Rev. Richard Eslinger
The scene begins tranquil enough, a long waiting fulfilled, Isaiah’s Word of the Lord come to pass. The Baptist appears in the wilderness, calling God’s people to “turn around,” to “turn back” to their God. An Elijah-like prophet, dressed for the part and eating wild honey and those locusts. The wilderness,…as if Israel needed to cross the Jordan anew in this time that was being fulfilled. And we tend to skip over this part of the story, but look at the common folk from Jerusalem and all Judea; they stream down from the highlands to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Forgiveness of sins found in Jordan’s waters. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he proclaimed, and the people crowded the Jordan to turn toward God. God’s promises are being fulfilled. The scene is filled with forgiveness and blessed turning.
But all of a sudden, the tranquility is destroyed. No more pastoral scene at the Jordan. Now enter the Pharisees and Sadducees, the scribes and priests of the people. They, too, are coming to John’s baptism. His response, though, is hardly welcoming. “You brood of vipers!” the Baptist exclaims. “”Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” The conflict is now fully engaged. John understands that our behavior depends on the authority to which we give our allegiance. Give all authority to an addiction and the behavior follows, unto death. Give over authority to the intoxication of our celebrity culture and the result is a barren life for ourselves. For the Pharisees and the Sadducees, they had given themselves over to an authority that was no longer the living God of Israel. They held power in their grip, colluded with the Roman Empire, and treated the people with derision. All this behavior shows that they have given their allegiance over to an evil authority and rejected the authority of the Holy God. Now the Baptist’s words and anger make sense. They think that by fleeing from the wrath to come they will avoid its consequences. Instead, their attempt to flee from this wrath convicts them all the more. They are fleeing from God when, with the common people of Judea, they should be turning toward God. This conflict goes to the heart of what authority we serve and what fruit we then bear. There is turmoil at the Jordan.
So John the Baptist is correctly proclaiming God’s message of repentance and true in announcing the advent of the kingdom of heaven. He accurately spots the division between the yearning of the common people to turn toward God, leaving sins behind, and the false piety of the leaders of Jerusalem. He welcomes those who turn toward God with his baptism of forgiveness and labels the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers.” John’s message is of God and his vision is 20-20 into the hearts of those who have come down to the Jordan. Still, things now get much more complicated. On one hand, he correctly announces that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Yes, Joseph has taken Mary as his wife, being obedient to the angel of the Lord. He would name the babe, “Jesus.” This Jesus would be the Son of God and given the title of Emmanuel,…”God with us.” The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The Holy One of Israel was coming to save the people. On the other hand, John makes a big mistake. He cannot separate in his mind the advent of the kingdom of heaven from the Last Day when this Son of God will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John cannot imagine God’s reign coming without all of the apparatus of the Last Days coming alongside. John sees God as cutting the root of the tree in these days and culling the fruit-bearing trees from the barren,…throwing the fruitless into the fire. Jesus, though, will tell parables of the kingdom in which lowly gardeners will caution the owners of the vineyards about such barren trees, “No sirs, leave it stand!” This gardener will dig around such trees, feed them graciously, and pray for their fruitfulness. No, the Baptist has it wrong here. There will be a Day in which the axe will be laid to the root of the tree, but this season of the kingdom will be marked by beatitude and grace. The reign of God is blooming in the birth of the Messiah and fruitfulness will abound. He is Jesus, who saves the people from their sins and is Emmanuel, God with us.
Things do get more complicated, though. It is not only the Baptist who has lacked the discernment to see the kingdom of heaven being at hand while yet not being the time of the End. John has correctly called the people to produce fruit worthy of repentance, of this turning, while closing off this season of the kingdom of heaven which has been graciously granted to us. The Baptist sounds more like the owner of the vineyard than he does the lowly gardener. “Cut it down!” John prays to God. Problem is, though, that the church at times has gone with John here rather than Emmanuel. Some Christian folk serve out a message mainly of doom and damnation to the world, erecting sings that yell “Repent,” but lacking any invitation to be about bearing the fruit of the gospel. Others will tell us what God wants us to do and not do in our lives, but all because of the fear of that unquenchable fire. All have forgotten the opening message of grace in the Gospel of St Matthew, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Recently a pastor in the Appalachians of Eastern Kentucky was enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry program and had settled on his doctoral project. An epidemic of prescription drug abuse was sweeping through the region and he had a plan. He would enlist the other clergy of the congregations and parishes in his county seat town to form an alliance to combat the drug abuse, using legal means, counseling resources, and special worship services as means to turn the tide. He spoke to his fellow pastors individually, but was not able to recruit one colleague to join him in the fight. For some, there simply was not time in their busy schedule to take on one more activity. But for most, the refusal to join in this ministry went something like this, “Look, Pastor, all we have to do is wait a bit longer. See, Jesus is coming real soon and will set things right. There’s no need for us to be about the work that God is about to do.” The pastor in the doctoral program thought his project was a failure. But his student peers and his faculty all responded with one voice: “No, your project is a success. You sought to explore whether these clergy would join together to be in ministry against a terrible plague that is destroying the families and communities of your parish. You succeeded in learning the answer to that questioned. It was your colleagues who failed the test.”
Those clergy in that Eastern Kentucky county seat town had come down with the same malady that the Baptist had caught. They so totally linked the kingdom of heaven with the time of fire that fruit-bearing was unneeded. It is a mistake born of the urgent hope that God will bring in the kingdom and set all things right NOW. This holy season of Advent does begin with our looking once more at that glorious Day of Christ’s Second Advent. But now we begin to turn toward Bethlehem, to a manger, and the Holy Family. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
What changes everything, of course, is that God has turned to us, turned in love and forgiveness in the birth of Emmanuel, the Son of God. Now, our lives can be lived in fruitfulness and joy,…even for a season in anticipation and waiting. John the Baptist did get this right—our becoming disciples who serve the poor and hungry, who welcome strangers, and witness to God’s justice in the world are all based in the One who is for us the authority over our lives and over the church, Jesus Christ the Lord. Who would have thought that God’s turning to the world would come by way of a Virgin betrothed to a carpenter in the backwater village of Nazareth? Who would have expected that this Child whose birth we await would be the Savior of God’s people and the hope of the world? Who would have known that in His birth, the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up? One carol sings, “Love Came Down at Christmas.” Along with that love comes the kingdom of heaven. Both are joined together as our God turns toward His creation and His people. Now, the season of fruitfulness is at hand. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, put it this way: “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to seek God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.”* The Baptist spoke of this mystery as producing good fruit as evidence of our repentance. It is our God who has turned toward us in Emmanuel; now we can bear the good fruit that is a sign of the kingdom of heaven come near.
So come, O come, Emmanuel. Come, O Wisdom from on high. Come, great Lord of might and Root of Jesse’s tree. Come, Key of David, Dayspring from on high and Desire of nations. Come and heal us and forgive us, and nurture us with the Bread of Life, that our lives and all your Church may bear those good fruits of your eternal love.
*Gregory Heile, O.P., The Preaching of Pope Francis: Missionary Discipleship and the Ministry of the Word (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2015), 50.