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.’
Gospel reading – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
“The kingdom of heaven is close at hand”
by Hugh O’Donnell SDB
In his book,’ The Little Prince’, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, writes this wonderful line, ‘What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well’. I was thinking of this when I read Matthew’s account of John raising his voice in the wilderness and baptising people in the river Jordan. In the desert he had discovered that ‘the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’.
We can imagine that some people would have been drawn to see this ‘wild man’ out of curiosity as much as for the novelty and vehemence of his message. Even the religious authorities were interested in a guarded way, though he challenged them to abandon the safety nets of their doctrinal certainties and open their hearts to the grace of transformation.
His cousin, Jesus, he explained, would then lead them towards a deeper pool of nourishment because he would baptise them with the Spirit and with fire so that they might live joyfully, full of wisdom and insight.
Today’s extract from Isaiah is full of nature imagery as another Eden is foretold, one in which ‘the wolf lives with the lamb’; and ‘the calf and lion cub feed together with a little boy leading them’. It is a passage that looks forward to a time when harmony is restored to the created world. It points us towards the ecological conversion that we must undergo.
Water and baptism go together. However, we are aware that even in places close to home our water is polluted and stagnates from human activity. A Christians, we have a particular responsibility to raise our voices and lead the call to repent of our destructive, wasteful and sacrilegious ways; to turn again with love towards our sacred earth.
The universe reveals divine presence. The desert hides a well; ‘The kingdom of heaven is close at hand’.
by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB
Introduction to Lectio Divine
John the Baptist was convinced that the kingdom of God was near and devoted his whole life to announcing its coming. To those who were willing to listen to him, he proposed personal conversion as the way to prepare for the meeting with God, the sovereign king. The impact that the figure of John and his preaching had among his contemporaries was enormous. In spite of the rigour of his life and the severity of his message, he succeeded in starting a broad renewal movement in Israel which outlived him and survived even among the early Christians. It is a historical fact that John and his message prepared the way for the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, in whom the kingdom was made present in the world. As we prepare to commemorate the coming of Jesus, the Christian community wants us to listen once more to John’s voice. In it we continue to hear the urgent call to conversion that will allow God to come close to each one of us.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
Even in the most ancient Christian tradition (Acts 10, 37), the figure and mission of John the Baptist precedes and prepares for the coming of Jesus. In fact, when this tradition is recounted in the gospel story, the account of the life and death of Jesus is preceded by the account of the ministry of John the Baptist. The early Christians considered the preaching of John in the desert so important that they began the four gospels with it.
Of the four gospels, that of Matthew is the one that presents the Baptist in closest harmony with Jesus. His ministry inaugurated the kingdom (Mt 11.2-19). His message is identical to that of Jesus concerning the kingdom (Mt 3, 2; 4, 17). But the precursor was not the expected one, the one that Israel was waiting for – the voice in the wilderness was not the Word of God. Before he can be expected, the Christ, must first be announced. Jesus needed someone to go before him so that his coming might be prepared for.
Matthew identifies the Precursor, in the first place, with a message, the same – neither more nor less – than that of the Son: a conversion to God which becomes imperative because the kingdom is about to come. Conversion is necessary, then, not because one is evil or not good enough, but because God wants to reign over all. It is the desire of God to be the sovereign ruler of his people that compels them to turn to him.
His message identifies John as the Precursor. Matthew adds a second characteristic feature, his prophetic lifestyle: his way of dressing and eating is reminiscent of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), and his message is the fulfilment of the message proclaimed by Isaiah (Is 40:3). The choice of the desert as his place of mission and the call to make smooth the path of God, are signs that he was indeed the forerunner of the Messiah.
The harsh unmitigated diatribe directed at those who were baptized without showing true conversion is the third trait that distinguishes the Baptist. Without our return to God, God does not return. Without absolute submission to his will, God cannot inaugurate his kingdom. It is useless to pretend to be the children of Abraham, because children can be born even from stones.
The last feature of note is the announcement of a new baptism, the Spirit of the Lord and his fire will be gifts for those who are baptized by the one who is yet to come, of whom the Baptist is no more than a servant.
