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At this time of the year we are busy with the preparations for Christmas and all that it requires to focus our hearts and minds on the Christmas story. This time of the year also brings with it the Nativity scenes in stores and on people’s lawns. The Nativity scenes used to have a place on the lawns of courthouses and city halls, but no more. If that occurs, we have an invasion of the ACLU, descending like a SWAT Team on a bunch of bank robbers. We have the annual battle between the anti-religion forces and those who wish to commemorate Christmas in the old fashioned way. It is a fight that has become all too familiar at this time of the year. This morning’s lessons speak of the coming of the King, the branch from Jesse's roots that shall come forth. They speak of the king that shall rule righteously, the one in whom all the Gentiles shall hope. The appearance of John the Baptist is like an invasion of the unfamiliar and unexpected.

He came to the people of Israel and gave them a message of repentance that they should seek the forgiveness that God offered them for their sins. As the collect says: "Give us grace to heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer." This season of Advent has been set aside before Christmas so that we might quiet ourselves down long enough to take stock of our lives and prepare for the coming of our Redeemer. The message today can be summed up in the words Repentance, Forgiveness, Hope and Encouragement. It is really a miracle that we can even stop long enough during this hectic holiday season to hear the words of Advent. What are the words you hear most often? Are you ready for Christmas? I have yet to meet anybody who was ready for Christmas! What ever happened to Advent? It seems that in the rush to get Christmas over and done with we just blow right through Advent at a Warp Factor 5. No one wants to hear about Repentance. What has that to do with Christmas? Let us think about Gifts, Parties, Food and Happy times! By the time Christmas does come everyone is knocked out from all the shopping and preparing for Christmas that we all just fall out and that is when things get quiet. It is quite a reversal of what it should be. The focus of Advent season is on preparing for the coming of the LORD. The Christmas season focuses on the first coming of the LORD as a baby. John preached about his coming as a man to begin his ministry, and we look forward NOW to his coming again, in glory, to claim his kingdom. We are talking about the same LORD but we are looking at his coming from three points of view. The secular world has taken his coming as a baby and the arrival of the three wise men, with gifts for the Baby Jesus and used it as an excuse to go on a buying binge. As a culture, we act like he did not come the first time. We pay no attention to the fact that he came as our Redeemer, to live and die for our sins, to be resurrected and ascended, and to be glorified at the right hand of the Father. The Reason for the Season is tied up in these words:


Repentance: The action on our part that prepares us and our hearts to receive the coming king. John preached to the people, to repent and prepare themselves for the one who was coming after him. He looked into the hearts of the Pharisees and Sadducees and saw that they were not properly prepared for the baptism of repentance that he was offering. His words revealed their real attitude. They were hoping in their relationship to Abraham for their salvation. They had not properly cleansed and renewed their hearts. Their attitude was not right. That was why he told them that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Recall how Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and Jesus told him that he would have to be born again. Nicodemus could not understand it and Jesus had to explain that he was talking about being born of the Spirit, from above. In other words, being baptized by the Spirit into a whole new relationship. That could only come when the heart had been properly prepared and cleansed and made ready to receive that baptism. The fire that John referred to was the celestial, refining fire of God's Spirit'. Do you recall that the Bishop intones the Veni Creator Spiritus" at services of ordination. It goes:

Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire,

Enlighten with celestial fire.

The Holy Spirit's celestial fire is refiner's fire that bums off all the impurities, like the silversmith does when refining silver. He fires the silver ore until all that is left is the pure silver. When the Holy Spirit does his work in our hearts, we are changed people. We are ready to receive the Forgiveness that Jesus brings as the Redeemer of the world. He came to bring the forgiveness of sins that we may be made right with God. As it says in Psalm 72:7

In his time shall the righteous flourish;

there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

Forgiveness of sins is what the Gospel is all about- it is the theme of the parable of the Prodigal Son, which could rightly be renamed the parable of the Forgiving Father. The core of the Lord's Prayer is the Forgiveness that we expect from God, but only if we forgive others. I did not appreciate what forgiveness meant until I made my retreat to the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth. My director had me concentrating on my sin for 24 hours and by the time I met with him again, I was a miserable wretch. He asked me how I felt and I said that it felt like I had betrayed God's love for me. He then said to me, "Well, you know there is Forgiveness." Wow, just hearing the word was like taking a boulder off my back. It felt so great I wanted to jump up and down. I’M FORGIVEN!! You cannot imagine the joy in those words after you have spent 24 hours searching scripture and coming to grips with your recalcitrant unrepentance. It is no wonder that John and Jesus had such a hard time with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Unforgiveness towards others is a bar and it blocks up the flow of God's Spirit into our lives to bring healing and wholeness. Once it is dealt with, Forgiveness it opens up the way for Hope to flow into our lives. St. Paul wrote to the Romans:

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." [Romans 15:13]

Hope: We must have hope in our lives if we expect live the fruitful lives that God intends for us to have. One of the triggering causes of suicide is loss of all hope. When the suicide-prone person loses all hope, they are very susceptible to committing suicide. The human spirit needs "hope to cope" with the pressures of life. Hope is like the pilot light in the hot water heater or gas range. It is that little spark you need to ignite your afterburners to get you going when the going gets rough. Hope is built up through encouragement.

