Is 11:1-10; Rom 15:4-9; Matt 3:1-12
“REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND!”
In today’s gospel, John the Baptist preaches a radical change of heart and way of life, in preparation for the COMING OF GOD’S KINGDOM. John the Baptist announces: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He calls for repentance. In response to this call, people from Jerusalem, Judea and the region around the Jordan flock to him for baptism. Obviously, they see themselves as sinners and transgressors of God’s law. John, as God’s messenger, accepted their repentance. That is why the Baptism of St. John the Baptist is called “a baptism for repentance”. Now, we ask: What type of a kingdom is John announcing? The Prophet, Isaiah, in the first reading of today, paints a picture of such a kingdom, the kingdom that is going to be inaugurated by Jesus Christ, the coming Messiah.
- THE KINGDOM AT HAND
The prophet Isaiah focuses on Jesus who is to come. This Jesus is KING. The type of kingdom that he is going to establish is peculiar. In his kingdom, there will be equality. All will be equal. He is the type of king who will judge with justice. As the Psalmist says, in today’s Responsorial Psalm, “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.” (Ps 72) The Prophet uses images to describe the atmosphere of that kingdom. There will be peace; there will be justice; there will be love. There will mediation; that is, the king will pacify his subjects, and bring them all together under one umbrella. “Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted” (Is 11:3-4). He will show himself king of all, without discrimination. Consequently, there will be no enmities: the wolf and the lamb will live together. The lion and the kid will graze together. Children will play and put their hands into the holes of snakes and go unharmed.
Note that Isaiah is not talking here of “tolerating” or “putting up with” the other. The peace of this new world order is not merely an absence of war or friction. No! It is a peace that comes from a harmonious live-and-let-live, based on justice and the mutual recognition that everyone has got the right not only to life but also to a good life. It is only when the lion and the wolf give up their “natural privileges” and begin to eat grass like the cow that one can truly say that “all animals are equal”. As long as some animals lay claim to being “more equal” than others there can be no justice and no peace. In our personal and business life, people consciously or unconsciously operate on the principle that for them to win, someone, else has to lose. But the vision of the new world order to which the prophets invite us today is founded on the principle that we can all be winners.
- THE CONSEQUENCE OF KNOWING GOD
Why would there be such peace and tranquility in the new Kingdom? Verse 9 of today’s first reading tell us: “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; FOR THE EARTH SHALL BE FILLED WITH KNOWLEDGE OF THE LORD” (Is 11:9). When we know God, and try to keep his commandments, great and marvelous things will happen. “The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbours, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox” (Is 11:6-7), all because of knowledge of Yahweh. But when we lack such knowledge, we will live in division; we will live always in war and conflicts. For, the Prophet Hosea clearly gives the consequences of not having knowledge of God: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). In that kingdom that Jesus comes to establish, those with temperaments of wolves and lions will gladly live together – Black and white, African and American, European and Asian, North Westerner and South Westerner of Cameroon, Anglophone and Francophone, Christian and Muslim, etc. Knowledge of God will be the reason for such peace among the people.
These are very powerful images. We know what lions and wolves are. For the prophet to say that carnivores (flesh-eating creatures) and herbivores (grass-feeders) will live side by side is quite something! Lions and wolves will even eat hay like oxen or sheep. This is the kind of kingdom we all should look forward to at this Advent. The kingdom that Christ comes to establish is a kingdom we should desire and long for. Comparatively, we have grown used to seeing and living with injustices, wars, divisions and hatred in our lives, where a lamb can never go anywhere near the abode of a wolf or lion. We are used to situations where it is a crime to be different, be it of sex, colour, religion, place of origin, of opinion or language. One is punished for being different. We live in a world where the kings and rulers are vindictive. They make friends with only those who sing their praises and support them, think like them or come from the same place like them. Those who are different from them are regarded as enemies, and therefore punishable. Rather than bring all their subjects together in equality, they device a divide-and-rule strategy. Ours are earthly kingdoms where justice belongs to the powerful only. What is lacking in this type of kingdom is “knowledge of God”. No one can claim to know God and then still habour hatred and discrimination against others. St. John, the apostle says: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.” (1 John 2:3-5)
On this second Sunday of Advent, we are consoled by the words of the prophet, that Jesus, the righteous king and judge, is coming to establish a kingdom different from what we have seen, known and grown used to. It is a kingdom in which no one fears to be different or to hold a different opinion. In this kingdom, the king will judge with equity. No partiality with be found at any level. All will be equal. In that kingdom, to be different will be a blessing. There will be no hatred, no fear, nor war. This kingdom of God is not some imaginary or a fantasy of some dream-world. It can be established here on earth among us. It is for this reason that John the Baptist comes to preach in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, as found in today’s Gospel text.
