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).
Therefore St. John is 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 its fullness.
But of course the coming of Jesus for which St. John prepared them has been fulfilled. And thus, for us who ponder John’s office, we need to realize that the coming of Christ for which we must be ready is his Second Coming.
Who is “John the Baptist” for us? Surely it is the Church, which Christ founded to prepare a people for him and draw us from darkness to light. But of course we experience the Church, not as an abstraction, but more locally in our Bishop, priests and deacons. Further we experience the Church in our parents and catechists. Through them all, the Church fulfills her mission to be a Prophet who prepares us.
And further, if you are prepared to accept it, YOU are also called to be a prophet who prepares others for the coming of Christ as judge. You do not work independent of the Church (at least you 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)
So, we have an obligation to evangelize and to be prophets in this world who prepare others for judgement day. We are called to go before the Judge who is to follow and prepare the hearts of people we know.
But how can we do this effectively? What are the some of the essential ingredients of being a prophet who prepares? The ministry of St. John the Baptist in today’s Gospel provides four principles for prophets who prepare. Let’s look at the elements that are displayed
I. Poise . Poise here refers 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 the content of John’s preaching is twofold. He first says, “Repent!” And then adds, “For the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Here is a balance to get right. The preacher and the prophet must speak frankly of sin and call people to repentance. But the prophet must also speak of the grace available to conquer that sin and the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven is now open and available. Hence John the Baptist is willing and able to declare the reality of sin and the necessity of repenting from it. But he is 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 balance. In the past, some argue, that sermons were all fire and brimstone. Today it is too often, the steady diet “God is love” with little reference to the need to repent. This is one explanation of why our Churches have emptied in the past 40 years.
This is because the good news only has relevance and significance if the bad news is first understood. If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. To illustrate, suppose you are looking at a newspaper and see a headline that announces a cure for a deadly disease has been found. But what if you have never heard of this disease and don’t even know you have it? It is not likely you will read the article, it will be only of passing interest. But, now suppose you know of this disease, and that you have it, and you know others who have it. Suddenly this headline jumps out, is very relevant, causes joy and is an article to read very carefully by you! Because you know very personally the bad news of the disease, the good news of the cure now means everything 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 if the Good News of Salvation is going to be appreciated. But in the Church we have lately soft-pedaled the bad news. Thus the Good News is irrelevant to people and the medicine of the cure is pointless. Why pray, receive sacraments or read scripture if everything is really fine? Why bother coming to Church for all that stuff? Hence our Churches have emptied, in part, due to a lack of the proper balance of repent and the Kingdom of God is at hand.
If we are going to be powerful and effective prophet we are going to have to be able 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 being available. Prophecy must be proper by having the right balance.
Notice the St. John the Baptist wasn’t messing around and sugar-coating things. He was explicit, we need to repent or else. He spoke of a coming day of wrath and judgement for those who did not do so. He spoke of the axe being laid to the root of the tree. He spoke of fiery judgment, and unquenchable fire. And to the self-righteous he was not afraid to equate their pride with that of the ancient serpent, calling them vipers.
Too many are afraid to speak like this today, and therefore lack the balance necessary for a true preparing prophet. St. John joyfully announced the in-breaking 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. Prophets want to save people by drawing them to God’s grace, this is goal, the salvation of souls! Preparing prophets do not seek merely to scare people, they seek to prepare people.
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 and thus works to save others: repentance is unto salvation.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this aspect of prophecy and preaching. He is aware that he grieved some of them due to a strong rebuke he gave the community (cf 1 Cor 5) but he is glad that it produced a godly sorrow which in turn produced repentance and holiness. He 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 mad or sad, but if it is proper prophecy, it will produce a godly sorrow and the madness and sadness gives way to gladness. Here is the expected product of proper preaching: 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 opinion and would not compromise the message based on his audience. All the credentials of the temple leaders did not impress him. Neither did the status of the Jews as the chosen people cause him to soften his message. John had no fear of human opinion, no need for the good favor of others, especially the rich and powerful.
Because of this his preaching had purity. He did not compromise the message out of fear or the need to flatter others. He spoke boldly, plainly and with love and desire for the ultimate salvation of all. If that called for strong medicine he was willing to do it.
The ancient martyrs went to their death proclaiming Christ but many of us moderns are afraid even of someone raising their eyebrows at us. Fear is a great enemy of powerful prophecy for by it many remain silent when they should speak. The fear of what other people may think causes many to compromise the truth and even sin against it. This sort of fear has to go 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 audience and disciples were fascinated by him, and drawn by his charisma. But as they want to know more about him, John talks instead about Jesus. That’s the message, “Jesus, not me.” If we are going to be powerful prophets the message has got to be about Jesus, not about me and what I think. We are not out to win an argument and boost our own egos. We are not out to become famous. We are about Jesus Christ and 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 himself. A prophet announces God’s agenda not his own. A prophet is about Jesus.
Here then are four Principles of Powerful Prophecy: Poise, Product, Purity, Person.
You are now a preparing prophet whom the Lord seeks. Someone was John the Baptist for you. Someone brought you to Christ. Thank God for that individual or those individuals. But you too are to be John the Baptist for others. Learn from John, apply his principles and make disciples for Jesus Christ.