This weekend the Gospel of Matthew presents John as: 1) a preacher of repentance in the light of the coming kingdom of heaven; 2) a prophet clothed in the raiment of the desert and eating food received directly from God’s bounty (cf. manna) without human processing; 3) a practitioner of a water ritual (baptism) which attracted many as a mode of protection against impending divine judgment; 4) a critic of the religious leadership of the Judaism of his day; and 5) the forerunner of the One-Who-Is-To-Come, a mysterious figure who actualizes the divine judgment and whom Christians identify with Jesus of Nazareth.
“Raw the Voice and Fierce the Message” underlines the ministry of John the Baptist as religious critic and forerunner. Stanza one recounts his preaching to the Pharisees and Sadducees, while stanza two narrates John’s self-report as the forerunner of the one who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Stanza three tempers the Gospel report that “Jerusalem, all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan” were going out to be baptized by John by soberly suggesting that there were also many who chose to ignore the Baptist’s preaching. Stanzas four and five then confront contemporary worshipers with the challenge of John’s preaching for us. Like the religious leaders of John’s day, we are called to “produce good fruit as evidence of our repentance,” fruits of wisdom, justice, love and peace, that will help us to “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…for his mercy” as Paul exhorts the Romans in the second reading.
I have paired this text with the wonderful tune PICARDY, but it might be sung to other 87.87.87 hymn tunes. Copyrighted by The Jan Michael Joncas Trust and published by Oregon Catholic Press, the hymn appears in Within Our Hearts Be Born. The Michael Joncas Hymnary: Advent and Christmas.
Raw the voice and fierce the message
sounding in the desert drear:
“Brood of vipers, frightened, fleeing
from God’s judgment drawing near,
change your lives, let true repentance
Follow on your holy fear!”
“One is coming, God’s Messiah,
mightier by far than I,
winnowing a worthy harvest,
flinging chaff against the sky.
He with fire and Holy Spirit
sears yet saves those bound to die.”
Some who heard the Baptist’s preaching
straightway followed on his path,
plunged beneath the Jordan’s waters
seeking safety from God’s wrath.
Other walked away, unheeding
prophecy and saving bath.
Now the prophet’s word re-spoken
century through century
still enfolds us with God’s promise,
still enshrines God’s mystery,
still demands sincere repentance
brought before God’s sov’reignty.
So the word of God addresses
those who walk these Advent days,
bids us from the death-marked desert
to Christ’s coming turn our gaze,
live in justice, judge in wisdom,
act in love, seek peace, sing praise.