Encouragement is a great Christian word; it has the same root as the word "comforter". In the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostle a man named Joseph was surnamed Barnabas, which meant Son of Encouragement, sold some land and brought the proceeds to the Apostles. He also accompanied Paul on his journeys. The word encouragement carries the connotation of one who comes along side to help. The Holy Spirit comes along side to encourage us, support us and strengthen us as we strive to serve the LORD. We might consider these aspects of the ministry of encouragement:

1. Encouragement includes exhortation: Spurring one on to greater effort.

2. Encouragement is honest: It helps us to see ourselves as we are.

3. Encouragement is verbal: It gives good reports of progress.

4. Encouragement is exemplary: It leads by example.

5. Encouragement sees progress: It looks for improvement.

6. Encouragement is reciprocal: We both improve.

7. Encouragement fosters growth: Giving and receiving helps all to grow.

I remember a student I had out at Fort Gordon in my electronics classes, in the 1980’s named Kenneth Henderson. Kenneth was an encourager. We would spend the break periods talking about how the LORD was moving in our lives. If you were feeling down he would always quote from the 1st letter of John, "greater is he that is in you than he who is in the world". He was always carrying a PMA- Positive Mental Attitude. Later in 1995 when I began teaching the Bible, he appeared in both my Old and New Testament classes. I cannot begin to tell you the encouragement I felt to see his smiling face in the class. The reading from Isaiah is filled with words of encouragement; in fact it is so full I would call it a ZIP file. In case you are not familiar with the term ZIP file, it is used to describe a computer file that has been compressed to take up a lot less space and it is designated a zip file because to retrieve all the original information you have to UNZIP it. It is great to use when you only have so much space on a floppy disk. This reading from Isaiah is like a ZIP file because it is so rich in symbolism for the coming messiah. St. Paul reminds us that our most important source of encouragement is the scriptures that we might have hope in the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In this season of reflection let us gather around the Advent wreath. Let this time be one of preparation and repentance as we look forward to his coming in glory.

DOCTRINAL POINTS: Gloria Hutchinson writes in Homily Helps.

This material follows the infancy narrative and is the beginning of Jesus' "public ministry." Because Jesus' public ministry begins with his baptism at the hands of John the Baptizer, Mt must describe John carefully. John must fit in with the kingdom of heaven that Jesus announces and yet offer no competition to Jesus as the Christ.

1) Kingdom of heaven. The Baptizer is the first to preach the coming of the kingdom of heaven and in the exact same words that Jesus will later use (4:17). (Strangely, the NAB has "reign of God" in 3:2, but "kingdom of heaven" in 4:17. The Greek has "kingdom of heaven" in both places.) In Mt, the Baptizer has the unique role of being a part of the new kingdom of heaven even prior to Jesus 'ministry because he is the prophetic forerunner of Jesus.

2) "The one who will follow me." This messianic title calls to mind the coming of the day of the Lord prophesied in Mal 3:23. The "one who will follow" is mightier than the Baptizer, showing that he is not just a prophet but can be compared to the mighty Lord of the Old Testament. The fact that John is not fit to carry his sandals is also a reference to his exalted status.

3) Judgment. The Baptizer heralds not only the coming kingdom but also the coming judgment. He uses the same language that Jesus uses later against false prophets and Pharisees (7:19; 12:34; 23:33). The baptism of the "one who will follow" involves salvation by the Holy Spirit for some and punishment by fire for others. (The first reading develops the themes of salvation and judgment. The second reading emphasizes salvation.) His baptism is the final judgment.


1. I wonder how many of us have given the silent treatment to someone who has offended us. A recent Maryknoll magazine story described a Chinese couple that had not spoken to each other in 20 years. After a first-class quarrel, they simply refused to forgive one another. On his deathbed, the husband decided to become a Catholic. But the priest refused to baptize him until he and his wife were reconciled. "It would be making a joke of Christianity," the priest said. He and the couple's son prayed for them and laid hands on them. A week later the man and his wife were reconciled. Two days after their reunion, the husband, newly baptized, died peacefully.

2. There are times when we would rather have six cavities filled than forgive someone. Maybe they have wounded our pride, rejected our help or stomped on our cherished beliefs. Or maybe they have offended us by being different or objectionable. We cannot tolerate their appearance, their attitudes or their politics. We are lambs. They are wolves. And we refuse to live peacefully with them.

3. While John the Baptist ate plenty of honey in his lifetime, he didn't waste any of it on his words of warning to those who thought they had it made with God because they were members of a chosen people. If they wanted to get into the Kingdom, they first had to repent and produce fruit worthy of the sons and daughters of Yahweh.

If we have grown complacent with ourselves as Christians, thinking that all is well because we attend church regularly and obey the laws of the Church, the Advent voice of John should shake us up a bit. Essentially, he's saying, "It isn't enough to be a member in good standing of the Church. God can raise up new churchgoers from these stones." Sincere repentance is required of us as citizens of the Kingdom, which is always, close at hand. The Baptizer urges us to repent of whatever pharisaical attitudes and actions prevent us from forgiving or accepting others.

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