Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent – John the Baptist.
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…..one who is more powerful than I am is coming after me.” John the Baptist in Matthew 3:1-12.
“Where do you really come from, where do your people come from?” Lady Susan Hussey to Ngozi Falani.
The voice of John the Baptist is heard in today’s Gospel, proclaiming that one is coming without saying who the one is or where he’s coming from. Nothing has been heard of John since Luke’s account of his birth to aged parents Zechariah and Elizabeth but he is the second cousin of Jesus as Elizabeth and Mary were cousins. The older woman had greatly helped Mary, with Luke writing that she stayed with the pregnant Elizabeth for about three months as both came to terms with what was unfolding. Zechariah and Elizabeth are to be blessed with a child in very late life and Luke tells us that her child, John, leapt in Elizabeth’s womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit as Mary arrived. At first Zechariah was struck dumb as he understandably struggled to accept this when told by the archangel Gabriel (whose name means God is my strength) what would happen. Eventually he was obedient to what God was asking of them both, the child was unexpectedly called John rather a family name and speech returned to this faithful old priest who was so surprised by God’s plans and then filled with the Holy Spirit as he praised God. Perhaps we too struggle to accept some of what God asks of us and can be forgetful of the Holy Spirit inspiring trust in God’s strength and not just our own?
Zechariah was told that the child would have the spirit and power of Elijah and that he would turn many to God. When he appears in Matthew’s gospel, John is wearing camel hide with a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey – as did Elijah. He speaks of the patriarch Abraham and is in the desert, reminiscent of the wandering of the people of Israel after the exodus from Egypt, as people travel to hear him and be baptised. Even some of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders who focus on ritual and tradition, are coming to John – presumably to find out more about him – and John calls them a brood of vipers as he speaks openly of the need to repent. But John points to the one who is coming after him as he tells them, “I am not worthy”. Despite his own stature and role, John defines himself in relation to the one who will be coming but is not here yet – and Jesus does later appear as John prepares the way for him.
The last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, mentions an oracle from God prophesying that, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” This prophecy was made a long time after Elijah but four hundred years before John and so his appearance would create much speculation for those hearing his words. As the bridge between the Old and New Testaments, John is key to the traditional role of the prophets in preaching the need for repentance and change and in speaking of the one who is to come. But this is the arrival of his second cousin – isn’t it?
John seems to be a mystery to those questioning him as he dismisses the attention to himself, but clearly he knew who he was in relation to what Jesus was to him. The one who is coming is much more than his second cousin and it seems that the Holy Spirit has enabled John – in the womb and since – to realise who Jesus really is and where he comes from. All of us are much more than we may seem to be and it can take a lifetime to realise the many layers of identity that make us who we are. That surfaced in the recent exchange at Buckingham Palace where a guest was repeatedly questioned about her origins and when offence was taken at a time of great change that can be a challenge for some.
John challenged many and still does today as his words are a focus once more. In pointing to Jesus rather than himself, John is a reminder of those who have influenced our faith development and pointed us in the right direction to discern where God is at work in our lives just as we have opportunities to do the same for them. This Advent, John’s message of repentance and faith rings out once more – may the Holy Spirit enable us to hear and respond to his message amongst the voices warning of doom and the distractions which may divert us as we face the call in our own time to prepare for the coming again of the One who is both judge and love incarnate.
With my prayers; pob bendith,