Advent 2 A: John the Baptist - Conversion


Gospel Text: Matthew 3:1-12
John the B3
Michel de Verteuil
General comments

This is a long passage with many themes worked into it. Identifying the different themes before starting your meditation will help you to enter into the passage.
Verses 1 to 5 summarise the story of John the Baptist, but even in this section there are various points being made: the fact that John preached in the wilderness; that he appeared ‘in due course’, meaning at the time fixed by God; that he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah.
The text of Isaiah in verse 3 is often misunderstood. What it is saying is that prophets always announce to people who are experiencing lostness and abandonment that they can relax because God is going to show himself to them.
In verse 4 the Baptist’s garments are symbolic: they are the traditional garments of the prophets. His diet is simple and taken from the environment.
The rest of the passage gives us individual teachings of John the Baptist, each of them symbolic and a typical teaching of a prophet.
In verse 7-9 the mentality of all who are complacent is exposed, one that we will certainly recognise as typical of us who are religious people.
Verse 10 expresses dramatically an experience of a ‘coming of the Son of Man’.
Verse 11 gives us an insight into the spirituality of John the Baptist, as of all who are involved in a work of God. There is deep humility combined with trust in our particular vocation.
Verse 12 is another dramatic image of God’s coming and its effects. In your meditation you can enter into it as a message of comfort in a time of fear.

Scriptural Prayers
Lord, we thank you for conversion experiences:
– a parish retreat;
– a serious illness;
– one of our friends telling us off;
– meeting a great person.
At the time we were drifting, wrapped up in our own concerns.
ChooseThen this John the Baptist appeared;
he spoke to us in our wilderness and his message was simply this:
we must re-think our values totally.
We recognise that this was the experience the prophets spoke of
when they said that no matter how desolate the wilderness we find ourselves in,
you will speak to us there.
In fact, we can prepare for your coming. Thank you, Lord.
Lord, we thank you for what is happening in South Africa today.
We thank you for the great leaders who in due course appeared in that wilderness,
Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak.
Like John the Baptist they wore the garments of the ancient prophets,
nourishing themselves from the resources of their culture,
and proclaiming that a decisive moment has come
and the country must take a new path.
We thank you that the people responded.
As in the time of John the Baptist, when Jerusalem and all Judaea
and the whole Jordan district made their way out to him,
so today the people are abandoning their passivity,
confessing that they have played their part in the system,
and committing themselves to the new South Africa.
Naturally some are coming forward like the Pharisees and Sadducees
only because they wish to escape from the violence that is coming,
but your leaders are challenging them
and calling on them to produce the appropriate fruit.
world peace“We wish to remind all how crucial is the present moment, how urgent the work to be done. The hour for action has now sounded. At stake are the peace of the world and the future of civilisation.”   Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 1967
Lord, we thank you that recent popes have been John the Baptist,
preaching to the wilderness of the modern world
that a moment of decision is at hand,
that even now the axe is laid to the roots of our civilisation
and if it does not produce good fruit it will be cut down and thrown on the fire.
Lord, don’t let us Christians presume that we can escape this retribution
because we are the children of Abraham;
remind us that you can raise children for Abraham from stones.
“The great problem for the church today is not survival but prophecy.”         Thomas Merton
Lord, as a church, we often wonder why more people don’t make their way to us,
ask for baptism and confess their sins.
Perhaps it is that we do not wear the garments of the prophets,
and we do not nourish ourselves from the simple wisdom of our culture.
Lord, we thank you for those who bring the gospel message
in areas of society which are looked down upon
– the worker priest;
– those who work with gay people or with prostitutes;
– Alcoholics Anonymous.
They proclaim in the wilderness that you are there
and all people need is to open themselves to your presence.
Lord, we thank you for the deep joy of knowing, like John the Baptist,
that we are the humble servants of your great work,
that others will follow us who will be more powerful than we are,
and so we can be content to baptise with water for repentance
because others will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Lord, evil discourages us
– the evil within ourselves, in our church community, in society.
We thank you that every once in a while you send us people like John the Baptist
who remind us that you are there with your winnowing fan in your hand
and you will clear your threshing floor.
All that evil which frightens us, you will burn in a fire that will never go out,
whereas goodness which seems so frail to us
is your precious wheat which you will gather into your barn.
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3. Thomas O’Loughlin,
Introduction to the celebration
Christmas is coming! If you are not already busy preparing, then you will have at least heard many people telling you it is time you started getting ready. As the people of God we too need to start thinking about the welcoming of the Christ and the preparations that we are called upon to make as disciples. We must prepare the way for the Lord to enter our lives, to enter the lives of those around us, and to enter into our world with his word of peace and forgiveness.
 
Homily notes
1. Do you know this rhyme?
Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny
in the old man’s hat.

A few simple comments on this little rhyme can provide a checklist for people to remind themselves of what we celebrate during Advent.

