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“When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ Jesus said to them in reply,
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.’
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?
Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’” (Matthew 11:2-11).
 
Prophecy during Advent is an illustration of confounded expectations. Jesus has been preaching about how his followers will not be content or successful, but, rather will endure endless persecution in his name. John took a message of repentance to the king and found himself in chains. That might have been John’s first clue that Jesus was telling the truth, but still, where was the purifying fire, the revolution?
There were many messianic figures in those times, stirring the people’s sense of prophecy and superstition. One can understand John’s need to know, as he sat in jail, if Jesus was for real or just another charismatic preacher.
 
Consider our own expectations and the gospel pattern of confounding them. At this point, each of the answers suggested in the Advent gospel readings seem a little dubious, a little unlikely, yet inevitable. As twentieth century author Flannery O’Connor said, endings, like answers, work that way—we could never have imagined them, but when they come, they feel absolutely true and fitting.
 
So in today’s gospel reading we see Jesus neatly side-stepping the question of who he is. First, Jesus tells John’s followers to simply report what they have seen: not revolution, not fire, but healing and good news among the poor. Then, he calls John God’s messenger, the one who prepares the way. Yet John has always been a frightening prophet, preparing us for the worst—for being incomplete and unworthy when the Messiah comes. Jesus does not contradict John’s prophecies. The winnowing rod, the burning fire, the avenging Jewish King are still possibilities. By suggesting that the two visions are compatible, he again confounds expectations.
 
The answers we have been seeking come as a complete surprise, not so much in the “what” but in the fact that the results are actually there for those with the eyes of faith to see, and once realized, they seem inevitable. Jesus is telling John he should trust himself. He who has ears, Jesus will soon say, let him hear.
 
– What is Jesus asking his followers to rethink about whom to trust and follow?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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adventLoving God and Father,
You sent the messenger John
with words to move us, and shake us.
Let us be attentive to the Baptist’s call
to prepare for the coming
of the One who is more powerful than he.
Amen.
 
From Advent Awakenings, Year A: Trust the Lord.

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repentance“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 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 coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 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’” (Matthew 3:1-8; 10b-11).
 
A lucrative position that has emerged in our modern economy is that of consultant. We try to drastically improve our prospects by soliciting advice from someone who seems to see more deeply, more clearly than we do. Consultants always appear superb in manner, dress, and expression. They radiate power and trust. When we dread the unknown, we pay consultants well to forge ahead of us, paving the way.
 
The wild man we meet in the gospel reading today is deliberately pictured by Matthew in a way that his listeners would recognize: clothed in rags and eating bugs—code for “this is a prophet.”
 
Deliberately abrasive, difficult, and unnerving, John is someone whose very abrasiveness might threaten the message he wishes to convey. He does not “consult” his followers on how to understand their lives. He exhorts, extols, and reminds his followers of service. An ancient voice cries in the wilderness, stirring our pity, igniting our sense of duty. But to hear the voice is not enough; we need to hear with a heart untainted by selfishness, motivated by truth, and purified by repentance.
 
Each of us must struggle to see beyond the medium to the message and ask, Is this truly the Spirit of God speaking to me?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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AdventLord Jesus, Advent invites us
to a time of new beginning.
Help us to make a fresh start—
to rid our lives
of distractions or preoccupations
that keep us from preparing ourselves
to welcome you at your second coming.
This we ask in your name,
who live and reign with the Father

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.
Amen.

 
From Advent Awakenings, Year A: Trust the Lord.

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1st Sunday of Advent Be Prepared“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come’” (Matthew 24:37-42).
 
Be prepared. Nearly every young male can give you the source for that citation: the motto of the Boy Scouts, invoked by leaders at the start of every meeting. It wasn’t unusual for the boys to glance around, worrying a little and asking themselves, Prepared for what?
 
Robert Baden-Powell, the British founder of the Boy Scouts, once explained what he meant by that motto. “Prepared for what?” he said. “Why, for any old thing.” Being stranded in the woods with no matches. Noticing someone drowning in the deep end of a pool. The explicit lesson was that if we took time to prepare for most eventualities, then the future wouldn’t be nearly so haphazard, nor be a cause for dread.
 
“Advent” means coming, appearance, arrival. In these early days of Advent the focus is on the second coming of Christ, so we begin with eyes on the future, straining to focus on what might be headed this way. This reading is not about the coming of a poor little child; rather, it is about the coming of the end of the world. The imagery is stark, even startling. Two men working in a field. Two women preparing food. Suddenly, in each place, only one is left. Such abruptness is meant to startle us. Our daily actions, those simple pleasures of living—eating, drinking, marrying, as in “the days of Noah”—that make up our everyday lives should never be thought of as comfortably complete.
 
The liturgical year has changed, but the lesson has not. Jesus tells us over and over to be prepared for the end of this age.
 
Today’s stark stories tell us that the Church should be a community of preparation, which means we who are members of the Church should be cultivating a different vision of human goals and of the hope for our lives.
 
– What do you think preparation and watchfulness consist of, and what are we being asked to focus on?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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