John the Baptist must have been a strange man. Certainly, he was a driven man, and when a person is as strongly driven as that, all that is important is that somehow the rest of the world comes to see at least something of what he sees. And what John the Baptist saw was the holiness of God.
All throughout the Old Testament God makes no secret of his power, or his creativity, or his mercy, or his anger…but for his own reasons he seems almost to have kept his holiness masked. Only Moses, and then but briefly, is ever pictured as seeing God face to face.
But John the Baptist signals the coming of a new relationship between God and his people. And because of that, in John’s teaching, there begins to be born a new morality, a morality that demands holiness of human beings, not because the law says so, but simply because God himself is Holy, and for his creatures, made in his image, to act in any other way was unthinkable. So for John, the evil of sin was not so much that it caused suffering, or that it merited punishment, but rather that sin is so terribly blasphemous. It is an affront, a violation of the holiness of God, and so of human nature itself.
John the Baptist spoke to a people that had grown very comfortable, very lazy in their spiritual lives. Very sure of themselves and the righteousness of their designs. A people that had grown comfortable with sin.
And in that John the Baptist spoke to an age much like our own. We don’t like to hear people talk to us about sin. We would much rather try to explain all human suffering, failing, and evil in terms of psychological disorders. Social change, pressure, tension, anxiety, and so on.
But to say even all of that is really not to say much. After all, ages, cultures, and societies don’t exist. Only people do.
Sin is a very personal and concrete thing. If there is sin in the world it is so not because society fails, or some system somewhere, but rather because you and I, and many other no different from you and I, have allowed ourselves to become foolish, and dull, and selfish. We even like ourselves that way.
We must hear in Advent, then, John’s call to purify our lives, a call to regain a sense of the holiness of God, and of the holiness created in us by God. We must bring ourselves to the point where we, like John, are shocked by sin and outrages by it. We must never fall into the trap of letting how comfortable we are with ourselves be the only standard we follow in criticising our personal morality. In the Gospel, those who come to John the Baptist felt very good about themselves, and he called them a brood of vipers whose destruction had already begun.
Advent is a wake-up call for all of us.