Commentary on the Gospel of
Becoming John the Baptist - Preparing the Way for Jesus
Recently I looked at my baby pictures with my mother who can now more easily access memories from long in the past. The photos brought a lot of happiness to her and a renewed appreciation of my mother’s love for me. One of the photos she lingered over was me in my baptismal gown. Twenty years ago on the second Sunday of Advent my younger daughter, wearing that same baptismal gown, was baptized. It is such a joy to remember the smiling faces of family, friends and parishioners during that celebration. It is also humbling to realize the responsibility I embraced to make those baptismal promises for my daughter. Those same baptismal promises provide a rich frame for my own advent journey.
In today’s gospel from Matthew we hear John the Baptist teach about baptism. He tells the crowd: 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.” This powerful message helps me focus on the gift of my baptism and helps me focus on my responsibility to embrace that gift.
As I pray about this gift a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans jumps out to me: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” I am reminded that my advent journey is not about me as an individual, but about how I engage in community.
The prevailing narrative is about how we are a divided people… nations are divided, communities are divided, families are divided. I feel so sad when I learn of people losing hope about the opportunity to live in harmony. Paul encourages us to feel hope from the scriptures.
My professional vocation in working with conflict has transitioned to create more possibilities for harmony. In the early days we were very focused on conflict resolution, on a specific outcome. As our field has developed we have learned that the focus should be on conflict engagement. There are many things which cannot be easily resolved and some which can never be resolved at all. However, we can productively engage the conflict, acknowledge the differences and figure out how to live in harmony. And of course that harmony may look very different from an idealized version of harmony. A pursuit of harmony does not mean that we need to accept unjust systems.
We can acknowledge someone’s perspective without agreeing with that perspective. Yet when we hear statements or see actions which are unconscionable from our perspective this is time for the real work to begin. Can I feel compassion for someone who proclaims values which are so very different from what I hold dear? Can I listen in an authentic way to better understand a person who says comments which make my stomach flip? Is there a road to harmony where we could join in one voice to glorify God when that seems impossible?
Just as we are reminded in Isiah, we cannot build harmony alone, we need to pray for God’s grace: The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
When I feel a sense of despair and hopelessness about a chance at harmony I will recall the rich imagery in the prophesy from Isiah: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.”
I pray for the grace to live my baptismal promises to the fullest each day as I help create harmony where I least expect it.