Prepare the Way of the Lord

On this Second Sunday of Advent, our readings draw our attention to St. John the Baptist and his role as one who prepares the way of the Lord.

After carefully setting the stage historically, St. Luke tells us, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert” (Luke 3:2). Luke uses a term for ‘word’ (rhema) which likely means the reception of a particular word.

Luke has already told us earlier in the story that John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb” (1:15) and that even as a child John lived in the desert and “became strong in spirit” (1:80). This new reception of the “word” (rhema) parallels the calling of other prophets (Jeremiah 1:1-4), as does the mention of the prophets father Zechariah (Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Zechariah 1:1). As Zechariah had prophesied earlier, John the Baptist will be called “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76).

Yet as the Catechism reminds us “John the Baptist is ‘more than a prophet.’ In him, the Holy Spirit concludes his speaking through the prophets. John completes the cycle of prophets begun by Elijah” (CCC 719).

Luke tells us, “John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 1:3). John the Baptist began travelling about the northern region of the Jordan River, preaching a message of repentance to the Jewish people and baptizing them in the Jordan river. Preaching a message of repentance would have been very similar to the classical prophets of the Old Testament.

What is clearly new and unique was the fact that John was baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. This is unusual because in contemporary Judaism there was no talk of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Some groups practiced repeated ritual purifications, and around this time period, the practice of baptizing new converts to Judaism also emerged. But the text seems to imply that John was giving a one-time baptism of repentance to his fellow Jews.

Later Christian Baptism will also speak of being baptized “for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), but St. Peter will add “. . . and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In fact, this exact phrase in Greek is found in the Creed “I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” John the Baptist testifies, however, that his baptism is inferior Jesus’ baptism. John the Baptist notes that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

So, what are we to make of John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 1:3)? First, we might want to correct a common misunderstanding that Jewish people were saved by meticulous fulfillment of the 613 precepts of the law. This number is actually from later Jewish tradition. Under these conditions, it would be extremely difficult to be saved because if you couldn’t fulfill the law perfectly you would be lost.

This negative caricature of Second Temple Judaism has been shown to be false by a number of modern scholars. Although there is some debate about the finer details, there is a broad consensus that at the time of Jesus, the Jewish people generally believed that someone was ‘saved’ by being born into a loving covenant that God had established between himself and his people by divine election.

The purpose of the law was to be like a fence which helped keep you in the covenant. The law was not a means to enter into relationship with God, it was a means to stay in the relationship you already have by grace. If you ‘jumped the fence’ of the law by sinning, you needed to be restored into this covenant relationship. Clearly you had an obligation to stay within the fence.

The baptism of John the Baptist clearly lacked the later sacramental character that Christian Baptism provided because Christian Baptism applies the finished work of Jesus’ sacrifice which is able to release the fullness of the gift of forgiveness (Acts 2:38, 22:16; John 3:5; Titus 3:5). Baptism is also linked to the reception of the Holy Spirit.

Later in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that St. Paul encountered some disciples who had only received the baptism of John the Baptist. St. Paul tells them, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus” (Acts 19:4).

John’s baptism was a prophetic act, but one which is an anticipation of future cleansing and forgiveness through Jesus (CCC 720). John’s baptism should not be limited to a symbol of repentance, however, it is a real anticipation of the messianic gift of forgiveness, and the future outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2, Acts 2).

There are two distinct strands to the Old Testament prophetic tradition about cleansing and forgiveness. One strand emphasized water of baptism as a symbolic expression of repentance (Isaiah 1:16-17, Jeremiah 4:14), while the other strand focused on the divine answer to repentance (Isaiah 4:2-6, Ezekiel 36-37, Jeremiah 31:31-34). The second strand is pointing ahead to a future time when God would cleanse and transform his people’s hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, Luke tells us that John the Baptist was preparing his people to receive the salvation that would be poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17). John is the voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord . . . and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:4-6).

In many ways, John the Baptist’s ministry of preparation can continue to remind us of our own need to prepare our hearts for Jesus in this season of Advent. Let each of us examine our hearts and seek to draw near to our Lord. We might ask ourselves; what I can do to stay focused on Jesus in this distracting secular season of self-indulgence and consumerism?

Deacon Scott McKellar is pastoral associate at St. Therese Parish, North.

Daily Scripture Readings

For complete daily Scripture texts, click here: http://www.usccb.org

Monday, December 10
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalms 85:9ab & 10, 11-12, 13-14
Luke 5:17-26

Tuesday, December 11
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalms 96:1-2, 3 & 10ac, 11-12, 13
Matthew 18:12-14

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Wednesday, December 12
Zechariah 2:14-17
or Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab
Judith 13:18bcde, 19
Luke 1:26-38 or Luke 1:39-47

Thursday, December 13
Isaiah 41:13-20
Psalms 145:1 & 9, 10-11, 12-13ab
Matthew 11:11-15

Friday, December 14
Isaiah 48:17-19
Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4 & 6
Matthew 11:16-19

Saturday, December 15
Sirach 48:1-4, 9-11
Psalms 80:2ac & 3b, 15-16, 18-19
Matthew 17:9a, 10-13

Third Sunday of Advent, December 16
Zephaniah 3:14-18A
Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6.
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:10-18

Monday, December 17
Genesis 49:2, 8-10
Psalms 72:1-2, 3-4ab, 7-8, 17
Matthew 1:1-17

Tuesday, December 18
Jeremiah 23:5-8
Psalms 72:1-2, 12-13, 18-19
Matthew 1:18-25

Wednesday, December 19
Judges 13:2-7, 24-25a
Psalms 71:3-4a, 5-6ab, 16-17
Luke 1:5-25

Thursday, December 20
Isaiah 7:10-14
Psalms 24:1-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
Luke 1:26-38

Friday, December 21
Zephaniah 3:14-18a
Psalms 33:2-3, 11-12, 20-21
Luke 1:39-45

Saturday, December 22
1 Samuel 1:24-28
1 Samuel 2:1, 4-5, 6-7, 8abcd
Luke 1:46-56

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23
Micah 5:1-4a
Psalms 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19.
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

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Sunday
December 16, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph