Dec. 4, 2022
Second Sunday of Advent
Once, I visited a remote village in Arizona where the desert life was beautiful. The Saguaros rose to the heavens with majestic arms, flowering at their fingertips, yet they were as dangerous as a rattler’s bite. They intrigued me, both because of their towering beauty and their peril. It was dry there, so dry I took water everywhere to quench a nagging thirst. The sun was glaring and cruel. Curiously, within this small arid village, there were five rehab hospitals for people suffering with addictions. Drugs, alcohol and eating disorders were at the top of the list. Why would this barren wilderness create an environment for healing?
Precisely because deserts are places of simplicity and poverty where the vulnerable parts of us have the possibility of exposure. Deserts are places where we must strip away distractions and attachments that preoccupy us and keep us at a distance from God. It is strange as we prepare for Christmas, the coming of Christ, that the readings would take us out to the desert to hear the voice of John the Baptist cry “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” John was just as curious as the desert. His clothes and his diet spoke of a man who had no regard for possessions or garish trappings. The shadows of Elijah, the prophet who stood against the evil king and queen — Ahab and Jezebel — rest upon John, whose life will also have a similar fate when he stands against Herodias and Herod. John’s accusations of their adulterous relationship cost him his life.
But for now, as Matthew opens up his Gospel, John is a voice, a clear voice of change. He is already a man of the spirit afire with a message for the people to feel compunction for their sin.
Water is John’s medium — water that cleanses and symbolically immerses the heart into a dying and rising. He dips his people into the waters where they struggle for breath, then pulls them out renewed. Why do people come to such an eccentric man? Because there is an innate truth that rises within him, a clarity about the time in which he lives, a certainty about the Messiah who is on his way and who will baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. His message is metanoia, which means to “go beyond the mind you have,” and to change your attitude and to change the way you see the world. It is the opposite of paranoia, which is based in fear and distrust. Metanoia involves intentional behavior changes grasping hold of important time, preparing for Christ to come.
We cannot hear the call for change surrounded by the noise of our culture. We cannot even begin to listen for the voice of God with cell phones and Twitter, with Facebook and screens that keep us stimulated to a frenzy. We cannot even begin to hear the cry to change in a culture where peppermint sticks, jingle bells and Macy’s ads preoccupy us, not to mention the vile competition we face in an upward climbing world.
Under the glass of my desk, I have a verse that I read each day: “What we don’t transform in life, we transmit.” I am not sure where I first read it, but it spoke to the impatience I feel, the disdain that wanders through my brain, to judgments that dispel justice. I know I must go to the desert to battle with impatience, lest I transmit it to those I love, or don’t even know. I must stop judgments so that I can pull the best out of people with kindness. The desert waits for me.
The desert shows us our true selves. We all know that we can improve. We all know what our lowest selves are capable of — violence, abuse, jealousy, lies, greed, hatred. Sin, like the Saguaros, both compels us and repels us. We need to be dipped in water to catch our breath and start again.
Perhaps that is the very reason the people followed the voice of John. They came from all over, from the region around the Jordan, from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship. The Pharisees, the Mosaic Law keepers; the Sadducees, the priestly clan — they all went to hear John. Jewish life was grounded in Jerusalem, yet they moved away to the wilderness to hear a prophet cry “Repent.” Why? Because Jesus, the Messiah, the new Temple, is coming. He will not baptize with water but will immerse his followers in the Holy Spirit, lighting a fire within them. And in Christ, in his very person where divinity and humanity will meet, there will be forgiveness of sin, mercy and love. John knew it. John proclaimed it. John prepared the way for his coming.
To the desert of repentance we must go before it is too late. We must have no regrets when we open presents on Christmas morning — that we missed the time, we missed the opportunity. We missed the desert.