (the part of our life that is concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind), to preparation for the Incarnation. The Incarnation, from the biblical perspective, is the “whole Christ event,” the total coming of the Son of God in the flesh, which includes not only his nativity but also his whole ministry, his death, resurrection, and ascension.
Most of the New Testament, aside from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, can proclaim the Christ event without speaking of the nativity at all. So when the Advent season prepares for the advent of Christ, this is not just his nativity but rather his total coming.
The nativity is merely one way of speaking of the advent of Christ. It is appropriate that John the Baptist should figure prominently in the Advent season as a herald of the Messiah’s coming. Unlike the Old Testament prophets or the annunciation story that we shall read on the last Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist does not point toward the nativity of Jesus, but rather to his ministry, life, and death where we hear, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”; and (in John’s account), “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
John the Baptist’s life was fueled by one burning passion – to point others to Jesus Christ and to the coming of his kingdom. Who is John the Baptist and what is the significance of his message for our lives? Scripture tells us that John was filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15, 41) by Christ himself, whom Mary had just conceived by the Holy Spirit. When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth John leapt in her womb as they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).
Like the prophets of the Old Testament, John devoted his entire life to prayer and the word of God. He was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness where he was tested and grew in the word of God. John’s clothing was reminiscent of the prophet Elijah (see Kings 1:8 ). The Holy Spirit prepared John for the mission entrusted to him as forerunner of the Messiah, Jesus Christ – the Word of God who became man for our salvation (John 1:1,14). John pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world by offering his life on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for our sins and the sin of the world (John 1:29).
John broke the prophetic silence of the previous centuries when he began to speak the word of God to the people of Israel. His message was similar to the message of the Old Testament prophets who chided the people of God for their unfaithfulness and who tried to awaken true repentance in them. Among a people unconcerned with the things of God, it was his work to awaken their interest, unsettle them from their complacency, and arouse in them enough good will to recognize and receive Christ when he came.
Today’s Gospel shows John the Baptist clashing with the Jewish religious authorities. We are told that the Pharisees and Sadducees were stepping forward to be baptized by John. John’s baptism was for repentance – turning away from sin and taking on a new way of life according to God’s word. Our baptism in Jesus Christ, by water and the Spirit, results in a new birth and entry into God’s kingdom as his beloved sons and daughters (John 3:5). We are reminded that In baptism we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, mentioned in our first reading from Isaiah: “wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, wonder and awe in the presence of God.”
The Pharisees and Sadducees “did not believe him” (Mt 21:32), but they came forward anyway, boasting of the claim that “Abraham is our father.” John recognized them for what they were, people of privilege. “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance,” he told them (Mt 3:8). He did not object to their coming forward; he objected to their lack of concern for real change in society. In his brief discourse to the Pharisees and Sadducees, John described the action that was taking place: “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the tree (Mt 3:10).’ ‘Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John’s message was about justice, about social change. He challenged the people of Israel to get down to the root causes of problems, to uproot the unfruitful trees. Pope Francis summed up John the Baptists’ vocation in three key words: “Prepare, discern and diminish.”
John was a man who prepared the way for Jesus without taking any of the glory for himself. … When asked if he was the Messiah, John replied that he was just “a voice” who had come “to prepare the way of the Lord.”
The second vocation of John the Baptist was to discern, among so many good people, who was the true Messiah. When John saw Jesus passing by, he said to the disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
The third vocation of John the Baptist is to diminish himself so that the Lord may grow in the hearts of others. As Christians we too must prepare the way of the Lord, we must discern the truth and we must diminish ourselves so that the Lord can grow in our hearts and in the souls of others.
Jesus tells us that John the Baptist was more than a prophet (Luke 7:26). John was the voice of the one to proclaim the “one who is coming” (John 1:23; Isaiah 40:1-3). He completed the cycle of prophets begun by Elijah (Matthew 11:13-14). What the prophets had carefully searched for and angels longed to see, now came to completion as John made the way ready for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. With John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit begins the restoration to the human race of the “divine likeness”, prefiguring what would be achieved with and in the Lord Jesus.
We are in a time of waiting, of anticipation, of hope. The Lord Jesus gives us the fire of his Spirit so that we may shine with the joy and truth of the Gospel to a world in desperate need of God’s light and truth. His word has power to change and transform our lives that we may be lights pointing others to Christ. Like John the Baptist, we too are called to give testimony to the light and truth of Jesus Christ.
“Lord, let your light burn brightly in our hearts that we may know the joy and freedom of your kingdom. Fill us with your Holy Spirit and empower us to witness the truth of your Gospel and to point others to Jesus Christ.”