The presence of the Baptist was the signal that Jesus was near. The prophet foresaw the imminence of the Kingdom of God and demanded a radical conversion, which could not be delayed, and which had to be tangible, beginning with the public acceptance of baptism. To feel called to a life-change one must be convinced of the proximity of the Day of the Lord. Failure to prepare will not free us not from the rigour and the judgment to come. Excuses for wasting the time of waiting will not exonerate us before the Lord when he comes. Thinking about our need for conversion towards God is the best way to prepare for His coming and for our baptism with the Spirit.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
John preached for only one reason: to call people to conversion. The nearness of God and the imminence of his kingdom oblige all who desire it to live according to the wishes of God. It is revealing that the Baptist proposed a radical change of life as the way to wait for the Lord, who is already on his way. Those who wait for God must have hands and heart occupied with their own conversion. Our conversion to God means journeying towards what God expects from us when he comes, striving to succeed in what God would want to find in us when we are with Him, drawing closer and closer to all that he wants to see in us on the day of his coming, and using to the full our time of waiting for God.
But the voice of John the Baptist, now as in his days, continues to cry in the wilderness. Few of us who say we are waiting for Jesus feel inclined to change our behaviour only because the Lord is coming. We may be flattered by the thought that he is coming to us. We like to think we are worthy of God’s coming to us, but since we are not the ones making the journey we fail to see that we have to prepare, we have to change our lives, no matter how good we think we are. We do not see any reason to prepare for a journey that we are not making, or to make the road smooth since we are not going to travel on it. And for that reason, it ends up that God does not appear on our horizon or in our lives. By neglecting the necessary conversion to God, we are forcing him to gradually disappear from our sight and our hearts.
And to think that in order to come, God does not require much of us! Given that he is going to come, all he asks of us is that we prepare for our meeting with him by waiting a bit more earnestly for him. The more we feel his absence, the more patiently we should wait for him. Conversion to God inevitably means conversion to hope. The fact that our hope – insofar as we have any – seems to make little difference in our lives, neither satisfying our false expectations nor helping us to bear our sufferings, means that it is even more urgent for us to wait for the Lord. If as Christians we are not very happy with the way we live our life of faith or the results we obtain, that could be the starting point to get us to begin truly waiting for the Lord.
No one looks forward to something they deem of little value. A practical way to prepare for the Lord’s coming would be, therefore, to revive the awareness of our need for God. Knowing that he is coming should lead us to a state of conversion and make us search for him and return to him. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” the Baptist proclaimed, and Jesus preached the same thing. We, however, somehow do not believe it is necessary to change our lives. We reach the point where we think that, even though it might be urgent, it is not really possible. It is as if God could not ask for a radical change of life at our age, in our situation, after we have tried so often.
The truth is that we do not allow ourselves to be approached by God if we refuse to believe that he may be asking something more from us, or that he wants us to be better than we are. If we were to allow ourselves to be enlightened by God’s will, we would feel more loved by him. If we were to accept the demands God makes of us, we would see how essential it is to return to him. Normally we settle for what we give to God, and we forget that he may be asking something more of us. We forget how much he desires us and so we do not feel loved or wanted by God. If we do not know that God loves us, we can never understand how much God desires us, how much he wants us to be near him. We will fail to see that he is already on his way, and we will not find time to start our conversion to God. Only if we feel loved by God, will we find the strength to smooth the rough ways and prepare for his coming. If we despair of ever being better, we will never find God.
There is no time to lose. If God has decided to come, there is no reason to delay his coming or our conversion. If we delay our conversion, we delay the Lord’s coming. We must bear witness to the world in which we live, and the people among whom we live, by our conversion. Only in this way will our hope be credible, and only then will our lifestyle and our preaching proclaim to the world that he is near. This world of ours that believes it is abandoned by God, and our people who find it hard to believe that God is interested in them, will begin to believe that God is coming if they see that we are committed to becoming better and working hard at our conversion. The only way we can convince the world that the Lord is coming and is already on his way is by making obvious to others our desire to improve our own lives and to improve the world, in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
We ask the Lord to make us feel his nearness. Then it will not be too difficult for us to wait for him, and since he has already begun his return, let us pray that he may begin in us the conversion that he hopes for from us.
let neither our daily work nor the cares of this life
prevent us from hastening to meet your Son.
Enlighten us with your wisdom
and lead us into his company.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.