The last shall be first — and that means ..: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 1:6–8, 19–28:

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.

And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Christ.” So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” He said:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”

Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

As we continue our journey into Advent and then into Christmas, we also continue our focus on the ministry of John the Baptist. As we recognize from today’s Gospel, John the Baptist cut a controversial figure in his day. By the end of his life, John managed to threaten the entire leadership caste in Jerusalem, and he paid for that with his life. In the end, it was his condemnation of Herod Antipas and his marriage that provided the catalyst for his imprisonment and then execution. Today’s passage, though, shows that John the Bapist had already gotten onto the radar screens of the power brokers at the temple as well as the palace.

One has to wonder why an itinerant preacher that far outside of Jerusalem posed such a threat. Bethany across the Jordan is probably around 20-30 miles as the crow flies from Jerusalem, far enough away that the musings of a teacher shouldn’t have created much of a stir. (Today, the routes to get between the two points are roughly 130 miles or more, thanks to modern highways and political conflict.) Furthermore, the path between the two even in those days went through some of the most inhospitable territory in the world. It would have taken an enormous effort to go back and forth between the two for anything other than planned commerce.

And yet, we know from the Gospels that people did make that pilgrimage — many people, in fact. The Pharisees, scribes, and Levites — the power structure of the Judeans at the time — came to see what exactly drew people out to the desert to hear John preach. We see an echo of this in Herod Antipas’ fascination with John, too — and for that matter, in Herod’s initial fascination with Jesus. John preached something for which the Judeans thirsted, and which the temple authorities did not or could not provide. That presented a real threat to their standing, which is why they grew interested in John at all.

Note too that these leaders didn’t come to listen, either. They do not ask, “What is your message?” Instead, they demand to know his position and authority to preach. John the Baptist does not pretend to have authority, at least not as they defined it at that moment. All he claims to be is one who is urging preparation, and telling people that their hour of deliverance will soon be at hand.

Again, it’s remarkable that such a message would have been that attractive, especially considering the source in the context of those times. Something in John’s message called to the hearts of those Judeans; they understood his prophetic nature even though John eschewed that title or any of the trappings of authority. They thirsted for something more than a dry exercise of law or a leadership caste that left them as refugees in their own land. They dragged themselves through the desert looking for living water.

Even more basic: They wanted to know that the Lord had not forgotten them. The people wanted a way back into the heart of the Lord. John promised them that they should build that path in their hearts, because the hour would soon come when He would transform those hearts and provide salvation. The Lord is coming, John promised; prepare the way.

Yet the simplicity of that message, and John’s status in delivering it, showed precisely what the Lord’s coming would mean. As Jesus would later teach, the last shall be first …. and the first would be last. This advent of salvation would not come through the temple authorities and the haughty who cared more for themselves than the Lord or the people. The Pharisees, scribes, Levites, and Herod Antipas would all be bypassed by the Son of God, coming directly to the people of Judea and then by extension the world through His own church.

John warns the power brokers who challenge him that he speaks as Isaiah did in declaring the Lord’s salvation. Our first reading from Isaiah reminds us of the Lord’s promise to lift up the lowly in salvation:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.

What does this tell us today about our own lives? In this season of Advent especially, we must decide which we love more: the Lord, or our own pretensions of lordliness. Salvation can lift all of us, but only if we approach it in the recognition of our own fallenness and our own lowliness in sin. Salvation came for the Pharisees, scribes, and Levites too, and even Herod and the Romans, had they prepared themselves for the coming of Christ. Isaiah’s prophesy wasn’t an exclusion, but a warning about recognizing our own right relationship with God.

Power and wealth are human pretensions to glory, the love of which must be cast aside if we are to truly prepare our hearts for the advent of Christ. We are all poor before God, which we need to recognize. Sin has broken our hearts and made us captives and prisoners to our own impulses and desires. Christ comes to heal this brokenness through His grace and His Word. Baptism provides a moment of cleanliness before the Lord and an invitation from us to have the Holy Spirit enter our hearts.

It is that for which we prepare this Advent season — our renewal in Christ, and a recommitment to His Word. We do this as ones in the desert of sin, making straight the paths to the Lord’s encounter with us. Even the least of us can have hope in that salvation.

The front-page image is a detail from “Saint John the Baptist” by an anonymous artist, c. 1600. On display at the National Trust in the UK. Via Wikimedia Commons

“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.  

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