The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. This prophet of the last times and herald of the new took to the desert proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Messiah. His message was one of preparation. The challenge he set before those who chose to listen was to prepare themselves for this great event. The preparation he preached was not an outward preparation. He preached an inward straightening out of our ways. Great leaders are prepared for with security and decoration and fanfare. The Messiah is to be prepared for by a renewal of spirit and a decoration of the heart.
John calls his people to repentance. He preaches the forgiveness of God to the repentant and acts out this washing clean of sin by the ritual of baptism in the waters of the Jordan. In a symbolism obvious to his listeners, he baptises at a spot in the course of the river where the people were reputed to have entered the promised land. The message of liberation, the story of our long march to freedom, freedom from sin and death, is to begin its latest and most dramatic chapter.
John admonishes the people in symbolic terms too. He highlights their excesses by living a simple, even austere lifestyle. He lives in the wilderness, being formed and shaped by God in the desert, away from the distractions of the world, as had the exodus people of old.
What God wants to accomplish in the world he first accomplishes in one person. In the person of John the message is both symbolic and concrete. He is a walking sermon, a speaking parable. He levels the mountains of pride within the human heart by preaching humility and repentance in the wilderness, living out his own message of detachment from material and worldly concerns in his manner of dress and lifestyle. The cloak of integrity is his, as much part of him as his loincloth or camel-hair shirt. Mercy and integrity are his escorts; the light of God’s glory his guide.
Our Advent task then, in the words of Isaiah, is to straighten out our winding wandering ways, to smooth out the rough roads we insist on travelling, to recall the sins which are woven into our lives and relationships, to humble ourselves in continuing repentance. There is an inheritance of eternal life which is given to us and made visible through our tears of repentance and in our devotion to the one who is to come. There is forgiveness waiting for us in torrents if we only humble ourselves to ask, receive and accept it gracefully, and pass it on to others in turn.
Advent and Christmas time are times of many messages, a clamour of voices calling us to the promised land of milk and honey. Messiahs promising many things are announced as forthcoming.
The message of the scriptures has many competitors and few takers. It is stark in comparison to other messages though fuller in its promise. The message of the Gospel may still be a voice crying in the wilderness.