Isaiah 40:1-5.9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
Two thousand years ago a prophet appeared in the wilderness of Palestine; his name was John. He wore a garment of camel-skin with a leather belt round his waist and he lived on locusts and wild honey. Obviously he was a great prophet in the class of Elijah the Tishbite who used to wear a hair cloak and a leather loincloth. There was no doubt that John had the prophetic X-factor to an irresistible degree and crowds from all over flocked to him.
Tradition tells us he lived in the desert until he was about thirty. His was the vocation of every prophet, listening to God and learning his will; that is how he would have passed his days in the desert. John was sent to announce the arrival of the One who had been foretold in the Scriptures, the One who would save his people from their sins.
When he appeared people immediately recognised him as an immensely powerful figure. They were attracted by his asceticism, his urgent message of repentance and, above all, by the humility he had learned from attentiveness to his God.
John had come to console God’s people. This had been the call of his predecessor Isaiah: Console my people, console them … speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call her… .
Isaiah promised freedom from the Babylonian oppression and a return to the Holy City, but his prophetic utterances really foretold much more; a much more radical freedom from sin and its consequence, death.
The unrestrained jubilation of his words effortlessly dissipates the thick darkness which hems in our hopes, and carries us with it right into the presence of the God whose coming is promised:
Go up on a high mountain,joyful messenger to Zion.Shout with a loud voice,joyful messenger to Jerusalem.Shout without fear,say to the towns of Judah,'Here is your God'.
Here is your God! He is truly present because he has been promised! Do you get it? His coming in word is no different from his coming in time. His word is reality and truth and it has been spoken; therefore we have every right, even a duty, to rejoice.
Here is the Lord Yahweh coming with power, his arm subduing all things to him. The prize of his victory is with him, his trophies all go before him.
This is where the true believer is separated from the also-rans. They ask ‘Ok, so where is he? Show him to me! Where is this God who has been promised?’ And the true believer responds ‘There he is, in his word, spoken by the prophet!’
Promise and fulfilment - the saints saw no difference. What God speaks he does, what he promises he is, what is foretold is present. Let us rejoice!
And so we see John the Baptist in today’s Gospel, waist deep in the waters of the river Jordan. On the bank stand God’s people – Israelites. John calls them to repent for the forgiveness of their sins: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.
Some people begin to move, touched by the prophet’s words. They walk down the bank and into the water to John. We are told they were baptised and that they confessed their sins.
Some stayed on the banks. ‘What’s all this talk about sin?’
- Some said ‘I have no sin!’
- Some said ‘I have too many sins!’
- Some said ‘I only have little sins!’
John called on them all to repent; some did.
Two thousand years later that same call for repentance comes to God’s people.
In the person of his priests, but not only of his priests, the call to repentance comes: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.
Now, instead of hundreds of people on the banks of the river Jordan there are millions of people all over the world, listening to the Advent invitation. Some begin to move – Africans, Asians, South Americans, North Americans, Russians, Australians, and Chinese. Prostitutes and tax collectors, rich and poor – and they confess their sins and are forgiven.
Some remain standing on the bank.
I have no sin.
I have too many sins.
I only have little sins, not worth worrying about.
And today, the modern heresy:
- I don’t need to confess even my grave sins to a priest!
The consoling message does not stop, however. It seeks out hearts ready to listen; hearts which don’t make excuses; hearts which see their need.
Let us allow Peter to have the last word from today’s Second Reading:
My friends … We must be careful to remember that during the last days there are bound to be people who will be scornful, the kind who always please themselves what they do, and they will make fun of the promise and ask, 'Well, where is this coming? Everything goes on as it has since the Fathers died, as it has since it began at the creation.'
...The Lord is not being slow to carry out his promises, as anybody else might be called slow; but he is being patient with you all, wanting nobody to be lost and everybody to be brought to change his ways. The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then with a roar the sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and fall apart, the earth and all that it contains will be burnt up. Since everything is coming to an end like this, you should be living holy and saintly lives while you wait and long for the Day of God to come, when the sky will dissolve in flames and the elements melt in the heat. What we are waiting for is what he promised…