Why was John the Baptist preaching in the desert?
There were so many other places he could have gone. In the Negev, the arid, desert area in Israel, there were—and still are—many towns and cities near the Jordan River, such as Jerusalem. Instead, John waited for people to come to him as he preached repentance to the people of Israel in order to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah.
I think that a large part of the reason the John preached in the desert was precisely because it meant that people would have to go to some effort to reach him. Depending on where John was and where the people come from, I would imagine that it was a day or two’s journey for many of these people to reach John. While it was not an enormous journey, it was also not a small feat to make the trip.
I wonder if perhaps the journey and the barrenness of the desert were not a large part of the point. It wasn’t trivial to get to John in order to hear his message. When you did reach him, there was nothing but a man preaching repentance. Perhaps the hope was to help people recognize that God asks us to journey towards him. Perhaps the hope was to help people recognize that the things of this world are unimportant when it comes to repentance and salvation. Perhaps the hope was to help people recognize that it is their faith in God that drives them towards him, that helps them to prepare for him, that helps them to recognize their sinfulness and turn back toward him.
This could also explain why John was so upset with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. At first glance, John’s anger is odd: wouldn’t it be a good thing if they are repenting? John’s point, though, is that they aren’t. They approach John assuming that by being descendants of Abraham they are saved, but John emphatically explains that their lineage has no bearing on salvation: only their own personal repentance does. In Isaiah today, we hear that a new shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. This new shoot is us, having been grafted onto Jesus’s family tree by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, blossoming by our faith which propels us to follow the will of God. John, that voice crying out in the desert, is preparing the way for the Lord, so that Jesus might set himself up as a signal for the nations, a signal that all might seek out and find.
When we see that signal from Jesus in our lives, we cannot help but move towards it. That doesn’t mean that it will be easy. After all, it wasn’t easy for people to follow John, why should it be any easier to follow God himself? Through this journey of endurance, though, where we suffer in mind, body, and soul, we learn to put our hope in God: our hope that he will grant us eternal life. Through this journey, we learn to put our faith in God, knowing that he can do what he says, because he has the power to give us eternal life. Through this journey we learn to love God, knowing that only he can truly fill our hearts.
Through this journey to find Jesus, that signal to all nations, where we are aided by the sacraments of the Church—notably confession where we learn repentance and the Eucharist where we learn how to worship God and enter into his Divine Life—we learn to conform our hearts and minds to God. St. Paul says to us today, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” May it be so.
December 8, 2019 (published December 27, 2019 at 11:45am)
Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12