2. Christmas is coming.
Xmas streets
This is a time when preparation is everywhere in the air: preparations for holidays, for all the festivities, buying presents, sending cards, arranging food, everyone is ‘ getting ready’. Everyone is looking forward to the period around 25 December. ‘Looking forward’ and ‘getting ready’ are basic Christian activities: we are looking forward to the coming of the kingdom, we are looking to the return of the Christ in glory. We are looking forward to the life of the world to come. We are always getting ready to be better disciples, to be witnesses, to be the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus. What we are looking forward to right now and working so busily to prepare for is ‘Christ Mass’: the Christian feast. The feast that proclaims that the Son of God has come among us, walked with us, talked with us, suffered with us, and offered us adoption as daughters and sons of God. He is coming among us now, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

3. The goose is getting fat.
If God has sent his Son among us, then this is a cause for joy. We as Christians can be truly party animals for we are celebrating the depths of the Father’s love. It is right that we should have the great party that the thought of a fat goose brings to mind. We are a loved and redeemed people: we have more to celebrate than we can even imagine.
 
4. Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
But if we rejoice that the Father loves us and has sent his Son among us, then it also make demands on us. Being disciples means we have to be doers. We cannot be indifferent to suf­ferings and needs of others. God loves us, we must love others; God has forgiven us, we must forgive others; God provides for us in our need, we must provide for others. We cannot party with honest hearts until we have sought to relieve suf­fering. The image of the old man with his hat on the ground in front of him begging reminds us of all the work we must do to bring about the kingdom.
We Christians rejoice as we wait for the Lord when he comes again in glory to say:
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the king­dom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you wel­comed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (cf Mt 25:34-40).
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John Littleton
 Reflection

John the Baptist was the last in a long line of prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah. He prepared the way for the Messiah by alerting God’s people to the Messiah’s impending arrival and by challenging them to change their lives by repenting for their sins. A radical abandonment of sinful living was required because God was going to communicate with his people directly through his Son, Jesus, the Messiah.
repentJohn’s ministry focused on preaching conversion and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Repentance is a fundamental change of heart, or attitude, which results in leaving sin behind and embracing God’s freely shared life and love. Such change is only possible with the gift of God’s grace. There was urgency in John’s preaching about repentance. The time for repentance, he said, is now, not in the future. Repentance through prayer, fasting and charitable works leads to conversion, and conversion is an important aspect of people’s preparation if they are to meet Christ when he comes.
John understood from his own experience in the wilderness, where he spent a long time in prayer and reflection, that repentance and conversion were absolutely necessary. Otherwise their hearts would remain closed by sinful preoccupations and they would not be able to recognise the Messiah when he arrived. And, if they could not recognise him, neither would they be able to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of God’s promise to liberate his people. Without a ‘change-of-heart’ (metanoia in the original Greek), a turning back towards God, there could be no appreciation of the Messiah’s presence among them.
We learn from the gospels that John fasted and did penance, wore camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey. So there was a strong witness dimension in his efforts to prepare the way for Christ to come into the people’s lives. He was courageous and unapologetic in how he spoke. This witness and courage provided him with great credibility and, consequently, many people felt invited to consider seriously the relevance of his message because they noticed how he had taken it to heart himself. But his preaching made him unpopular with some people because they could not accept the truth, and remained unrepentant.
In what ways are we repentant people? How do we demonstrate our sincerity as witnesses to the teaching of Christ and the Church? What does it mean to be courageous and unapologetic about our convictions? The reality is that some of us are unrepentant for our sins. We are reluctant to speak about our faith and share it with others. Advent challenges us to become people of hope and expectation as we await Christ’s coming.
As we prepare for Christmas, how will we prepare ourselves and help others to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah? If we follow the example of John the Baptist, we will truly be Advent people.
For meditation :                        Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. (Mt 3:2)
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Donal Neary SJ
The straight way
Before the motorways a journey took ages, with twists and turns, corners and hills. Now much has been made straight.
John’s message was that we would live along a path where words and actions match, and where kindness matches convic­tions.
johntheb-bearing-witnessJohn the Baptist was a man on one mission – to be the mes­senger of the one he did not know. His life had a vision and a purpose, like when we are really committed to people or to causes or to the poor or to peace in the world. John was the man of desert food and desert dress; he took time out to find what the biggest thing in life was and then kept following it, often not knowing where it would go.
jesus-gentle-touchThe human heart is complicated and we know that. We need that one who will touch our hearts with love and forgiveness and guide us himself in ways that are straight, and whose hand will guide us along straight paths when we need it.
God’s guiding is gentle. John found that Jesus was a gentler guide: no name-calling, no bringing the axe to the tree, but call­ing each of us his friend, and nourishing the tree rather than cutting it down.
Jesus would melt the snow to make a path, not hack at it and destroy in the process. Our hearts can be melted by the love of God and love of others.
Think of or remember a time when you made a decision to follow the way of Jesus. Offer this to him again.
Lord God, make our hearts like yours.
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 FROM THE CONNECTIONS:

THE WORD:

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptizer makes his appearance this Advent season, preaching a baptism of repentance and conversion of life.
Matthew’s details about John’s appearance are intended to recall the austere dress of the great prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1: 8).  The Jews believed that Elijah would return from heaven to announce the long-awaited restoration of Israel as God’s kingdom.  For Matthew, this expectation is fulfilled in John the Baptizer.  Through the figure of the Baptizer, the evangelist makes the “Old” Testament touch the “New.”
Matthew reports that John strikes a responsive chord in the people who have come from throughout the region to hear him at the Jordan River.  He has strong words for the Pharisees and Sadducees who step up for his baptism but have no intention of embracing the spirit of conversion and renewal to make their own lives ready for the Messiah who comes.
In proclaiming the Messiah’s “baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire,” John employs the image of a “winnowing-fan.”  A “winnowing-fan” was a flat, wooden, shovel-like tool, used to toss grain into the air.  The heavier grain fell to the ground and chaff was blown away.  In the same way, John says, the Messiah will come to gather the “remnant” of Israel and destroy the Godless.
 

