John the Baptist introduces repentance in the Gospels, and both Luke’s and Matthew’s versions make it to the Reconciliation Lectionary.
Every Christian knows the word repent. We sometimes make jokes of it, and often we skirt it. It seems something reserved for the non-believer, the people who seek entry into our club.
Sometimes we also need more than the urging, “Repent!” We need a spectacle, a noteworthy event. And we get a man who strikes me as a performance artist:
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
John is presented in the image of the Dean of all Prophets, Elijah:
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
Say what you will about the Baptist, but he had flair to attract the crowds:
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John has two messages in verses 7-12. The first is for the self-styled religious:
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
To his disciples, and those who would follow him, John is careful to point the way:
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize 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 his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This seems somewhat worse, from baptism by drowning to burning. I wonder what the crowds made of that message.
We Christians are somewhat fortunate, I suppose. We have the track record of centuries to know that we don’t emerge from a baptism of fire with third-degree burns.
But like Pope Francis, John tickles the pride and standing of those who consider themselves close to God. And maybe, whoever has an inkling things are not quite right with God, there is a call to look a little deeper. Maybe during the Advent season, when this reading seems most appropriate.