Last Sunday John described himself in the words of Isaiah as “the voice crying in the desert.”
Today’s Gospel continues with the voices of various groups asking John, “What are we to do?” These are the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. We hear John telling them the things that block them from preparing the way: extortion, greed, possessiveness, and lack of concern for the poor.
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
To understand John’s message, we need to understand what it means to be a ‘forerunner’. A forerunner is one who serves as a sign. Last week we saw these words of Isaiah applied to John.
It’s difficult to be a forerunner. There is no “how-to manual”, no blueprints, no directions. The way to follow is never firm, never quite settled.
There is only one other time in Scripture, in Hebrews, Chapter 6, where we encounter the word forerunner: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:19-20). Its meaning here is “One who comes before where the rest are to follow.” John is the last of the Prophets of the Old Dispensation and is a bridge to the New Dispensation in Jesus Christ.
As we look at the images and signs in this Gospel and hear the words of the Prophets and of John, we take the time to look again at the indictments John gave to the groups who questioned him. But we also need to go deeper and ask ourselves, individually and as a community, if John could justly have said these things to us. Are there other qualities in our own person or community that block us from preparing the way? What indictments would John give us, personally and communally, as we struggle with converting our own lives?
First, John says each of us needs to be freed, personally and communally, from being full of myself, from thinking about what I want, from a “taking care of me first” attitude. Once the ego is under control, we will be open to receive the fullness of life, the life God wants for us. Where are we possessive? What can’t we let go of? Which changes are difficult to make, but necessary for transformation? When are we greedy, not able or willing to admit the ‘wants’ we’ve made our ‘needs’? John is not only talking about “things” here, but about the totality of our lives: our space (‘my piece of turf’), our possessions (‘my stuff’), our own wills (‘my way’), and so on.
The Gospel passage gives a powerful image and words to help us understand the image:
“His winnowing fan is in his hand
to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The particles of chaff are those who construct or receive meaning for their lives according to their own wants and their own decisions; they have no weight and so the wind carries them away. The precious grains are those who receive life through the Messiah and give life through their words and deeds. The grains are models who show us how we also are called through the encounters God has with us and we have with God. Through these encounters, we are sent out, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, to be flesh and blood gospels and to carry on Jesus’ mission which he entrusts to us.
John tells us what we must change and what should replace these flaws in our lives. Will we answer the call?
As Pope Francis declares in his apostolic exhortation The Joy of Discipleship, “Every encounter with God and with the mission entrusted to us from Jesus Christ asks of us an answer.”
John shows us where this answer can lead. He literally gave his life for the mission entrusted to him. The last sentence in today’s Gospel says that John “exhorted them in many other ways and preached the Good News to the people.” Let us use the remaining days of Advent to look deeply into our hearts and answer the call to “prepare the way of the Lord!” Will we say Yes?