HOMILY POINTS:
In our own baptisms, we take on the role of prophet of Christ: to “proclaim” in our ministries, in our compassion and our kindness, in our commitment to what is right that Jesus the Messiah has come.
John’s message calls us to “live” our baptisms every day of our lives, growing in the “knowledge of the Lord” (Isaiah 11: 9) and living as “wheat” rather than lifeless straw (Matthew 3: 12).
Advent is the season for realizing Isaiah’s vision of the “peaceable” kingdom: for seeking common ground, for recognizing the humanity we all share and building upon our common interests, values and dreams.

 Playing Santa
A chronically ill toddler could not always go along with her brother and sister on their various adventures.  But at Christmas time, Mom and Dad assured her that she would get to meet Santa.  For weeks the little girl spoke of nothing but her coming visit to Santa; Mom prayed for a Santa who would live up to her daughter’s expectations.
Finally, on one of the sick little girl’s better days, Mom decided to take the chance.  In order to avoid lengthy lines, they arrived just as the mall was opening and Santa was settling into his big chair.
When the little girl saw him, she squealed, “Santa Claus!” and darted past the assistant elves toward Santa.  The slightly startled Santa greeted her with a big smile and swept her into his ample lap.  She snuggled in, stroked his beard and uttered in joyful awe, “Santa!”  For several minutes, Santa and the little girl talked and laughed like two old friends, oblivious to the small crowd gathering to share in the magic of the moment.
The toddler’s mother stood nearby, her eyes filled with tears of joy.  Just then, a man edged over to her and, to her surprise, she noticed that his eyes were as moist as hers.  “Is that your little girl?” he asked quietly.
The woman nodded.
With a catch in his voice and quiet pride, the man said, “Santa is my son.”
[Ruth Dalton, Catholic Digest.]

The coming of Christ invites all of us to become “Santa,” to bring the joy and hope of this season into the lives of everyone.  Taking on the role of “Santa” is not confined to this season alone but to every season of every year.  Playing Santa as the Santa in the story is much like our baptismal call to becoming prophets of Christ like John the Baptizer, bearing witness to God's presence in our own time and place.
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 Illustrations:

