Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Second Letter of Peter 3:8-14; Mark 8:1-8

Every year on the second Sunday of Advent, the Church has us ponder the words and deeds of Saint John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the coming of the Lord. Our own monastery church is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, whom scripture tells us lived in the desert, fasted and prayed, and ultimately gave his life in the service of God as a prophet, teacher, baptizer and martyr.

John baptized with water, a symbolic action indicating one was willing to turn to God wholeheartedly. The Lord Jesus, coming after John, and as Messiah of all people, brings a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire, meaning it is no symbolic cleansing, but a true and lasting cleansing for the remission of sins and entry into an eternal covenant with God.

We are being asked by the Lord on this Advent Sunday if we in fact want to be on fire for God and are receptive to the Lord’s coming to us every day in word and sacrament, as well as in the persons around us and the wonders of creation in our midst. And are we eagerly awaiting the return of our Lord Jesus Christ when he comes in glory?

Fire in biblical times was associated with the action of God, since fire was and remains a mysterious force on earth, acting and consuming so rapidly and completely.

God manifested his presence in fire in the burning bush, ablaze but not consumed, when God spoke to Moses, described in the Book of Exodus, chapter 3, verse 2. Fire is used in other descriptions of God in the Hebrew scriptures, to underline God’s protection over his people, with chariots of fire seen all around the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:17), for example. God’s holiness is compared to fire in Deuteronomy 4:24, where we read, “The Lord your God is a devouring fire.”

God’s glory is revealed as fire to the prophet Ezekiel (1:4 and 13) in his visions of God. In the New Testament fire describes the activity of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11 and Acts 2:3).

As something that can indeed be destructive, fire should mainly be understood in biblical terms as something that purifies and cleanses. We think of this today especially regarding agriculture and medicine, where fire in some form can be a very necessary, perhaps the only, means of bringing about a positive change. God’s fire, then, is meant to be something that ultimately brings life and understood as eternal life.

In the face of such a reality, God’s “fire,” or life inspires souls to reverence and holy fear of the One who made us, cares for us, and guides us to the heavenly banquet.

John the Baptist, focus of this Sunday’s readings, was clearly on fire for God’s work, which was to point to Jesus Christ as the true Messiah and bearer of the kingdom of God, foreshadowed by the beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah heard in the first reading today.

Some of John’s followers were Jesus’ first disciples. John did not insist that these followers stay with him, but that in that in fact they go and join Jesus’ mission of bringing about the fulfillment of promises made long ago, that the Messiah indeed would one day come.

The fire of God’s Spirit dwelled in John and assisted him in being the faithful forerunner or precursor of the Lord, that is, the one who showed the way to Christ whom others should follow in order to have true life in God.

Before his public work, John lived in the wilderness, fasting, praying and preparing his heart for his special vocation. The message he bore was similar to earlier prophets, who like John denounced sin, called for a turning to God through repentance and doing good for others.  John dressed like the prophets of old and so was more readily received as a prophet, one who spoke God’s word, even if it was not a message of “everything is all right, go on living as you are.”

Of course ultimately Herod could not stand John’s witness to morality and truth so had John beheaded.

John’s message was intended to awaken the spiritually sleeping, change their complacency and stir up willing hearts to be on fire for God. We are being asked as well to turn from what is not of God, receive God’s word willingly and be changed forever through the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus says of John that he was “more than a prophet” (Luke 7:26). John was a voice with the message of consolation for all peoples. John was the “last of the prophets,” because after him came the King of kings, God’s anointed one, our Lord Jesus Christ, the completion of all prophetic utterances.

What transpired with the preaching of the Baptist and the appearance of the Lord was the restoration of the human race to divine likeness. This had been lost by the fall of humankind that turned from God, in whose image all are created. Now, in the final times with the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, humans can regain the likeness to God, which ultimately means sharing intimately in the life of God, who offers perfect peace and wholeness, for all eternity.

The baptism we have received as children or as adults in water and the Holy Spirit, set in motion the divine life, the eternal flame within us, resulting in new life and an entry into God’s kingdom as beloved sons and daughters of our God (John 3:5).

We are able to receive now, and our Lord desires to give us, the fire of the Holy Spirit in order to radiate to all we meet the goodness and truth of God’s good news of salvation, to a world desperate to have true light and life.

We believe God’s word has the power to transform our lives and make them lights pointing others to the true light, the Lord Jesus Christ. The challenge is to persevere in the call and rely on God’s grace at all times to do the good we desire to accomplish.

May the Lord’s life within us be a fire burning brightly in our hearts, enabling us to witness by our words and deeds to the truth of the Gospel, that Christ has come into the world, and is calling everyone to life without end in the kingdom of the Father, who has created us and loves us without measure. May the Sacred Body and Blood of the Lord that we receive in the Holy Eucharist be our food for the journey to God’s house.

Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB