2nd Sunday in Advent
We are in the wilderness today.
The wilderness is wild, untamed. It is a place of unspeakable beauty and unseen danger. We are surrounded by wilderness here in Summit County. Many of us love to go up into the Uintas throughout the year just to be in the peace and quiet of nature. I’ll bet that all you skiers here today have found yourselves alone off on some deserted ski run from time to time. Didn’t you just stop for a moment, listen to the breeze moving through the trees, marvel at the view, and feel renewed?
We seem to be drawn to the wilderness. Jesus often went out into the wilderness to be alone and pray, braving the harsh conditions without food or water, in order to clear his heart, to clear his mind and soul so that he could understand his mission more clearly. Jesus appreciated the value of the wild. It was there that he felt closest to his father.
What is it about the wilderness that draws us so? What need do we have to seek answers far from all the things familiar to us? I mean, we built the cities, they contain the stuff of our daily lives, and we’re proud of them. They show the magnificence of human ingenuity and technology. Yet, they don’t seem to bring us much peace nor give us the answers we are truly seeking.
The people came to see John in the wilderness. They left their comfortable homes in the cities and towns and ventured out into the wild. They took a risk that they would survive bandits, the oppressive heat of the desert, and the lack of shelter against the elements.
Why did they come? Were they looking for some spiritual revival, some deep inner meaning, or were they just curious, looking for something to do on a Sunday afternoon? Perhaps they went to escape the problems of their lives for a little while, because they heard John had a message of hope.
Why do you come? What do you expect to find in the wilderness? What is worth the risk for you?
Repentance requires risk. When you’re all alone in the wilderness, you have no one to talk to but yourself, and it takes guts to ask yourself the questions that need asking. You have to keep yourself company. That can be a scary proposition. I often tell people the only reason I don’t take up cycling is that I couldn’t stand to be alone with myself on long rides. We are so bombarded with the noise of our civilization that when we are finally confronted with nothing but our own lives it seems too quiet. It takes guts to admit that you need to make changes in your life.
Repentance requires honesty. It can be scary to honestly examine our lives for what they truly are. John the Baptist’s message is brutally honest. He’s not addressing his words of condemnation to the wicked. He’s blasting the just! He’s calling out the churchgoers, the leaders who do everything they’re supposed to do. He’s challenging the “good” people to live up to what they espouse on Sunday. Fr. William Bausch once said, “There’s too much at stake when good people are content with the counterfeit comfort that they are good because they are not bad.”
Ouch. He’s talking to us.
John wasn’t exactly what you would call “tolerant”. He was on fire for the coming Lord and knew that the only way the people would recognize Jesus when he came was if there hearts were prepared. He had to sweep the decks clean, and he didn’t care what station in life you were in. He blasted everyone, from the poorest to the highest. He had the strongest condemnation for the leaders who should have known better, both religious and political, He blasted the people who should have been role models – and it finally cost him his head.
A few years back a scandal rocked the basketball world, when several pro players went into the stands and got into fights with some of the fans. Most of the pundits and sports analysts were quick to condemn the actions of all involved, yet, not surprisingly, some commentators actually tried to explain away the actions of these millionaires who were fighting. And it wasn’t just the players who were rich. The people they were fighting with weren’t sitting in the cheap seats. They were a couple rows from the floor. They had money, too.
And what about all those rich reality show stars, who are famous just because they are famous. Are these the role models we emulate today? Are these the rock stars, our heroes? Who is condemning their actions today? Who is praying for their conversion? Are we all so “tolerant” that we’ll put up with anything? What would John the Baptist say today? Who would he take on?
I think he would chastise those of us who let these things happen, those of us who are good Christians yet say nothing. I guess repentance takes a bit of courage, also.
John was larger than life. He was a pro ball player, a rock star for his time. Yet he was an unusual hero. Instead of grasping for more and more power, more and more celebrity – remember, they thought he was the messiah – he gave it all up and placed himself lower than the servant who would carry his master’s sandals. He was content to stay in the wilderness. John’s success was that all his followers left him…to follow Jesus. He knew that he must diminish and Jesus must rise. Do we know that?
We are in the wilderness today.
Are we going to make good use of this wilderness? Will we leave our comfort zones and realize that we have the need for repentance, and then have the courage to take the risk? Or, are we like the Pharisees, who were more concerned with the external observance of religion than a true change of heart? Are we more concerned with the trappings of Christmas, along with all the stress, than we are about the true conversion that John preaches in today’s gospel?
It’s hard to imagine a world as Isaiah describes it today. It’s hard to picture peace when there is so much violence in the world. How do we get there? How do we beat our swords into plowshares? John spoke out against the hypocrisy of the leaders of his time, but when it came down to it, he was calling and baptizing individuals. He had a very public message that came down to personal conversion. He did it one soul at a time.
Maybe that’s how the world will change. Maybe our own personal conversions will bring about the conversion of the world.