1. Fr Jude Botelho:

In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah we hear about the coming of the Messiah and the kind of justice and peace he would bring. Isaiah foretells that even though the family tree of Jesse has been reduced to a mere stump, nevertheless from that stump will spring - a true king filled with the Spirit and endowed with all the virtues of his ancestors. The new king, the Messiah will be a champion of the poor and will restore justice and peace for all. The prophet has a marvelous vision of the kingdom of God in which all violence will be overcome and people will live in unity and harmony with nature and with one another.
Vision Of A New World
The astronauts were the first human beings to see the earth from outside. As they gazed down on the earth from space, they realized as never before, that we are one family, with spaceship Earth as our common home. One of them said later: "The first day in space, we all pointed to our own countries. The second day we pointed to our continents. By the third day we were all aware of only one Earth." -The prophets had the same kind of high and wide vision of how things could be. But how real is that vision? As for the wolf and lamb living together, often two neighbours, or even two members of the same family, have a fall out and refuse to talk to one another. Are our dreams a utopian fairy tale? We need to keep the vision before us then it will give us the energy to live it out. Instead of encouraging us to escape from real life a beautiful vision can summon us to get involved.
Flor McCarthy in 'New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies'
The second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Romans reminds the readers that God is faithful to his promises. God does not forget his promises to Israel and he is merciful with regard to the pagans. Paul speaks of the importance of hope on our faith journey. Those who do not give up will experience God's help. Paul also asks his followers to support one another by being tolerant and friendly towards one another. The model for us is always the Lord Jesus -'Treat one another in the same way as Christ treated you.'
Hope In The Lord
There is a story of a smith of the Middle Age who was taken prisoner and confined in a dungeon. Because of the knowledge his craft had taught him he carefully examined the heavy links that bound him, expecting to find a flaw that would show him a weak place which could soon be made to yield. But presently he dropped his hands hopelessly. Certain marks told him that the chain was of his own making, and it had always been his boast that one of his workmanship could not be broken. There are truly no chains so hard to break as those of our own forging, but they are not hopeless. The worst possible habits will yield to human resolution and strength from above.
- D. Williamson in 'Quotes and Anecdotes'
The message of John does not differ from that of Jesus Christ. In today's Gospel John is compared to the voice crying out in the wilderness: "Repent for the kingdom of God is close at hand. Prepare a way for the Lord and make his paths straight." John calls everyone to change, from the Pharisees and Sadducees, leaders of religion to the common man in the street. John calls the whole of Israel to change. If the people do not change, John says a catastrophe will destroy Israel. To repent would imply a change of heart, a change of attitude, a change of the way we live. John's life itself was a witness to his message. The people heard him and were drawn to him and were influenced by him. The gospel tells us that the crowds came to him, confessed their sins and were baptized by him. John was not satisfied with mere ritual actions. He confronted his listeners: "If you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, show with your lives your true repentance...... Any tree that fails to produce fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." He warns the Pharisees that it will avail them nothing to plead that Abraham is their father. To the Jew Abraham was unique. So unique was he in goodness and in his favour with God that his merits sufficed not only for himself but for all his descendants also. He had built a treasury of merit which not all the claims and needs of his descendants could exhaust. So the Jews believed that a Jew, simply because he was a Jew, and not for any merit of his own, was safe in the life to come. Similarly, we too sometimes tend to believe, that just because we were baptized Catholics we will be saved. Jesus challenges this belief. If we are followers of Jesus Christ our lives should bear evidence of this fact. Jesus also warns us of retribution to come which imposes on us a two-fold task: personal repentance, and preparation of the ways by which he who saves is to come.
Untattoo You
A few years ago a newspaper columnist reported on an unusual programme. It dealt with removing unwanted tattoos -especially gang-related tattoos -from the bodies of young people. A surprising thing happened after the column appeared. Over a thousand letters flooded in from young people all over the country, asking more about the programme. Because of this remarkable response, the Los Angele School District and a local cable television company produced a film called Untattoo You. It told of the dangers of amateur tattooing and showed how difficult it was to remove small tattoos from arms and faces and larger tattoos from chests and backs. The stars of the film were young people themselves. They talked frankly about why they were tattooed in the first place and why they now wanted the tattoos removed. The film eventually won a national award and was distributed throughout the country. - The story behind the film Untattoo You illustrates an important point. All of us have done things in our past that we now regret and would like to erase. This is not just true of young people. It is even more true of older people. The tragic thing about all of this is that so many people regret what they did but don't know what to do about it now. So they live with the mistake. However, just as young people rejoiced when they discovered a way to remove their unwanted tattoos, so we Catholics rejoice that Jesus gave us a way to remove our sins. Advent reminds us of the great gift Jesus made available to us, and it urges us to use this gift. Something can be done now about our mistakes. "Prepare a way for the Lord!"
- Mark Link in 'Sunday Homilies'
"Jesus and John preached the same message to the same people. John, 'the voice crying in the wilderness' expressed his own sense of being unworthy to precede the Messiah. His baptism too, is only 'in water' and not 'with the Holy Spirit'. We are put off by this single minded and severe prophet, just as we are by the seemingly formidable and intolerant God of the Old Covenant. Perhaps we can forget them both, since we are children of a kingdom of love and grace? John the Baptist's message should make us see the range of our problems in the light of God and with reference to God. It should lead us away from the domain of sin into the domain of love, which is 'strong as death'-of love whose ray is like a flash of fire -the fire of Yahweh himself. This love cannot be taken lightly, John warns us. We must look to the Christ's coming - the King who is here and now and on the last day separates the chaff from the wheat."
- Glenstal Sunday Missal
God At The Window
There was a little boy visiting his grandparents on their farm. He was given a sling to play out in the woods, but he could never hit his target. Little discouraged, he headed back home for the evening tea. As he was walking back he saw grandma's pet duck. Just out of an impulse, he let the sling fly, it hit the duck on the head and killed it. He was shocked and grieved. He quickly dug a hole and hid the duck in the mud, only to find his sister watching him. Mary kept quiet. The following day, after lunch, grandma called Mary to do the dishes. Mary smiled and said, "Grandma, Johnny said he wanted to help you in the kitchen." Then she turned to Johnny and whispered. "Remember the duck." And Johnny did the dishes. In the evening grandpa called the children to go fishing. Grandma said, "Sorry, I want Mary to help me make the dinner." Then Mary smiled and said, "Well grandma, Johnny told me that he would like to help you to prepare the dinner." Then turning to Johnny she whispered, "Remember the duck." Mary went for fishing while Johnny stayed back to help grandma to prepare the dinner. After many days of doing his chores and his sister's he could not stand it any longer. He went and confessed to his grandma that he had killed the duck. Grandma knelt down and hugged him and said, "Sweetheart, I know that you killed the duck, I was standing at the window and saw everything. But because I love you, I had forgiven you. I was just wondering how long you would allow Mary to make a slave of you." -Johnny's confession led to his liberation. When we confess we do not tell God what he does not know. He knows everything because he is standing at the window. Our failure to confess enslaves us.
- John Rose in 'John's Sunday Homilies'
Do It NOW!
According to the label, Drambuie was the liqueur of Prince Charles Edward, the famous 'Bonnie Prince Charles.' In a recent magazine, Drambuie was advertized as: Why wait for your promotion or next raise? Why wait for the holidays? Why wait for tomorrow? In other words, now is the time to enjoy Drambuie. Now is the time to sip this smooth liqueur. Now is the time to savour its distinctive taste. Typical of many ads, there is a note of urgency in the Drambuie commercial. Tomorrow may be too late. Act now! -Today's Scripture too has a note of urgency in it, not for the purpose of selling a liqueur, but for the purpose of arousing us to reform our lives. Why wait for the prophet to return? Why wait for the promised Messiah to come? Why wait for the kingdom of God to be established? All these things are already happening. Now is the time to experience these events by reforming your lives. Now is the time to change your attitude and conduct. Tomorrow may be too late. Act now!
- Albert Cylwicki in 'His Word Resounds'
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2.     Andrew Greeley  

