The Second Sunday of Advent usually features the ministry of St. John the Baptist. He was the prophet who fulfilled the Office of Elijah, of whom it was said, See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction (Mal 4:4-6).
St. John was a prophet who prepared the people of his time for the coming of Jesus by summoning them to repentance and opening them to the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.
But of course the coming of Jesus for which St. John prepared them has now been fulfilled. For us who ponder St. John’s office today, the coming of Christ for which we must be ready is His Second Coming.
Whom does “John the Baptist” represent for us? Surely it is the Church, which Christ founded to prepare people and draw them (us) from darkness into light. We experience the Church, not as an abstraction, but in our local bishop, priests, and deacons, as well as in our parents and catechists. Through all of them, the Church fulfills her mission to be a prophet that prepares us.
Furthermore, you are also called to be a prophet who prepares others for the coming of Christ as Judge. You do not work independently of the Church (at least you’d better not!); rather, the Church works through you.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of our prophetic office in the following way:
[The baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God (CCC, 1270).
We have an obligation to evangelize and to be prophets who prepare others for Judgment Day.
How can we do this effectively? What are the some of the essential ingredients of a prophet who prepares others? The ministry of St. John the Baptist provides four:
I. Poise – I use poise here in its older sense, referring to balance. The text says, John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Note that John says two things: He first says, “Repent!” and then adds, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
This is a balance that must be gotten right. The preacher and prophet must speak frankly of sin and call people to repentance, but also speak of the grace available to conquer that sin and to point out the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is open and available. John the Baptist was willing and able to declare the reality of sin and the necessity of repenting from it, but he was also able to declare the availability of the Kingdom, wherein one is able to find the grace to overcome sin.
Too many preachers, catechists, and even parents lack this proper balance. Some would say that in the past, sermons were all fire and brimstone; today, it’s more often the steady diet of “God is love” with little reference to the need for repentance. This is one of the reasons that our Churches have emptied over the past 40-50 years.
This is because the good news only has relevance and significance if the bad news is understood. If you don’t know the bad news, then the good news is no news. To illustrate, suppose you see a headline announcing a cure for a deadly disease. If you’ve never heard of this disease, the article will probably only be of passing interest. But if you or someone you love has the disease, you would probably be overjoyed and read the article very carefully. Because you know very personally the bad news of the disease, the good news of the cure means a great deal to you.
It is the same with the Kingdom. We have to know the bad news of sin in a very personal and profound way to fully appreciate the good news of salvation. In the Church we have been soft-pedaling the bad news, and so the good news seems irrelevant to many people; the medicine of the cure seems pointless. Why pray, receive sacraments, or read Scripture if everything is just fine? Why bother coming to Mass? Our Churches have emptied in part due to a lack of proper balance between repenting and believing that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
In order to be powerful and effective prophets, we have to speak frankly to others about the reality of sin and balance it with the joyful announcement of the Kingdom, with its grace and mercy now available. Prophecy must have the right balance.
St. John the Baptist didn’t sugarcoat things. He was explicit: we need to repent, or else. He spoke of a coming day of wrath and judgment for those who did not do so. He spoke of the axe being laid to the root of the tree, of fiery judgment and unquenchable fire. And he was not afraid to call the self-righteous “vipers,” equating their pride with that of the ancient serpent.
Too many people today are afraid to speak like this, thus they lack the balance necessary to be true preparing prophets. St. John joyfully announced the breaking in of the Kingdom of God and the coming of the Messiah, but he spoke of repentance as the door of access. Do we have this balance, or do we preach mercy without repentance?
II. Product – The text says, 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.
Here is the desired product of powerful prophecy: repentance unto salvation for all who believe. Preparing prophets do not seek merely to scare people; they seek to prepare them. To repent, to come to a new mind and heart by God’s grace, is to be prepared. This is the central work of the prophet who prepares: repentance unto salvation.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this aspect of prophecy and preaching. He is aware that he grieved some of them with his strong rebuke of the community (cf 1 Cor 5), but he is glad that it produced a godly sorrow, which in turn produced repentance and holiness. St. Paul also distinguishes between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation [at sin], what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done …. By all this we are encouraged (2 Cor 7:8-13).
An old priest once told me, “Never think you have preached well unless the line to the confessional is long.” Good preaching, among other things produces repentance unto salvation. It may cause some to be angry or sad, but proper prophecy will produce a godly sorrow such that anger and sadness give way to gladness. The expected product of proper preaching is repentance unto salvation.
III. Purity – The text says, When [John] 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.
John the Baptist had no fear of people’s opinions. He would not compromise his message based on his audience. The credentials of the temple leaders did not impress him. The status of the Jews as the chosen people did not cause him to soften his message. John had no fear of human opinion and no need to ingratiate himself to others, especially the rich and powerful.
Because of this, his preaching was pure. He did not compromise the message out of fear or the need to flatter others. He spoke boldly, plainly, and with love, desiring the ultimate salvation of all. If that called for strong medicine, he was willing to do it.
The ancient martyrs went to their deaths proclaiming Christ, yet many of us moderns are afraid of someone raising his eyebrows at us. Fear is a great enemy of powerful prophecy, for it causes many to remain silent when they should speak. The fear of what other people might think causes many to compromise the truth, and even sin against it. We must let go of this kind of fear if our prophecy is going to have the purity necessary to reach the goal.
IV. Person – The text says, 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.
John’s disciples and his audiences were fascinated by him, drawn in by his charisma. They wanted to know more about him, but instead John talked about Jesus. That was his message: “Jesus, not me.” If we are going to be powerful prophets, our message must be about Jesus, not about us and what we think. We are not out to win an argument or boost our egos; our goal is not to become famous. We are about Jesus Christ, His gospel, His message, His truth. John said of Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). A prophet speaks for the Lord, not for himself. A prophet announces God’s agenda, not his own. A prophet is about Jesus.
Here, then, are four important points about powerful prophecy: poise, product, purity, and person.
You are a preparing prophet whom the Lord seeks. Someone was John the Baptist for you. Someone brought you to Christ. Thank God for that person. But remember that you, too, are called to be John the Baptist for others. Learn from John. Apply his principles and make disciples for Jesus Christ.