As we celebrate Advent, it is a new year in the cycle of the church and this year we will be hearing mostly from the Gospel of Matthew (Cycle A readings.) Matthew was trying to help his community find its identity as rooted in Judaism but defining itself in terms of faith in Jesus. He often tries to link Jesus’ words and actions to fulfillment of promises and prophecies of Hebrew Scriptures. The Gospel reading for this Second Sunday of Advent introduces the figure of John the Baptist calling people to repent of their sins and turn to God because the Reign of God is near. John the Baptist is quite a character in Scripture. He is a prophetic figure like Elijah (from Hebrew Scriptures) and we even have a description of his clothes (woven from coarse camel hair with a leather belt) and his diet-for food he ate locusts and wild honey and he lived in the wilderness.
The first time we hear about John the Baptist is at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel when Luke describes how an elderly Jewish priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were careful to obey all God’s commandments but were childless until the angel Gabriel came to Zechariah and told him he would have a son named John who would lead people to God and “will be a man with the spirit and the power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.” Shortly after that the angel Gabriel also appeared to Mary and told her she would have a son (Jesus.) Mary went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth and at the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth’s baby (John) leapt for joy in her womb as he realized Mary was carrying Jesus. Years later, this son of a Jewish priest is now a prophet in his own right, baptizing people in the Jordan River and telling them of the One who is to come but also challenging those in power and authority with some pretty harsh words (he called some of the leaders a “brood of snakes” because they weren’t living in right relationship with God.)
A pastor from Pittsfield, MA reflects on some ways that it’s worth looking beyond the strange clothes and diet of John the Baptist and not just writing him off as an extremist: 1. Repentance isn’t so much about heavy hearts and obligations as it is leaping for joy in the presence of God (John’s first response to encountering Jesus.) 2. John invites people to the wilderness to encounter God’s grace; in other words, we need to step away from the hustle and bustle of shopping and decorating to make some quiet time this Advent to prepare our hearts for God. 3. John was fiercely loyal to Jesus, as well as a humble disciple, always pointing to Jesus rather than himself.
This Advent perhaps we can look beyond the visible cues of patients, residents or coworkers to see the essence of their hearts and the invitation they might have for us to turn to God.