December 5, 2004
3 • 1 In the course of time John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea and began to proclaim his message, 2 “Change your ways, the Kingdom of heaven is now at hand!” 3 It was about him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said, A voice is shouting in the desert: prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.
4 John had a leather garment around his waist and wore a cloak of camel’s hair; his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People came to him from Jerusalem, from all Judea and from the whole Jordan valley, 6 and they were baptized by him in the Jordan as they confessed their sins.
7 When he saw several Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he baptized, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who told you that you could escape the punishment that is to come? 8 Let it be seen that you are serious in your con-version, 9 and do not think: We have Abraham for our father. I tell you that God can raise children for Abraham from these stones! 10 The axe is already laid to the roots of the trees; any tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.
11 I baptize you in water for a change of heart, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than me; indeed I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 He has the winnowing fan in his hand and he will clear out his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn in everlasting fire.”
• 3.1 We have just said that the real beginning of the Gospel is the preaching of John the Baptist. Here Matthew compares Jesus with John, John’s baptism with that of Jesus. See commentaries on Mk 1:1 and Lk 3.
Mark 1:1 • In verses 1 to 13, Mark gives us in three small tableaux three important insights about Jesus’ salvation. Vv. 1-7. John the Baptist announces the coming of the One sent by God: this Jesus about whom the Gospel will speak to us has been announced, prepared by all the great witnesses of the Old Testament. In him and by him God’s salvation will be accomplished.
Vv. 9-10. Jesus goes down into the Jordan to open the gates of the true Promised Land (see the Book of Joshua): he is the beloved Son of the Father on whom the Spirit rests. Jesus comes to reveal the mystery of God, the mystery of the love of God Father, Son and Spirit.
Vv. 11-13. Jesus is at peace with the wild animals as he is with the angels. In him and by him will be accomplished the reconciliation of all creation with its God. Such had to be the Messiah announced by Isaiah (Is 11).
Luke 3 • 3. Listen to this voice crying out in the desert (v. 4). The text which follows is from Isaiah (40:3) John renews the tradition of the prophets after four centuries of interruption and like many among them, he speaks of an imminent judgment. To confront the judgment of God is always most fearful and John speaks of rebuilding a sense of justice. John speaks of the punishment to come. In verse 7 the text says more precisely “escape from the coming wrath”. These Hebrew words refer to a condemnation already pronounced by God that will soon bring a terrible trial on a national or worldwide scale (Lk 21:23; 1 Th 2:16) that believers recognize as a judgment of God. It is then that the wicked receive their punishment, while the just who count on God are saved (Is 1:24-27; Joel 3:1-5, Zec 14).
John awakens the expectation of a savior. It is easy for us to say that the savior was Jesus and that God’s judgment would come a few years later with the war that destroyed the Jewish nation, but for those who were hearing John it was difficult to imagine what this savior might be.
We are the sons of Abraham! (v. 8). Just like the prophets, John warns us against fanaticism whether it be national or religious. It is not enough to walk under the flag of the God of Israel (or the Church) since many of those who pretend to defend this cause are no more than a race of vipers. God demands justice and reparation for the evil that has been committed.
So we see John preaching without having asked anything of the religious authorities. People come from all directions searching for pardon. Verses 12-14 tell us that John turned no one away: neither the prostitutes nor the collectors of Roman taxes. He does ask of all a commitment of solidarity. Once corruption has taken over and the vision of God’s Alliance has faded away, those who recognize their part in the evil affecting the whole of society must make positive gestures regarding money and the enjoyment of it, which will be for all a sign and a call to conversion. Such signs should increase in Christian communities today and in the groups seeking to purify our society.
It is that which gives meaning to the total renunciation of John and his appalling austerity: in no way are we all asked to imitate him, but his sacrifices give weight to his words. The religious leaders and the Pharisees who see themselves as models keep away even sneering perhaps, (7:30 and 33) but the people come to John asking for baptism.
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1. How difficult it is to have expectations awakened. New choices and clearer choices and tougher choices become possible. The stakes are higher and more stark.
These same expectations raise questions. Can we stand to go through the pain of having the chaff knocked off us? Can we stand to lose our wheatiness, amidst a whole batch of bread, even if for the nourishment of creation?
2. To have an unexpected choice opens the possibility of conversion -- no longer being stuck where we were -- of choosing one better way than straddling all possibilities in order to milk the last profit. It opens the possibility of being prophetic instead of profitable. This leads to the possibility of choosing for both long-term justice and short-term reparation for past injustice. This is “serious conversion.”
3. From expectations to conversion to action. Now we are to live out our commitment to solidarity with a new heaven and new earth.
Through the chaos of awakened expectations, the fear of conversion, and the entropy of energy -- may a hopeful path beckon your life and the life of the world.
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