It can be hard for us to understand John the Baptist today as hard for us now as it was for the people who gathered in the wilderness to hear his words some 2000 years ago.
Few people then really comprehended what he meant when he declared his mission was “to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight”.
Fewer still could even begin to understand him when he said:
“After me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie”.
What was John about? Why did he do what he did?
And what importance does he have for us today?
John the Baptist is the very voice of Advent – the voice of the coming of the Lord Jesus to earth to intervene in the relationship between God and ourselves.
What he said was not merely a word about Jesus, it was the Gospel – it was the beginning of the Good News for the world.
John and his message happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
on this earth, and John, and his message, still are the beginning today for all those who want to walk with Jesus, for all those who want to find their way out of the wilderness and into the promised land….
It is a fact, as the old proverb tells us, that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with one step.
John came to point out what that step must be, he pointed out that the way of the Lord must be prepared, and that way is not simply a highway in the desert, but rather it is a highway in our hearts, a direction and a step that we must take, if we are to be ready for Christ’s coming.
In the Zen tradition of the Far East this idea is expressed in a story about a university professor, who went to visit the great Zen master.
Master he said – teach me what I need to know to have a happy life.
I have studied the sacred scriptures, I have visited the greatest teachers in the land, but I have not found the answer, please – teach me the way. At this point Zen master served tea to his guest. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring and pouring so that the tea began to run over the rim of the cup and across the table, and still he poured, until tea was cascading upon the floor.
The professor watched this until he could not longer restrain himself. “Its overfull, stop, no more will go in” he cried out. “Like this cup”, master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you the way unless you first empty your cup?”
How can we welcome Christ, how can we enter the Promised Land with him, if we have no room in our hearts for him, if we are not prepared? If we don’t empty ourselves from our sins in the sacrament of confession, if we don’t really think about our lord about his sacrifice during every Sunday Mass, if we don’t stop and think what Christmas is really all about?
If we just live our lives and all of the sudden there is The Day of Christmas, without deeper reflection preparation and meaning, just another empty holiday, when we sleep longer and eat more.
John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord, not by building a highway in the wilderness of Judea, but by preparing the hearts of all who were willing to hear him and to repent. John called to the people to hear his message and to take action so than they would be able to greet the Messiah, and walk in his way.
Repent, and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, he cried out, for after me will come one more powerful than I. What does the word repent mean?
Quite simply it means to “turn around” to change direction, to face a new way, and to begin to walk on that way, leaving the old way behind.
Much as the professor had to empty himself to learn the way of Zen, so each of us must change direction if we are to truly see the Lord and walk with him from the wilderness to the Promised Land. The wilderness we are in is contained in our hearts. It is not what is outside that defines our wilderness rather it is what is inside, what is created by our actions, and by our inactions.
At Christmas time we more easily detect the hazards of a life unprepared for Christ Jesus, we more easily see what we lack, and more vividly experience our need for God, for something, for anything that will ease our burdens.
In many ways we all are in a wilderness at this time of year, a wilderness not of rocks and sand and thirst, but a wilderness that is just as desolate and which keeps us feeling spiritually dry. Busyness is a feature of that desert, continual rounds of shopping and meetings and partying, busyness exhausts us physically and emotionally. Noise assaults us – from the din of the Large Malls to the incessant carols and tunes and advertisements blaring – from speakers in the middle of our cities and on our own radios and electronic devices. We are pressured to be happy, to be full of cheer, to enjoy ourselves, even when we are too tired, unhappy or wrapped up in a private and important grief. We feel compelled to spend money we do not have charging up great debts so that our families and friends can have toys and gadgets that they do not really need. We are buffeted by appeals to work harder and longer, so that we might – as if it was possible in our absence – make our family happier…
We are in a wilderness, a wilderness both within and without, and we need the way of the Lord to be made ready in our midst so that we can emerge from that wilderness and come to the place where there is rest, the place of hope, joy, peace, and love, the place where our God resides.
The repentance that most of us need, the turning around that most of us require, is not a hard thing, but it is a change of attitude toward life, and toward the things we think are important now.
We are here today to know something more about John the Baptist than did the people who first heard him 2000 years ago, we do know that the one who followed, the one that he called people to prepare for, was the Lord of Life, a man who bestowed health and wholeness on all who were ready for him.
John calls us to the new life revealed in Jesus, and he reminds us that if we are to have that life, we must do just a little more than want it, we must prepare ourselves for it, by changing our direction, by doing certain things differently than we have done them before.
To repent is to recognize that the old ways in which we have traveled lead us nowhere, and then to turn around, and to ask for God’s forgiveness and help, and to start walking in the way that leads us to the light.
Repentance is a beginning that is blessed by God a beginning that we need to make each day, one day at a time.