In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said:
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’
The essential characteristics of the Messiah are set out by Isaiah in the poem which forms our first reading. He is to be a descendant of Jesse, father of King David, the prototype of kingly behaviour; the shepherd-king. On him the spirit of the Lord will rest. He will be a person of wisdom and insight. He will have the wisdom which, scripture tells us, begins with and flows from ‘fear of the Lord’.
The Messiah will be a person of justice, judging not on gossip, hearsay or appearances. He will champion the poor and wretched of the earth and his words will condemn the ruthless and wicked. His lifestyle and ways will be those of integrity and faithfulness. He will also be a man of vision, a dreamer of things as they might be.
His vision is one of innocence, of peace within the natural world and an absence of violence. Knowledge of the ways of God will fill the land as the waters swell the sea. Justice and peace will be the touchstones of the new order. The psalm tells us of those who are closest to his heart and who will have first call on his ministry and his compassion; the weak, the needy and the poor.
The last and greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist; the link-man between the Old and the New, makes an appearance in the Gospel. He quotes the prophet Isaiah telling people of the need to prepare for the Messiah. The preparation recommended is an interior one; that of repentance. He admonishes his people for being too sure of themselves. ‘We have Abraham for our Father’, they claimed, as if that sufficed to redeem them. They tried to live off the spiritual capital of the past and to cash in on their rich spiritual inheritance.
John admonishes them in symbolic terms too. He highlights their excesses by living a simple, even austere lifestyle. He lived in the wilderness, being formed in the desert as had the Exodus people of old. He washed away their sins in the waters of the Jordan and spoke of the fate of the tree which failed to produce fruit. The axe was to be laid to it: root and branch destroyed.
He spoke of the enormity of power and authority of the Messiah and the coming of the Holy Spirit. He spoke too of the judgement to come and the condemnation of the unrepentant.
What might our vision for the world be? There are those who dream impossible things and say why not. What God wants to accomplish in the world he first accomplishes in one person. How might we fare if we were being judged on simplicity of lifestyle, on the peace and justice of our ways and words, and on our concern for the needy and poor. Preparation for the coming which brings judgement cannot be put off forever. Now is the favourable moment. The present is pregnant with possibility.