Background:

Advent and  Christmas represent a very special intervention of God in the human condition, a revolution indeed because it revealed to us just how much God loves us, one that, as G.K. Chesterton said, turned the world upside down and, astonishingly, when viewed from that perspective the world made sense. God, in the words of the Irish Dominican poet, Paul Murray, loves us so much that if we should cease to exist, he would die of sadness.   

The Christmas stories reveal to us that God loved Her human children so much that He took on human form so that he could show us how to live and how to die, even walking with us down to the valley of death itself. The stories today tell us that even from the beginning it was not easy to be the special light of the world. Jesus was under threat all his life. The threats would finally catch up with Him as they catch up with all of us. But from Christmas we learn that finally the darkness can never put out the light.

 Story:

When Mollie Whuppi and her friends were in eighth grade, they discovered at one of the parks in their neighborhood a game called women’s softball. It wasn’t really sixteen inch softball like we play in Chicago but smaller softball which is played in most of the rest of the country which is not as civilized as Chicago. Anyway, they liked the game and decided that there should be a women’s team at Mother Mary High School So the first week of their Freshman year in high school Mollie walked into the principal’s office and demanded that their be a team. The principal had yet to learn that Mollie was the boss, so she said. Go organized your team Mollie. We don’t have money for coaches or uniforms or a team bus but we can buy a couple of bats for you. Mollie said that was just fine. She’d be manager and coach too and they’d save money to buy their own uniforms.  

So, even though she was busy with other things  like being class president and president of the chess club  and chairman of the social action committee – and lots of other things besides, she organized the softball team. Now as everyone knows young women are much more serious about sports then young men so they practice very hard. Mollie told them it would take three years of experience before they could win city.

The first year, they were terrible, the second year they were pretty good and the third year they surprised everyone by getting to the city finals. They had to ride across town in their parents’ SUVs and the reception was very unfriendly. The crowd booed them. Boys shouted bad words at them. The other team snarled and made fun of their uniforms. But with Mollie on the mound Mother held the others scoreless and hitless for six innings.  

In the first half of the seventh Mollie hit a home run so going into the last of the seventh (softball games last only seven innings) Mother Mary was up 1-0. Mollie struck out the first two batters. Then she pitched three straight strikes to the last batter. But the umpire, who made no secret of which side he was on, called them balls. Everyone knew that Mollie’s four pitch was a strike too, but the ump waved the batter down to first based. Then the next batter hit a long foul ball – everyone knew it was a foul ball, but the ump called it fair. The tying run scored. The throw from right field was slow but Mollie caught it and ran to the plate to tag the hitter out by a mile. The ump called her safe. The crowds went wild with laugher.  

The winners stalked off the field.  

The Mother Mary players didn’t curse, they didn’t shout. They just cried. All except Mollie. Chill out, she shouted, we’re still on our game plan.  

Next year we will play them at home and we’ll win, just like we planned.  The players from Mother Mary stalked out of the field chanting, “Wait till next year” the battle cry of defeated sports teams and political parties – a hint of the Christian Hope that next year will be better even when this year is the last year of our life.

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3.     A number of years ago a couple traveled to the offices of an Adoption Society in England to receive a baby. They had been on the waiting list a long time. They had been interviewed and carefully scrutinized. Now at last their dreams were to be fulfilled. But their day of happiness was another's pain.

 Arriving at the offices of the Society they were led up a flight of stairs to a waiting room. After a few minutes they heard someone else climbing the stairs. It was the young student mother whose baby was to be adopted. She was met by the lady responsible for the adoption arrangements and taken into another room. Our friends heard a muffled conversation and a few minutes later footsteps on the stairs as the young mother left. They heard her convulsive sobbing until the front door of the office was closed. Then, there was silence.

The lady in charge then conducted them next door. In a little crib was a six week old baby boy. On a chair beside it was a brown paper bag containing a change of clothes and two letters. One of these, addressed to the new parents, thanked them for providing a home for her baby and acknowledged that under the terms of the adoption each would never know the other's identity. Then the young mother added one request. Would they allow her little son to read the other letter on his eighteenth birthday? She assured them that she had not included any information about her identity. The couple entrusted that letter to a lawyer and one day the young man will read the message which his mother wrote on the day, when with breaking heart, she parted with him.

I wonder what she wrote? If I had to condense all I feel about life and love into a few precious words what would I say? I would have no time for trivia. I would not be concerned about economics, politics, the weather, the size of house or the type of car. At such a time I would want to dwell on the profundities, on what life was all about and what things were absolutely essential. 

