First reading Isaiah 11:1-10
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 71(72):1-2,7-8,12-13,17
Second reading Romans 15:4-9
Gospel Matthew 3:1-12
“In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’” Doesn’t it strike you as strange that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness (that is, the desert)? If you had an important message to spread, wouldn’t you go into the middle of the city to tell as many people as possible? Instead, this disturbing man, John the Baptist, goes to the most desolate, dead and unpopulated place possible, a place that was considered to be the haunt of the demons, in order to proclaim his urgent news. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand!” Why?
In order to answer this, we must note that there are many layers at work here. St Matthew himself gives us part of the answer: “This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said: ‘A voice cries in the wilderness; prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’” St John is the lone “voice” crying out in the desert, which the prophet Isaiah foretold. Furthermore, God promised in the oracle of the prophet Malachi, “behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5). Elijah was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets and was expected to return before the great and terrible day of the Lord. Elijah often dwelt in the desert, and he dressed in haircloth with a leather belt around his waist (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist’s clothing (camel’s hair and a leather belt) straight away evoke the appearance of Elijah and therefore the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy. But I suspect there’s more to St John’s preaching in the desert than the fulfilling of prophecies.
You see, the desert is the opposite to a garden. At the creation, human beings were originally made to be with God in a garden, the garden of Eden. But because of sin, death and destruction came into the world and they were removed from their original home in the garden. Furthermore, the curse that God pronounced because of sin included the earth itself:
“cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
In the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:17-19).
The dusty desert, then, is a striking image of the curse and of the desolation that occurs when human beings turn away from God. Because of this, the desert was considered to be the dwelling place of the demons, which we see in Jesus’ forty-day temptation in the desert, as well as his own words about how a spirit that is cast out of a person proceeds to wander in the desert (Matt 12:43). St John’s ascetic appearance in the desert, then, wherein his preaching of the kingdom (i.e., reign) of heaven begins, signals the beginning of a great reversal. For the desert represents a kind of frontier, a territory that God must reclaim if he is to end the reign of Satan and establish his own domain on the earth. This reversal was also foretold by the prophet Isaiah:
“Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert” (Is 43:19).
We should ask, what else did John the Baptist do in the desert besides preach the nearness of the kingdom? He baptised people in the Jordan river with a baptism of repentance, while the people “confessed their sins.” The Jordan cuts right through the desert, and it is there that people confessed and were washed by John as a sign of their turning away from sin, the very thing that produces the desolate wastelands. The baptism of repentance conferred by St John would “make a way in the wilderness” for the “rivers in the desert”, which are the living water that Jesus would then give through his Baptism in the Holy Spirit. What is more, it’s Jesus’ baptism that literally establishes the kingdom of heaven in those who receive it, for the Lord himself comes to dwell and reign in those who receive his Baptism and remain in the grace it confers. By the repentance that John proclaimed and the Baptism that Jesus would offer, the desert frontier is reclaimed by God in those who heed John’s urgent call.
My friends, not only are the deserts of the world an expanding threat to human life, but the ever-expanding desert in the human soul is yet a greater threat. As more and more people turn from God in search of total autonomy, self-reliance, self-service, materialism, pleasure as an ultimate end, unhinged consumerism, rest without Sabbath, lives of distraction, alternative New Age spiritualities, and much more, the existential emptiness and desolation of the human heart increases, and Satan’s house of cards expands unto the eternal destruction of souls. What the Gospel reveals to us in St John the Baptist is that we need repentance. All of us! This prophetic message is all the more urgent today, for the desert within the human race is expanding. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand!”
Brothers and sisters, if Christmas commemorates God’s dwelling among us in the flesh, Advent is a time for reclaiming the space for him to dwell. The desert frontier of our souls, that which is created by our driving Jesus away from us, must be reclaimed and reserved for him alone to dwell in. If we make room for him dear friends, which will involve a courageous self-emptying and removal of obstacles, I have no doubt that he will follow through with his promise: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” And if Christ dwells in you, your soul becomes a literal paradise, a garden of Eden. But to have a garden, you need water. To have a garden of Eden, you need living water. And the only way to get living water is to seek Jesus in the way they did in the Gospel today: They heeded the voice crying out in the wilderness, they repented, and “they confessed their sins.” I guess it all boils down to a simple question. Are you thirsty enough?