This Advent Sunday we hear the fiery preaching of John the Baptist, introduced for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew. It almost goes without saying that John the Baptist is Jewish, and he is preaching to fellow Jews. But because he is considered a Christian saint, it’s possible to overlook that he is a Jewish prophet calling the Jewish people to repentance, as prophets had done for centuries before. He directly confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees, name-calling them a “Brood of vipers.” They are not to rest assured in their being part of the chosen people of God, the children of Abraham. For God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones. This message is so stark it nearly needs to be recast to our own day for those of us who might feel secure in our Christian or Catholic identity. We can hear John telling us that God can make Christians from the stones. There is no inherent value of guarantee of salvation simply by being Christian. Such a statement is shocking. But John would say something more is demanded. We are to repent, for the kingdom is at hand.
We are familiar with the stories of John the Baptist and his preaching. But when we read them with careful attention to detail, new meaning pops from the page. Let us not grow complacent in the face of such a baptism. John’s baptism only prefigures that of Jesus, the mightier one. An interior renewal is called for. Resting in our identity as chosen by God, even as a Christian, is not enough.