Second Sunday of Advent, Year A, Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness. That is a wild or uncultivated place. We live in a wilderness, so to speak; maybe not the wilds of south Texas, but in a place where faith is wild and uncultivated. I say this because it seems that faith can mean anything from enjoying the perceived energy that you receive by wearing a crystal around your neck; to a religion which calls you to perpetrate physical or verbal violence on others.
The difference between just having faith and religion, on its most basic level, is having a set of rules to follow. Anyone who believes that they have faith and follows a set of rules to either maintain or deepen this faith has religion. The word religion is derived from the Latin religio meaning obligation or bound. Perhaps even further back it comes from religare: to restrain. So on some level, any faith that has some rules that hold or give bounds to what is acceptable is a religion.
In our Gospel we find John the Baptist yelling at the Pharisees and Sadducees. “You brood of vipers!” John knows that these men are there to see the spectacle, possibly even to report back to the religious authorities as to what they saw and heard. John wants them to understand why he is there and what he is doing. What these religious leaders see isn’t that unusual, washing yourself as a way that spiritually cleanses. Making yourself undefiled for the priest or the community. But these washings typically did not make you right with God. You could not wash your sins away.
John goes on to say, you cannot rely on your ancestral line for salvation. Just because you are a child of Abraham is not enough. For God is able to raise up children to Abraham from anywhere, even these stones. This tiny bit of information is important. It is something new. In traditional Hebrew thinking, the children of God had to be Jewish. Everyone else technically has a purpose, and are even blessed by God, but they did not have the same standing or the same relationship with God’s as his children do.
The Good News that John is proclaiming is that, coming soon, we will have a new way where each of us, Jew or gentile, has a path to salvation. The need for an ancestral line will be broken. The Christ Child, whose birth we celebrate in just a few weeks, is this person. He will unite us to God as adopted children, having an equal status to the inheritance. But it isn’t just that easy. As I mentioned we are living in a spiritual wilderness. If we are claiming to be Christians we have some sort of bounds or responsibilities that demarcate what makes us Christians vs anything else. Advent is a time for us to look within ourselves to discover that we are cherished for being who we are. And “not only are we cherished for who we are, we are responsible for what we do.”
Responsibilities are one mark of a loving relationship. We all have had parents or guardians as we grew up. I’d suspect that they required us to have certain responsibilities. Keeping our room clean, doing dishes, being home by the time the street lights came on. Whatever they were, they are a sign of love. Imagine a marriage in which there were no responsibilities negotiated between the two people. Who would cook or clean. Who would shop for groceries or contribute their income. Would the bills go unpaid, in which they both then get evicted? Maybe this was like dorm life in collage, but even then there were negotiated responsibilities around personal items and space even if nothing else.
When we have responsibilities toward another we know that the other person cares for us and we care for them. If they didn’t care; what would it matter if we did what was expected. So it is with religion. Our responsibilities are signs that God cares about what we do. If he cares about what we do this means that he cares about us.
Our relationship with God is a mutual loving relationship in which we have a covenant. There are expectations on both ends and fulfilling these expectations is a sign that we care and love each other. But this relationship is unlike most of our human relationships. If we continually fail to meet our expectations at work; we may get fired. If we continually fail to meet our expectations in our marriage; we may end up in divorce. If we continually fail to meet our expectations with friends; they may distance themselves from us. But unlike these earthly relationships God knows that we will continually fail. This is what sin is.
God continually loves us regardless of our sin. Whether we sin a little or a lot, whether our sins are big or small, God loves us. And because God loves us he has expectations of us. Today we hear of repentance; turning from our transgressions, our lapses in faithful living. When we repent we are turning our life back toward God, and this is what God really wants from us more than anything else. He wants us to be in relationship with him.
When we are in a faithful relationship with God, meaning all three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we do not find our responsibilities to be onerous. We find them to be enjoyable. When we look back at our human relationships, often if there is one spouse who does much of the cooking; they find a certain pleasure in preparing a meal for their family. Or there may be a spouse who has a career and thy may find their time and effort spent working to be a pleasurable part of family contribution. When we are in a loving relationship we do not find our responsibilities to be burdens but a way of expressing our love for one another. This is the Good News. John the Baptist is preparing the way for us to cultivate our faith by finding joy in turning or returning our lives to God. A life in which through Christ we are heirs to God’s eternal Kingdom.