John the Baptist is an astonishing man. He stands astride the Old and New Testaments; the last prophet of the Old and the first of the New. He lives out in the desert wilderness by the Jordan River. He eats locusts and wild honey and wears camel skins with a leather belt. His first words in Matthew's Gospel are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” And let's not forget that his cousin is Jesus!
His preaching and presence brought many to be baptized, and the Pharisees and Sadducees didn't want to be overshadowed by this wild man. When they went to find out about his preaching for themselves, they must have been shocked. John is fearless. He calls them, the religious leaders of his day, a “brood of vipers!" and boldly asks them "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" He challenges them to "produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance." (Imagine if some people from the archdiocese and the seminary came to visit a parish and the priest said that to them!)
When St. Matthew heard John the Baptist preach, he was reminded of Isaiah's words "A voice of one crying out in the desert,/Prepare the way of the Lord,/make straight his paths. " John is preaching repentance to the people to prepare them for the coming of Christ. Today's first reading begins with a obscure reference to the Messiah. He shall come from the stump of Jesse. Perhaps you have heard of a "Jesse Tree"? Jesse was King David's father. The Messiah would come from David's royal line; he would be the son of David. In Isaiah's prophecy, the Kingdom has be reduced to a stump of a tree. Yet God promises that this stump shall produce a "branch" and that "from his roots a bud shall blossom." In other words, even though all looks hopeless, Christ will come!
What kind of Messiah will he be? John the Baptist says that "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Isaiah says that "The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD." The Church calls these the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are shared with us at Confirmation.
How do we put these two pictures together? By remembering that first we must repent as St. John the Baptist tells us. We must turn, change our minds about they way we have been living. We are sinners. We must become repentant sinners! We have been a brood of vipers doing evil. We must bring forth good fruit instead. When we have turned around to walk with Christ, then we can share in the gifts of the Holy Spirit that come from Jesus--not only at Confirmation, but throughout our lives as we continue to repent and become more deeply converted. Then we will see the reordering of creation that Isaiah speaks of "Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,/and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;/the calf and the young lion shall browse together...". These natural enemies will one day be reconciled and live in peace.
This healing of nature will be so complete that as Isaiah says, "On that day, the root of Jesse,/set up as a signal for the nations,/the Gentiles shall seek out." Or as St. Paul says "that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy." Yes, even Jews and Gentiles, once implacable enemies, will be reconciled in the Kingdom of God. It begins now with Confession, the sacrament of reconciliation. We confess our sins to a priest not just because he represents Christ forgiving us, but also because we recognize that our sins hurt other people. The sacrament of Confession reconciles us not only to God, but to other people as well.
So, Repent! Turn your minds and hearts to Christ. Then he will share his Spirit will you. You will be the wheat that he harvests and gathers into his barn. You will share the Eucharistic wheat in the Church. This is the ultimate reconciliation. The greatest gift is Christ himself.