- THE MESSAGE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
John’s message is one word: “REPENT!”. That is all the we need to do before the coming of the Lord, our King and Messiah. The Christmas carols “Joy To The World” puts it beautifully: “Let every heart prepare Him room”. The Messiah will inaugurate a new kingdom right here on earth. Only those who repent from their hatred, divisive spirit, and injustices can be part of that kingdom. John had particularly strong words for the religious elite of his time – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – who thought they could gain automatic tickets to the kingdom simply because they were descended from Abraham. John called them “brood of vipers”, and warned that, unless they too repented, they would be excluded from the kingdom. This will come only when certain conditions are met – where people are converted to a new style of life where they will banish injustice either personal or societal and be ready to stand for one another.
When John preached, the crowds came to him and asked him, “What then shall we do?” The Baptist did not mince words. He got right to the point and said what needed to be said. He advised no one to leave the world in which they were, however ambiguous it may be. Rather he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none. Likewise, those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry. Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them. Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation. They were to be content with their wages. What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah? They had to be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate (Luke 3:10-14).
Since the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, the entry requirement into the kingdom has not changed. It is still the same, and it is REPENTANCE. The Bible is clear that the knowledge of God is the most valuable knowledge a human being can possess. But it is also clear that simply being aware of God’s existence is not sufficient; the knowledge of God must encompass the deep appreciation for and relationship with Him. Such knowledge naturally brings one to repentance. Only those who repent today can be part of the kingdom that Christ comes to inaugurate. Those who fail or refuse to repent will be excluded, even if they are descendants from four generations of Catholics, baptized, confirmed, married in Church, and attending Holy Mass regularly.
- THE URGENCY OF REPENTANCE
- a) “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:10). Here is a clear note of urgency. John the Baptist is saying to us in more contemporary words, like: “If you’re thinking of making a Christmas confession, do it now. If you’re planning to be reconciled with someone, now’s the time. If you’re considering doing good to others, don’t dilly-dally. Do it now!”
- b) “His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12). This is unfamiliar to most of us today, we do not grow wheat or process it by the means used in Jesus’ time. After the grain had been harvested, it was crushed on a threshing floor. The purpose of this was to separate the edible seed from the inedible chaff that surrounded it. After the grain was threshed, they would have a big pile of edible grain and inedible chaff, mixed together. To separate them, they were winnowed. A tool known as a winnowing fork (or winnowing fan) was used to toss the mixture in the air. Because the grain was heavier than the chaff, it would fall in a different place from the chaff, which would be moved by the wind. At the end, they would have a pile of grain and a bunch of chaff that had been separated from it. The grain would then be stored for further use and the useless chaff could be burned.
By stating that Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, John means that Jesus is ready to administer judgment, separating the righteous from the unrighteous the way wheat is separated from chaff. The righteous (the wheat) would be gathered “into his granary” (the saved), but the wicked (the chaff) would be burned with fire (the lost). This is related both to the events of Jesus’ time, to the end of our lives, and to the end of the world. The task of separating the saved from the condemned is urgent, and it is ongoing. No one can afford to wait or procrastinate on this issue. The moment of repentance and salvation is NOW!
- THE NATURE OF REPENTANCE
Looking at the nature of true repentance, there will be three things to occur as God does a work of grace upon us:
- a) The first is Convictionwhere sin is admitted. We must see ourselves as lost, ruined, guilty, desperate sinners in danger of hell. In repentance, we not only see ourselves as sinners but we recognize the fact that we have sinned against a righteous and holy God.
- b) The second is Contritionwhere sin is hated. When we see ourselves as we appear before God, we are naturally brought to hate sin. To hate sin is to love God. In true repentance, there is not only the desire to escape the consequences of sin, but to be rid of sin itself as a thing displeasing to God.
- c) The third is Conversionwhere sin is abandoned. Repentance involves the forsaking of sin. It should be stressed that it is not enough just to turn away from sin; we must also turn to God for salvation.
In this respect, repentance can be seen from two angles: one is negative and the other positive. The negative side of repentance is that we must be committed to rooting sin out of our lives. That is to say, we should never feel comfortable living with sin. It the language of some of the New churches: “sin should not be our portion”.
The positive side of repentance is that we must turn our lives over completely to Jesus, so that we are always thinking his thoughts and having his feelings, saying his words and doing his deeds. That is what some New Churches have in mind when they say: “we must accept Jesus as our personal Saviour.” It is the state that St. Paul found himself in when he said, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Repenting is turning; repenting is change and repenting is living differently.
The key to our Advent celebration is repentance which bears good fruits, in preparation for Christ’s birth. But there can be no true repentance if there is no honesty (acceptance of one’s own sinfulness) and humility (acceptance of one’s unworthiness). An honest, humble and repentant heart should lead us to a grateful, love-filled and peaceful celebration of Christmas. No amount of partying, shopping or gift-wrapping will give us the spirit of Christmas unless it starts from within. Let us pray for a spirit of true repentance that will lead to the inauguration of this new world order, the kingdom of God in our lives.