2016.12.4 – Walk the Walk
We’ve heard the saying ‘Talk is cheap.’ Or ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ We’ve heard people say, ‘Don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk.’ Or ‘practice what you preach.’ You see, words are easy. Actions are hard. And the message of the Gospel today is one of action. As Catholic Christians this second Sunday of Advent is a moment for us to ask, “Have I spoken cheap words?” “Have I done what I have professed?”
John the Baptist’s message today was very clear, “Repent!” To repent means not to just “acknowledge our sins,” which he tells us to do in the Gospel, but to actually change the pattern of life that is sinful. Sadly, I know that I can look at myself, and I can throw myself under the bus before anybody else, and see that there are patterns of sin in my life that I have not changed. I know, like so many of us, what it is like to go to confession, and then to go back to confession, for the same sin. And there is a certain responsibility that I myself have to have in my own conscience that says, “I need to change my pattern of behavior, not just simply profess the words ‘I am sorry for my sins’.”
You see the distinction between a disciple and a Pharisee in today’s Gospel is that a disciple produces good fruit – the fruit of changed behavior. And so Jesus literally excoriates the Pharisees today saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath.” Directly and blunting confronting the Pharisees, Jesus called them to task because they spoke the words of Scripture but they did not live the life of holiness and justice. And as testimony of true repentance he says, “Produce good fruit as evidence.” And it is this to which we ourselves are called.
Do we talk the talk only? Are our words cheap? Or can we look inside ourselves and say that I am walking away from the patterns of sin in my life?
John the Baptist’s message of repentance is met by a second message: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Preparing the way of the Lord is making sure that our heart is set on peace and justice, holiness and integrity. To prepare the way means to abhor sin and choose holy patterns of life that imitate our savior Jesus Christ. We are called today to repent and prepare: in fact… not just in words.
This advent we prepare for the coming of the Lord in three ways: in history, in mystery and in majesty.
Jesus came in history. The advent wreath itself reminds us that we are preparing to celebrate an event that happened 2000 years ago. So advent is about history: Jesus Christ became man as a child and through his life, death, and resurrection, freed us from sin. We know the message of the Gospel: that all who believe in Jesus Christ and live in him are able to receive forgiveness from sins and entry into the eternal kingdom. And so to prepare our heart, to re-pattern our life, is to lay ahold of the forgiveness that Jesus Christ promised. Remember, Jesus expects faith in the heart not just words from the lips. And it is the faith that says, “I accept Jesus Christ as my savior and I conform my life to his, walking away from all that stands against him.”
The forgiveness Jesus promised in history we are able to receive, now, in mystery. “Mystery” is another word for the sacraments. “Mysterion” is the original Greek word for sacrament. It refers to Jesus coming in his flesh and blood presence in the Eucharist: this is his body… this is his blood. But specifically in today’s Gospel John the Baptist proclaims, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” These are the two symbols of Baptism and confirmation. The fact that we have been baptized in water means that we have claimed the message of the Gospel. We have been washed in the waters of rebirth. But we must also live according to the waters of rebirth. And in order for us to accomplish this Jesus also poured forth the gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Confirmation. We remember that the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles as “tongues of fire,” and in Confirmation he also comes down upon us, as if by fire.
It is interesting to see that, in today’s Gospel, Jesus uses the term ‘fire’ in two different ways. He speaks of Jesus baptizing in fire, but he also speaks of the “unquenchable fire” in which the ‘chaff’ will be burnt. One is a hopeful image. The other is a fearful image. The first meaning, “being baptized in fire” has two nuances. The first is that ‘fire’ is an image of love. If you were to look on the back of your music book you would see a prayer to the Holy Spirit in which we ask the Spirit to “enkindle in us the fire of thy love.” Being baptized in fire as a Christian is to burn with charity for one another through love of God and love of neighbor.
But there is another nuance to this hopeful meaning of ‘fire.’ This nuance is very practical and it is this: it is hard to walk away from patterns of sin. Consider a person who has had to overcome an addiction to anything. Was it easy to walk away from that addiction? Rather, is it not the case that, when you walk away from an addiction, you have to continually fight the urge to go back to the pattern you want to never repeat in your life? There is a certain type of fire that comes from re-patterning our life. It is a purifying fire. Not only do we say, “I am sorry for my sins;” but we are also willing to undergo the hard work of changing our life no matter how challenging that may be.
So our Lord comes in history for forgiveness, and in mystery, through sacrament; but he also comes in majesty. Advent is a time, not only of preparing for Jesus coming as a baby; but also for preparing for Jesus coming at the end of time to establish a kingdom of justice, love, and peace. At that time, as we heard in the first reading, he is going to separate the “poor and afflicted” from the “ruthless and wicked.” Jesus gave us forgiveness in history so that now we can receive that forgiveness in mystery; but at the end of time he will come in majesty to consummate all things in final judgement. And this is where the second meaning of ‘fire,’ the unquenchable fire, makes an appearance in today’s readings. We must know that we have to conform our lives to Jesus Christ so that we are not accounted among the ‘ruthless and the wicked,’ who will be cast into the ‘unquenchable fire;’ but so that we can be accounted among the ‘poor and the afflicted,’ among those who receive promise of forgiveness and act according to that promise. In other words, we do not want Jesus to account us among the “brood of vipers” but among disciples who both “acknowledge our sins” and “produce good fruit.”
You see, John the Baptist stands before us today as one who testifies to the fact that it takes hard work change our lives. He himself wore camel’s hair and ate locusts as a sign of repentance for his own sin and in anticipation of the kingdom of majesty that is to come. So, too, we need to allow Jesus, through John the Baptist, to get into our face today and ask us, “Are your talking the talking AND walking the walk?” Are you practicing what you preach? Are you doing what your words profess? Make it your goal during this Advent season to truly repent, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.