John in the desert was in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He was aware that time was running out. In his burning message he had no time for peripheral matters. He was not playing Trivial Pursuit nor was he prepared to splash about in the shallows. Soon the sword of Herod's guard would flash and his tongue would lie silent in the grave...
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4.     A few years ago, when Etsy and Ebay were first battling it out, an Ebay commercial urged people to buy Christmas gifts on its website. It started off with comedian Jim Gaffigan saying something like "Hand-made gifts for Christmas? Who wants that?" Then he mentioned all the "it" gifts you can buy on Ebay (electronics, sports equipment, etc). The commercial ends with Gaffigan holding a pair of hand-knitted mittens, smelling them, wrinkling up his nose and saying . . . "Smells like church."
The online discussion that followed showed widespread indignation. How could Ebay do this . . . to Etsy? How could Ebay mock and make fun of . . . the homemade, the homespun, the handmade tradition of gifts? People were offended by Ebay's slam on homemade items. Only a couple registered displeasure at the slam on the church.

Welcome to the 21st century.  

Every year there is the "it" gift - the big score, big cheese, the big dog goodie that is sought out and sold out long before Christmas Eve. The "it" gift is, of course, age-related, although increasingly it seems that the greatest wish lists of ten year olds, thirty year olds, sixty year olds, and eighty year olds, have a lot more in common than not.  

[Note: If you can find any of these and hold them up for everyone to see, or get their owners to hold them up before the congregation, so much the better.]

 The "it" gift in 1929 was a "Yo-Yo" - high tech for its time.

In 1943 the must have toy was a strange doo-dad called a "slinky."

Throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, at Christmas we were greedy for gifts of the stuffed animal, dolls, action-figures variety: Cabbage Patch dolls and Care Bears, Elmo ("Tickle Me," "Live," or "Let's Rock"). Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles headed the list. 

But the Barbie (1959) and BMX Bike (1982) eras have long been replaced by a wish list that is governed by microchips. Ever since the appearance of the Game Boy in 1989, electronic gadgets and games and gizmos have dominated the "it" list of must have gifts. 

This year "kids" of all ages want the Apple Mac Book Air, the iPhone 5s, the Xbox-One, a Kindle Fire, or Play Station 4.

When you look back on Christmases past, what were your best gifts? Were they any of those "it" gifts from childhoods past? Do you really think that any of this year's 2013 "it" gifts will be remembered in the future as your "best gift ever?"  
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5.     Are You Swapping Heaven?

 The great old evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, used to tell a legend about a beautiful swan that alighted one day by the banks of the water in which a crane was wading about seeking snails. For a few moments the crane viewed the swan in stupid wonder and then inquired:

"Where do you come from?"
"I come from heaven!" replied the swan.
"And where is heaven?" asked the crane.
"Heaven!" said the swan, "Heaven! have you never heard of heaven?" And the beautiful bird went on to describe the grandeur of the Eternal City. She told of streets of gold, and the gates and walls made of precious stones; of the river of life, pure as crystal, upon whose banks is the tree whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations. In eloquent terms the swan sought to describe the hosts who live in the other world, but without arousing the slightest interest on the part of the crane.

Finally the crane asked: "Are there any snails there?"
"Snails!" repeated the swan, "No! Of course there are not."
"Then," said the crane, as it continued its search along the slimy banks of the pool, "you can have your heaven. I want snails!"
"This fable," said Moody, "has a deep truth underlying it. How many a young person to whom God has granted the advantages of a Christian home, has turned his back upon it and searched for snails! How many a man will sacrifice his wife, his family, his all, for the snails of sin! How many a girl has deliberately turned from the love of parents and home to learn too late that heaven has been forfeited for snails!"

Moody spoke those words a century ago, but people are still swapping heaven for snails. How about you? John the Baptist's words are for each of us: Are there some changes that need to be made in your life?

Moody's Anecdotes, Page 125-126, adapted by King Duncan
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6.     It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Snoopy of Charlie Brown comic strip fame is typing a novel. He begins his story, "It was a dark and stormy night ..." Snoopy always starts his stories in this manner. Lucy looks at what Snoopy has written. She goes into a tirade, putting down Snoopy for such a silly beginning. Doesn't Snoopy know that any good story starts with the words, "Once upon a time ..."

The last frame of the comic strip has Snoopy starting his story again. Now he is ready. He types, "Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night." Do you feel like Snoopy sometimes? No matter how you begin your story you somehow revert to "a dark and stormy night." If you feel that way today you are not alone. Most of us are struggling in one way or another to overcome the dark side of our existence.

The Advent season leading to Christmas should be a time of joy, anticipation and hope. But, the very fact that it is supposed to be such an upbeat time only compounds the problem.

Richard A. Hasler, Empowered by the Light, CSS Publishing Company
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7.     I Will Be There

In her wonderful children's picture book "We Were There: A Nativity Story," Eve Bunting (illustrator: Wendell Minor) turns Christmas upside down for us in ways that are revealing.

The simple story shows us first a slithering snake, then a warty toad, a scary scorpion, a shiny cockroach, a swooping bat, a hairy spider, and a furry rat all on a journey. Each creature introduces itself and then concludes with the words "I will be there."

