Imagine living in a land that is occupied. Your country is not yours anymore. You are restricted in your movements; you can only travel if you have the right permits. The occupying soldiers will stop you at checkpoints or just along the street and you will be turned back if you do not have the right documentation. What you previously owned is no longer yours: someone else is farming your land, living in your house. You are in danger of losing any land that you still have; your house may even be faced with demolition. You pay taxes but seem to get no services, or poorer services than those of other groups. The social and political leadership seems to be in cahoots with the occupiers, intent only on protecting their own power and not serving those who are suffering. And how people are suffering! Poor people end up with even less. If there is work, it is seasonal or unreliable. So many are destitute, dependent on the goodwill of others, while those who are rich seem to continue to get richer.
This is the context of first century Palestine, the land into which Jesus was born. We can begin, then, to imagine the high expectations the people would have had of the kind of leader that Isaiah promises in the first reading of the Second Sunday of Advent: someone with ruthless integrity, who would bring them out of their desperation. In the gospel reading, John the Baptist echoes this prophecy and adds to the heightened anticipation, with his references to ‘the one who is coming after [him]’ with his winnowing fan, the one who will burn the chaff.