4 December [Second Sunday of Advent]
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
The voice of prophecy had been silent for four hundred years. John the Baptist spoke with such fire that people believed God had now broken the long silence. Even many of the Pharisees and Sadducees were convinced, or at least willing to consider it. We are more aware of the Pharisees – they get such a bad press in the New Testament. It must have taken an immense force to lift their heads from their study of the Torah, the Law. The Torah was God's definitive word, according to their belief. But here they were, listening for a new word from God.
God's new prophet did not flatter them. “Brood of vipers!” Pit of snakes! Don’t rely on your Scriptures, your past (he told them); God is able to do a new thing.
But in fairness to them, they had put aside their commentaries and come to listen. St Paul had been a Pharisee, and it took the power of God to cast out his old certainties. These other Pharisees seem more amenable. John could have thanked them for coming! But he is a rough diamond, an uncut diamond. He has the hardness, but there is little beauty, and not much light coming through. Take away the rhetoric and his message is conventional: “Tax collectors came to be baptised, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’" (Luke 3:12-14).
But there would be another diamond, an Immortal Diamond, and John's greatness was that he pointed to him. "He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" – he, the Immortal Diamond formed in the crucible of earth's suffering. With him every mortal sufferer can be immortal diamond, can say with Hopkins: "I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am."
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