As the book ends we are shown more common nativity creatures: fuzzy lambs, doe-eyed donkeys, gentle cows. But as those traditional figures in the stable stand around the manger in which the Babe has been laid by his mother Mary, we see in the corner, unnoticed, that small gathering of the snake, toad, scorpion, cockroach, bat, spider, and rat.

Bunting has found a lyric way to remind us that the coming of the Christ is not all about the traditional and cozy trappings in which we have for too long ensconced the Christmas story but that this is a story for all creatures and that Jesus came to embrace and renew the good, the bad, the ugly; the expected and the unexpected.

A simple children's story like this reminds us of the paradoxes and unexpected twists of the season, rather the way John the Baptist can shake things up for us if only we take time to listen to his message.


Scott Hoezee, Comments and Observations
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8.     We Need John

When our children were small, a nice church lady named Chris made them a child-friendly crèche. All the actors in this stable drama are soft and squishy and durable - perfect to touch and rearrange - or toss across the living room in a fit of toddler frenzy. The Joseph character has always been my favorite because he looks a little wild - red yarn spiking out from his head, giving him an odd look of energy. In fact, I have renamed this character John the Baptist and in my mind substituted one of the innocuous shepherds for the more staid and solid Joseph. Why this invention? Because, over the years, I have decided that without the disconcerting presence of John lurking in the shadows of our manger scenes, the Jesus story is mush - nothing but child's play, lulling us into sleepy sentimentality.

Susan R. Andrews, Sermons for Sundays: In Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany: The Offense of Grace, CSS Publishing Company
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9.     The King Is Coming

Can you imagine complete silence? It's hard to in our culture today in which televisions, radios, etc. are constantly blaring. But in this morning's text a silence of 400 years is broken. Don't misunderstand me, not everyone was silent during this period. Women and men were talking.. Boys and girls were talking. But there was no prophet speaking the Word of the LORD. No one was truthfully saying, "Thus says the LORD..."

In reality two silences are broken in this morning's text. For one, the 400 year period without a Word from God and for another, a gap of approximately 30 years in the life of Jesus. Matthew skips directly from his birth and infancy narrative to an event that occurs approximately 30 years later: the ministry of John the Baptist. Both of these silences are broken by the sound of a voice.

The voice which breaks the silence is the voice of John the Baptist, who may rightly be called the last of the Old Testament Prophets. He is functioning as a Herald by announcing the coming of the King. In the ancient world, a herald was one who went ahead of a king's chariot to prepare the road. He would command a crew which would smooth out the usually rough roads of that day by filling potholes and removing boulders. The herald would also go before the king shouting, "Make way, the King is coming!" One commentator noted that such "efforts to make a road level and smooth were restricted to times when royalty was on its way" (Robert Mounce, Matthew NIBC, 23).

This was the function of John the Baptist.

Steve Weaver, The Herald of the King
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10.  Time to Prepare

Christmas season. A time of preparation. Most Americans prepare for the holidays with lights and gifts, cards and good cheer. But the Church reminds us to prepare spiritually. What does that mean? In Matthew's gospel, John the Baptist gave us a direction. Matthew's gospel presented the Baptist in the context of prophecy about him, his arena and audience, his place in the religious pecking order, and his reason for preaching.

Larry Broding, Spiritual Preparation
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11.  Taking the Fun Out of Christmas

We prepare for Christmas by repenting. Repenting in the Biblical sense is more than having a change of heart or a feeling of regret. It is more than a New Year's Eve resolution. Repentance is a turning away and a turning back. A turning away from sin and a turning back to God.

Bishop Joe Pennel of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, once attended a Christmas worship service in Bethlehem at a place called Shepherd's Field. As he heard the songs of the season, he thought to himself and later wrote: "I did not look to God and say: See how virtuous I am. I did not utter: God, pat me on the back for all of the good things I have done. I did not pretend by saying: God, look at all of my accomplishments, aren't you proud of me? Indeed, I found myself asking God to forgive me of my sins. That is how it works. The more we turn away from Christ the more enslaved we become to the power of sin. The more we turn to Christ, the more free we become from the bondage of sin. Turning toward Christ enables us to repent."

Someone once said half jokingly: If we are not careful, John the Baptist can take all of the fun out of Christmas. I disagree. I think that it is John's message that puts the joy into Christmas. For it is his message that calls us not to the way that Christmas is, but that the way Christmas ought to be. Christmas ought to be free from guilt and self-absorption. For that to occur there must be repentance.

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12.  Recognizing our Need to Repent

One critic said he had gone to many churches and heard the preacher say, "Don't try to impress God with your works" or "Don't attempt to please God with your merits" or "Don't try to keep the rules and regulations and thus win your way." He looked around at nearly slumbering collections of utterly casual Christians and wondered, "Who's trying?"

