Mountains and molehills: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 3:1–12:

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. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. 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. 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.”

The last two weeks I missed out on writing Sunday reflections, as I had taken vacation. Other than ensuring I didn’t lose ground to Jazz on our NFL threads, I needed a real break from an all-encompassing news cycle. Life and the news comes at you fast, to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, and it’s very easy to lose perspective on what is important — and what isn’t.

In missing last week, I missed an opportunity to talk about the start of the Advent season. In the church, Advent is the period of waiting and anticipation, knowing that the Messiah will soon come among us and preparing for His arrival. All other concerns get put into a true perspective by comparison. It’s not that providing for ourselves and our family and living within our communities stops being important, but Advent calls us to put those considerations into their proper place in light of salvation.

Our first reading today from Isaiah sets the context for us. In a series of impossibilities, the prophet reminds us that the Lord is in control of His own creation and that nothing is impossible with God. When the Messiah brings salvation to the world and His people bring themselves into full communion with the Word, Isaiah tells the Israelites, “there shall be no harm or ruin on my holy mountain.” The ruthless and the wicked will be struck down, and no worries at all will concern the people of God or His other creations, either. Wolves and lambs will rest together, children can play with the snakes, cows and bears will live peacefully.

In other words, there will be no worries in the next life for those who choose salvation. And that should inform our perspective in this life, too. John the Baptist came as the final prophet, pointing the way to the Messiah and preaching repentance for sins in order to prepare for salvation. This task, John the Baptist, goes before all others, because there is nothing more important than salvation, not even the daily worries and cares of the world. Salvation will put an end to those anyway, so why put them ahead of repentance and preparation? Salvation provides us freedom from the fears and jealousies that drive our priorities, eventually making us slaves in this world rather than free children of God formed for the next. Instead, we too often make mountains out of molehills, and a molehill out of God’s holy mountain while doing so.

John warned of the need to radically rethink those priorities in his ministry, and note well to whom John directs his opprobrium in this passage. Presumably, many in the crowds who came to hear John prophesy had led sinful lives, and yet John does not rebuke them for desiring salvation. The Pharisees and Sadducees, however, were part of the temple authority class for whom power was a greater concern than salvation. They would oppose Jesus throughout His ministry and view Him as a threat to their own position in this world.

Of course, John may have also perceived that they saw him as a threat as well and that the purpose of their visit was anything but repentance. However, his warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees teaches us the same lesson. The reason that the Pharisees and Sadducees missed the coming of the Messiah is because they were too focused on their own worldly position. Rather than remain focused on salvation and the freedom it gives us in this life, the Pharisees and Sadducees remained in bondage to their own ambitions.

Nor were they alone in this. Herod Antipas becomes an even more shocking example when Jesus finally begins His ministry. Herod has two opportunities in the Gospels to repent and atone for his cruelty and dissipation, and both times he chooses the molehill over the mountain. Herod at first wants to hear John’s preaching, but when John castigates him for divorcing his first wife to marry his half-brother’s wife Herodias, Herod has him arrested, and then murdered to satisfy his lust for Herodias’ daughter.

And yet Herod would get another chance to repent and atone. When Jesus came before Pontius Pilate the first time, the Roman prefect sent Jesus to Herod. Herod had also wanted to hear Jesus preach, wondering at first whether Jesus was actually John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod could have chosen to embrace Jesus as Messiah and repented of his life of ambition, power, cruelty, and avarice. Instead, he rejected Jesus and sent Him back to be crucified. Herod valued his lust and his greed far more than salvation and the equality and freedom that comes from being the children of God.

When we recognize this and order our lives toward salvation, we make ourselves ready for the arrival of the Messiah in our own hearts. John tells us to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths,” but he’s not preaching that we should do this for the Lord’s sake. John is telling us to do this so that we can come to the Lord, who awaits us with infinite love and patience. That is the mission of which Advent reminds us and for which it prepares us.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist” by Bacchiacca, circa 1520. On display at Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.