The Trouble With You

The Trouble With You

Second Sunday of Advent. Fr Brendan Hodgson preaches on John the Baptist’s advice to the crowds.

The trouble with you is?

We may have heard the beginning of that sentence more than once in our lives. It may even have been addressed to us personally. Very little, if any, practical help or advice on how we might improve accompanies it. It is uttered more in the nature of a complaint against us than a piece of helpful advice.

Not so with John the Baptist. He not only tells people they need to improve, but tells them also how they might do it.

The Gospels are unanimous that John the Baptist marks the end of one age and the beginning of another. The waiting is over, ‘The day is at hand.’ After a long silence John the Baptist appears as the last of the great prophets.

The people of Israel lamented the silence that had existed for so many years. God seemed now to speak only by the ‘echo’ of his voice. They had been without a messenger for too long, some felt, but now rejoiced, and could clearly see in John the Baptist an end to God’s silence.

John the Baptist didn’t live in the well-populated areas; he lived in the desert, outside and away from cities and towns.

In one sense it was fitting that this should be so, as it was in the desert that Israel first met God, and their whole story as a people, their growth into a nation, was influenced by God’s actions in their desert wanderings, which led them ultimately into the Promised Land. They were tested in the desert, and when they failed God, they were told they would be taken back into the desert where God would speak again to their heart. (Hos. 2:16)

It seems appropriate that the word of God should come again to them in the wilderness of the Jordan valley. Matthew tells us where John the Baptist preached, and that people flocked from all over to hear him. In doing so the prophecy of Hosea would seem to have been fulfilled. Such was John the Baptist’s reputation and drawing power. People came in droves.

But there was nothing to see, nothing but desert and the flowing Jordan River, with a ford at the point where he usually spoke and baptized. His truly was a voice crying in the wilderness. To us he seems an eccentric figure, with a strange wardrobe and stranger diet.

He baptizes those who have decided to change their lives, and during which they make a public profession to do so. He is calling everyone to change.

When some Scribes and Pharisees appear he is not impressed, neither by their appearance nor by their public standing. He warns them that they will not be spared judgment because they belong to the chosen people and have Abraham for their father. In the matter of changing one’s day-to-day manner of life, ancestry and pedigree count for nothing.

Everyone needs it, everyone is called to it. Each of us has a responsibility for the here and now, of seeing what needs to be changed in our lives and then doing something about it.

John tells the people that If they do not change for the better, they will be overcome by a catastrophe that will destroy Israel altogether.

John himself will not carry out this judgment; but the One coming after him will, the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. We recognize the One of whom John the Baptist is speaking as Jesus, someone who will continue during his own ministry to warn and call people to a change of heart and way of life.

That same call for a change of heart comes to each of us today.

Unlike most people who say, “The trouble with you is …,” and don’t give any real help in order that one might change for the better, Jesus – who is calling each one of us – is ready to offer all the help we need to become better people, if only we show willing and turn to him in prayer.

First and foremost perhaps we all need to become more faithful to our baptism as Christians, and allow ourselves to be challenged by the word of God. To hear the word of God and to act on it: what better way to prepare for the One who is to come?

Readings: Isa 11:1-10 | Rom 15:4-9 | Matt 3:1-12

fr. Brendan Hodgson, who died on 10 December 2001, was chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Rosary Priory, Bushey. May he rest in peace.