Martin Marty
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13.  What the Future Holds 

Have you seen ancient maps of unexplored portions of the world? Maps that portrayed the prevailing ideas of what lay beyond, the unexplored lands and the uncrossed seas? Maps from before the adventures of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan? How grotesquely inaccurate those maps were! How vastly they differed from what the explorer eventually found! How fantastic were the notions the ancients had about what was out there - a dropping-off-place, mammoth sea serpents to swallow up ships. But as things turned out, it wasn't that way at all. You know, if Columbus had believed half the maps and legends of his time he would never have lifted an anchor!

Well, we are all traveling into the unexplored land, and we ought to be careful how we map it until we've traveled there. Certainly we shouldn't let the future do things to us it never meant to do. It is my faith that the future means to be friendly; and I don't think we ought to treat it as an enemy. If we do, and start in to do battle with it, I can tell you this: it's a battle we can never win. Let's not suspect it of standing over us with a club waiting for a chance to clobber us into the ground, or of lurking in the shadows to pounce upon us around the next dark corner...
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From Father Tony Kadavil's Collection:

1: Accept divine forgiveness by true repentance: An attempt was made in 1985 by some fans of O. Henry, the short-story writer, to get a pardon for their hero who had been convicted a century before of embezzling $784.08 from the bank where he was employed. But a pardon cannot be given to a dead man. A pardon can only be given to someone who can accept it. Back in 1830 George Wilson was convicted of robbing the U.S. Mail and was sentenced to be hanged. President Andrew Jackson issued a pardon for Wilson, but he refused to accept it. The matter went to Chief Justice Marshall who concluded that Wilson would have to be executed. "A pardon is a slip of paper," wrote Marshall, "the value of which is determined by the acceptance of the person to be pardoned. If it is refused, it is no pardon. Hence, George Wilson must be hanged." For some, the pardon comes too late. For others, the pardon is not accepted. Today’s readings remind us that the Advent is the acceptable time for repentance and the acceptance of God’s pardon and renewal of life.

2: John’s invitation is to practice the octopus evangelism of mega-churches as opposed to the sponge evangelism of traditional churches: Most traditional churches are pretty good about sponge evangelism. We soak up visiting folks with warm welcome, ushers offer them seats of their choice, many members greet them with miles of smiles. But octopus evangelism of mega-churches is something else. It means reaching, stretching, finding, touching, drawing in those who are in need of the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ and may not have even realized it yet. Mega-churches are growing, not primarily because of their programming or preaching, buildings, video screens or cute, thirty-something pastors. They are growing primarily because members are actively inviting others to join them in worship. Eighty percent of all first-time visitors to a church come because a friend or neighbor invited them. It's the active verb...inviting, reaching, gathering...which makes all the difference. A mega-church is a non-denominational, Bible-centered Christian congregation that draws thousands of people to its weekly services. The phenomenon started about thirty years ago as a way to bring people back to the basics of Christianity - a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You may have heard of Rick Warren, pastor of a mega-church in southern California whose book, The Purpose-Driven Life, has over 20 million copies in print. You may also have heard of Joel Osteen, author of two national bestsellers, who runs a mega-church in Houston, Texas that attracts 38,000 people to its Sunday services and 200 million households to its television broadcasts. You may even have heard of Bill Hybels [HIGH-bills], the founder of what many consider the first mega-church ever - Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago, Illinois – that currently has more than 100 ministries operating out of its home base. These are just some of the better known mega-church leaders, but mega-churches are springing up throughout North America, and they are even sending missionaries abroad. One little known fact about these mega-churches is that more than 25% of their members are former Catholics whom nobody in their former parishes actively invited to the liturgical celebrations and whom nobody involved in various church ministries. 

3: The artist’s reconciliation: Leonardo da Vinci painted the fresco (wall painting), "The Last Supper," in Santa Maria delle Grazie  church in Milan in three years (1495-1498). A very interesting story is associated with this painting. At the time that Leonardo da Vinci painted "The Last Supper," he had an enemy who was a fellow-painter. Da Vinci had had a bitter argument with this man and despised him. When Da Vinci painted the face of Judas Iscariot at the table with Jesus, he used the face of his enemy so that it would be present for ages as the man who betrayed Jesus. While painting this picture, he took delight in knowing that others would actually notice the face of his enemy on Judas. As he worked on the faces of the other disciples, he often tried to paint the face of Jesus but couldn't make any progress. Da Vinci felt frustrated and confused. In time, he realized what was wrong. His hatred for the other painter was holding him back from finishing the face of Jesus. Only after making peace with his fellow-painter and repainting the face of Judas was he able to paint the face of Jesus and complete his masterpiece. Be reconciled with your fellow human beings, says today's Gospel. (http://www.lifeinitaly.com/art/last-supper.asp)

4: Waiting for the Lord to be reborn in our lives: Waiting, an inevitable and even necessary aspect of human life, is not something that most of us relish. We wait in lines: in order to purchase groceries; to be served at popular restaurants; to be assisted in a bank; at stop signs and traffic signals; at amusement parks; to see a play or film. We must also wait for flowers to grow and bloom; for babies to be born; for wounds to heal; for bread to rise and cheese to age; for children to mature; for friends to call; for love to deepen. Statisticians have estimated that in a lifetime of 70 years, the average person spends at least three years waiting! Today’s readings invite us to wait for the rebirth of the Lord in our lives with repentant hearts and renewed lives.