Most of us have grown up taking our freedoms for granted, which in many ways is how it should be. It was very different in the ancient world from which our Gospel reading is drawn. Herod the Great who ruled over most of the land has now been replaced by his sons. Each has been given a portion of the land to govern while the most important, Judea, is firmly in the grip of the Roman Empire. The policy of divide and rule was well established and everyone knew who was actually in power. Roman soldiers along with Roman taxes were a constant reminder that the Jewish people were not a sovereign nation but rather a subject people.
When your freedoms are taken away you realise how much you have lost and long for the day when things might change for the better. The prophets of old held out the promise of God’s deliverance in the form of a coming Messiah, and Malachi’s words in our first reading speak of God himself coming unexpectedly among his people, and coming with power to rescue and restore his people.
In such a context of fear and longing, it’s no surprise to hear how people responded to the challenging and hopeful voice of John the Baptist. John reminded them of the prophets of old. He spoke with urgency and power, unafraid to call a spade a spade and to challenge the injustices he saw around him. Here was no careful politician weighing up his audience and hedging his bets, instead we hear words that are raw, that cut to the heart and call upon people to change their ways.
Most of us don’t like people challenging us, telling us that we have made bad choices that we are too proud to admit. Most of us don’t want to hear people reprimand us for being self-centred, lacking generosity or vision even when we know there is some truth in it.
But John was like that and there was something about his straight talking that people did appreciate.
They were sick and tired of being told one thing one day and something else the next, of being given promises that amounted to nothing. John’s words rang true, and he embodied what he preached. He was given a task – a vocation – to prepare people to welcome the coming presence of God into their hearts and minds, and to do that he called people to take stock of their lives and to turn more fully and completely toward the very source of life and power of love – God.
The word ‘metanoia’ is the Greek word for repent and it literally means to turn around. Even with sat navs we can still get lost and when that happens we simply need to turn around. On the last day of our honeymoon I was driving out to the airport when Mich alerted me to the fact that I was going in the opposite direction. I’m usually very good on directions, but Mich was right and while it took some convincing, I needed to turn around. It’s a little harder when it comes to ingrained habits and attitudes, but turning to God often begins in small choices.
For example deciding to say a prayer of thanks before meals, to have a quiet time each day, choosing to contact that friend you have been meaning to ring for months, choosing to look for the good in the other not just to pick out their faults. Yes, there is a discipline about it and each time we choose generosity, forgiveness and hope, more light and love shine into our lives – it’s a turning toward the light – a way of preparing for God’s coming.