“Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”
“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he 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 wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
– The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 3, verses 1-12, English Standard Version.
In stark relief of the overindulgence and materialism that oftentimes characterizes these weeks before Christmas, John the Baptist reminds us of the ascetic side of the Advent season. Like the prophet Elijah centuries before, John lived in the desert and wore camel’s hair, fed on locusts and wild honey, and preached to the crowds who came out in the desert to hear him and to receive his baptism of repentance. In this passage he is claiming to be the fulfillment of the prophecy in Second Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”.
John’s message to offensive to a great many of his hearers. He harshly criticizes the Pharisees and Sadducees, condemning their ethnocentrism and lack of good works. He admonished tax collectors and called on them to stop enriching themselves by taking from the people. He told the Zealots that they refrain from violence. He said that the rich must share with the poor. “He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none.”
The preaching of John the Baptist reminds us that while we enjoy the activities of this season before Christmas, we must not neglect to prepare for the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ by engaging in self-examination and repentance. Doing so, we will be enabled to receive the new life that God is offering to us in the gift of the beloved Son.
Submitting to God’s judgment is about being seen for who we really are. It is about acknowledging the failure of all of our defenses and pretensions. It means having the light turned upon us an illuminating all of our being for His examination. It is a standing before God with no more of our lame excuses, and waiting wordlessly to hear God’s true word about who we are. It means facing up to ourselves as we truly are, in the light of God’s presence.
Jesus‘ nearness to us is a judgment on us, but it is a judgment that comes from his heart of love. He offers to us the possibility for transformed lives, but doesn’t compel us to accept the offer. We can refuse Him, ignore Him, or fail to believe Him, or we might alternatively turn from our wrong headed ways and ask Him to transform our lives, baptizing us “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
In the Temple fire is what consumed the sacrifices that were offered. And on Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal witnessed God’s holy fire descend from Heaven as Elijah prayed. The fire from heaven consumed everything – the bull, the stones, the wood, the water, and even the dirt. But there is another way that this fire was experienced in the Old Testament, one best illustrated by recalling the burning bush. Moses saw a bush burning with a fire that did not consume or destroy it. This time it is not a consuming, but a refining fire.
The judgment of God is in that the further we try to move ourselves away from the fire of God’s love, the more we experience it as a punishment and condemnation. But for those who draw near to Him, the fire of God is the light of transformation, a fire that both illumines the world around us and changes us, re-forming us into His image and likeness. This is the fire with which Jesus himself baptizes us, inviting us into a life-changing relationship with himself.
God pours out the fire of His love out on everyone unconditionally. His judgment is in how one experiences the light, or fire, of God. (What is referred to in Orthodox theology as God’s Uncreated Energies.) This difference is what separates the saved from the lost.
For someone who hates God it will be a great punishment to spend eternity in the fiery presence of God’s divine love, much greater a punishment than to be sent to a place where He is not present. And, in fact, it is not even possible to be sent somewhere that God is not present. For there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God even if that is what we want. As the apostle Paul said “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38 -39)
Christianity is the religion of Love. We will experience God’s loving presence and His transforming light. For some that will be heaven, for others hell.