It's tempting to think that morality is all about education: if people really knew what the right thing was to do, they would do it. Parents make this mistake a lot, especially in judging themselves negatively - if my children do things wrong, it's because I've been a bad parent and not brought them up properly.
The truth is, as we know from our own case, we usually know what the right thing in a situation is, and too often we don't do it. We achieve this by a kind of moral amnesia. We push to the back of our minds the inconvenient truth that we know that what we're doing is wrong, and we focus on some immediately satisfying reason for doing the wrong thing. And maybe we tell ourselves a story as to why it's perfectly OK to ignore what is right.
The people in today's Gospel think John the Baptist must be the Christ, when all he is doing is telling them things they already know. The tax collectors know they shouldn't cheat their own people. The soldiers know they shouldn't practise extortion. But hearing it out of someone else's mouth is challenging. John isn't calling them to a radically different life. He doesn't tell the tax collectors to stop collecting taxes. He doesn't tell the soldiers to give up soldiering. He simply calls them to do what they already know to be right.
There's nothing foolish in these people's wanting to go to someone who sees their moral situation more clearly and can say the things they know to be true, but have conveniently forgotten. And they respond to being recalled to themselves, reminded of what they already know, with a certain kind of awe.
John, however, knows that that will not be enough on its own, that what he offers is not the transformation that they really need. Repentance, which is John's message, is a very important part of what we all need, but it will only be part of what will save us; and when I say 'save us', I mean primarily from ourselves, from the moral forgetfulness that we've willed upon ourselves, and the terrible harm we do to ourselves and others when we act from that forgetfulness.
We are waiting with eager anticipation for the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas because God in Christ is offering us far more than that. Jesus is not just setting us back on our feet, recalling us to the faithful following of God's law. He is doing that, but he offers so much more.
The tax collectors of our Gospel might well have gone away and tried a bit harder to straighten out their lives, but inevitably, the world they had made for themselves was so full of temptations to injustice, and as we all know from our own case, no doubt they would slide back into their old ways, and stand in need of another call to repentance.
Christ's coming does much more than call us to repentance. It does call us to repent, but it involves so much more. Christ baptises with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That baptism is much more than a sign of repentance, much more even that a simple forgiveness of sins, if by that we just mean a wiping of the slate clean. We're not just set back on our feet: the love of God is poured into our hearts.
The birth of a baby brings hope to his or her parents, to their family and friends. Children are a sign of hope for the future, and they bear within themselves that hope of so many great possibilities, as yet unfulfilled. The birth of the Christ-child brings not just hope for himself but real hope for us. We've most of us squandered the hope of our births, and for that we need to repent and find forgiveness. But the hope Christ brings is a new birth, not just a second chance. It's a return to the hope of our childhood and even more: a new and certain hope of life with God, of being a child of God, in this life and forever.