- Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4
- Canticle 4 or 16: The Song of Zechariah
- Philippians 1:3-11
- Luke 3:1-6
“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” Luke 1:76 – from The Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus
With these words, the mission of John the Baptizer is foretold. For the next two Sundays our Gospel readings focus on the prophetic voice of this powerful presence.
John came to “prepare the way of the Lord” so that all the world would see God’s salvation. Even nature would be affected by this preparation: valleys would be filled, mountains leveled, and a smooth and even way made ready. Yet there was nothing sentimental or permissive in John’s message. It was a wake-up call. Judgment was near, and all people – sinners and even those who thought of themselves as righteous – were accountable for their past transgressions.
With John the Baptist the fulfillment of God’s promise of a new exodus from sin and death into newness of life in God’s Son is proclaimed. As the last of the prophets in the Old Testament tradition, John has come forth to awaken the world to a new reality. One that those who historically lived during this time (C.E. 26-36) such as Pontius Pilate (governor), Herod Antipas (king), and Tiberius Caesar (emperor) ruled and would be challenged.
John made his home in the wilderness, but he was called to warn the people of Judea of the judgment to come. It was a harsh message preached by an unusual man. (Painting by by Jacopo del Casentino and assistant, c.1330.) Using unusual images of separation – gathering the wheat while burning the chaff and cutting away dead wood that does not bear fruit – God was going to discard what was useless so that what was useful could grow and flourish. He called for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Membership in the people of God, he says, is not a birthright. Being chosen as God’s people means receiving a gift so gracious that it compels and outward response. John calls the people to give evidence of their relationship with God through their actions. He invites those who are able to share with those in need. He urges those in power to exercise their roles with fairness and integrity. He calls for repentance and a new baptism.
In the Wilderness John came out of the desert to preach in the wilderness. . . . The wilderness he preached in was his own country. A wilderness not coming from the hands of God, but a jungle caused by innumerable human decisions that were wrong, shortsighted, and selfish. Decisions that had created havoc in the lives of the many. It was in that jungle that John preached and baptized. As long as we think about John like that - preaching in his own country two thousand years ago - his preaching remains distant and very far away. Let us try to get that wilderness and also John's word nearer home, so that it can cut us to the bone. Let us speak about the wilderness in which we live. And let us think not only of sin but of the world we are accustomed to. . . . It is in that forest, in that jungle that the word of God sounds through John, saying that once justice and integrity are victorious, the whole of humankind will be saved, that Jesus, the savior, is going to bring a total difference. But indicating also where we come in and what we should do: straightening the paths we are walking now, preparing a way for the Lord, filling the valleys and potholes, leveling the mountains and obstacles in us and in the lives we live. Joseph G. Donders, "The Jesus Community: Reflections the Gospels for the B-Cycle" (Orbis Books, 1981).
Baptism by John is an act of preparation – an outward acknowledgment of sin undertaken in light of God’s coming judgment and salvation in Jesus. Repentance is part of conversion; it means to turn in a new direction. The radical call for repentance guides the preparation given of those who will be baptized. This week’s Gospel is interconnected with next week’s Gospel, Luke 3:7-18.
- Why do you think Luke makes such a point of noting the historic time and place of Jesus’ ministry? What difference does this make with regard to our understanding of the story itself?
- John the Baptist is the last of the prophets of the Old Testament tradition. John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What do you think he means by this?
- As you read verses 4-6, what kind of world is describe here? How can this world become a reality?
- What does Luke indicate about God’s justice in his account of John the Baptist’s preaching?
- What Advent themes do you find in Baruch 5:1-9? How are they related to the portion of Luke we read today?
- John calls us to prepare the way so that Christ can come. What can we do in this season of Advent to prepare the way for Christ to enter into our individual lives?