(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. It is good to hear the Word of God.)
Each year on the second Sunday of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, we hear about John the Baptist. I used to get confused. I knew that John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, is only a few months older than Jesus. Here John is a full grown man two weeks before Jesus is born?? My mind used to get tangled in knots trying to sort out the timeline. I didn't realize that Advent does not mean acting as if Jesus is not born already. I didn't know that John the Baptist is an Advent person.
This year, we hear about John the Baptist from the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
If St. Mark had an English teacher, she would say, "That is a run-on sentence!" So much is packed into that one sentence! What can we learn?
St. Mark begins by recalling the prophet Isaiah's words. These are the words we hear in the first reading this Sunday:
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord
St. Mark's English teacher would point out that the way Mark recalls the words, and the way Isaiah says them are not exactly the same. In Isaiah's version, the voice is crying out to people, telling them to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. In St. Mark's version, the voice itself is in the wilderness. We have both versions today. What can we learn?
Isaiah writes for the Jewish people who know quite a bit about the wilderness. They know that God rescued their ancestors from Egypt where they had everything they could want--except freedom. God freed their ancestors and led them into the wilderness of the desert. In the wilderness they had an encounter with God. God gave them the Word of God, their most treasured gift.
But also, in the wilderness of the desert, the people rebelled against God. This new way of life, away from the riches of Egypt, was not easy. They forgot to be grateful for freedom. God let them wander in the wilderness for 40 years before leading them to the promised land. It took a long time for them to learn obedience, but by the end, they had become the people of God.
Isaiah reminds the people of his day that the wilderness is a place of rebellion and disobedience, but also a place of encounter with God. In the wilderness, he says, prepare. In the wilderness, he says, God comes. But how? What can this mean?
St. Mark shows us John the Baptist, a person who is in the wilderness already. John the Baptist stands waiting in the wilderness of the desert outside of Jerusalem, crying out. He proclaims "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Clearly, St. Mark believes that this is how we prepare for an encounter with God.
And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
The people leave Jerusalem, the most holy city of the promised land. They leave their ordinary lives to go out into the wilderness where John the Baptist waits. In the wilderness they confess their sins, they leave all their wrongdoing in the waters of the Jordan river. They think that is what they came out to do. But like me, they don't know that John the Baptist is an Advent person.
“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John the Baptist waits in the wilderness, because there is something more--someOne more--coming. John the Baptist is an Advent person because his whole purpose in life is to prepare space for an encounter with God.
John the Baptist even today fulfills his calling to prepare the way of the Lord. He prepares the people of the Judean countryside, and he prepares us today.
What is our wilderness? Is John the Baptist calling us to go out into a desert, a jungle, a mountaintop? Maybe. But maybe, like Isaiah, he is asking us to go into the wilderness of our rebellion and disobedience, into the wilderness of our sinfulness.
Like the people of Jerusalem, we can confess our sins. Somehow, confessing our sins clears the way for God. Bishop Robert Barron says this is like making a helicopter landing-pad for God! In the wilderness, in the wild spaces, we clear the land. When we confess our sins, we get rid of all that clutters our hearts, making a beautiful, clean, wide-open space for God. And like the people who wandered in the wilderness so many hundreds of years ago, we are given the Word of God--Jesus--our most treasured gift. We are formed into the people of God.