Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalms 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17

Romans 15:4-9

Matthew 3:1-12

Prophets are called to bring comfort to people who are frightened. They are meant to provide, by their very presence, the closeness of God, and they are, of course, meant to call an erring people back to the ways of God. There is no time when prophets are not needed, for in every age, sadly, there are wars and insurrections, and there are always going to be people straying from the right path, a path where justice and peace, goodness and compassion, mercy and truth can be found.

During Isaiah’s long career as a prophet he was frequently called to counsel and cajole people and kings, and today’s first reading is one of the more beautiful passages from his lengthy collection of oracles, poems, and prophecies. Isaiah looks forward to a day when a “bud shall blossom” from the line of Jesse, King David’s father. The “Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,” proclaims Isaiah, and that Spirit will impart wisdom, understanding, strength, and “fear of the Lord.” He shall not judge people like so many did in Isaiah’s time (indeed, in all times), for He shall be clothed with justice and faithfulness. Do not dismiss the first reading without wallowing in Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, for it has much comfort to still give to our very troubled world.

John the Baptist is often considered the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament prophets. Like Isaiah, he is looking forward to someone much mightier than he is, who will baptize not with just water, but with the “Holy Spirit and fire.” The Baptist’s goal is to prepare the people for “the way of the Lord,” and that preparation requires the people to “acknowledge their sins.” Repentance, or metanoia in Greek, is an ‘about face,’ a turning in a new direction. The acknowledgement of one’s sins is not so much meant to make us fear the coming of the Lord, even if He will burn the chaff of life “with unquenchable change fire.” No, true repentance involves turning toward the Lord, yearning for His presence, for it is He with His wisdom who helps us return to right living. Because it is “not by appearance that he judges” (Isaiah), we have nothing to fear, in spite of our sinfulness. The sinful will be judged mercifully by a God who sees the hearts of those who seek Him.

What bothers John the Baptist about the Pharisees and Sadducees among the throngs who flocked to him at the Jordan river was not that they were sinful! Indeed, the fury of John the Baptist was aroused because the Pharisees and Sadducees could not acknowledge their own sinfulness. They were dependent on appearances, and relied on their positions to make them feel superior to others. All the Baptist wanted was for them to “produce good fruit as evidence of their repentance,” but that seemed a bridge-too-far for these so-called religious leaders.

Advent calls us to prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, and at the end of time, and we can make ourselves ready by acknowledging our sinfulness and recognizing our need for God’s forgiveness, something we do at the beginning of every Mass we celebrate. But the entire season of Advent sets apart these four weeks to make an extraordinary effort at truly recognizing those areas of our lives where we fall short of what God desires of us. May we prepare ourselves for God’s coming by “producing good fruit,” fruit that all people can see, making us like the prophets of old who brought comfort to people while also calling them back to the way of the Lord.

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