We wait for him, yet we go out into the wilderness to find him. We wait
for him but we prepare the way for him. We can do nothing to force him to come, yet we must do everything to make ready for him.
Today we think specially of John the Baptist as the one who made ready for the coming of Jesus. The gospel writers see him as the one who fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah. He goes into the wilderness and prepares a way for the Lord.
He went into the wilderness; he was sought out by many people who wanted a change; and he pointed away from himself to the Life-giver who would be coming.
He went into the wilderness. For the people of Israel the wilderness was a good but frightening place: it was where they had first met God, but in order to meet him they had to do without a lot of the creature comforts which we think go with normal living. The prophets saw the wilderness as the place which the disobedient nation would have to go back to, for something which was a cross between a punishment and a honeymoon with God, their uncomfortable lover. So John the Baptist in the wilderness reminded the people of Judaea and Jerusalem that they had strayed from God and they must take steps to seek God. He didn’t go into their towns and cafes and schools; he didn’t go into the places where the powerful met and made decisions; he didn’t try to make himself popular or speak to the media. He just spoke, saying people should repent. The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us how people got to hear about him out there by the Jordan, but they flocked to hear him.
The people who went to hear him wanted a change; they may have wanted all kinds of changes – in the way they were governed, in their financial circumstances, in their health: but they were willing to see themselves as the ones who had to change first. John had touched a chord in people’s hearts: they were hungry for something, and they sensed that in order to get whatever it was, they themselves needed to change, to accept responsibility for what was wrong with their world. Jesus too would attract a lot of people who knew something was wrong; and like John, only in a more encouraging way, he would give them hope that things could change, and indeed were changing. In our day people are hungry for God, without necessarily knowing it. They need to meet wilderness people – people who don’t seek popularity, people who live a life of trust in God, people who put love for God and for human beings above consumerism and competition. And like Jesus who was tempted in the wilderness but met people in their towns and cafes and schools, you can find wilderness people in all sorts of ordinary places, not only the dramatic desert near the Jordan.
And those wilderness people – you and me, I hope: oh dear……. well, who else has God got to do his work if it isn’t those who say they believe in him? – we wilderness people, meeting people in towns and cafes and schools and other ordinary places, don’t get people to believe in us: we point away to the one who is greater than us, who is God’s gift to the human race; we point to Jesus Christ. The way to lead people to God is to avoid pointing at ourselves; we may want to tell others that faith makes a great deal of difference in our lives: that’s fine, as long as it’s pointing to the God in whom we have faith, not just to ourselves. It’s not clever of us to have faith: we’ve been given it: it’s a gift. People are not hungry to hear one more success story: they want to hear about the one who gives something much more important than success: they want to hear how to get a LIFE. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit, said John. That is, he will make you new people, children of God, inhabitants of the new world which is coming to us as God’s gift. It’s not a world we can construct by massively funded renewal programmes, though belonging to it will make us better citizens and will give us better political vision, and more commitment to humanly-shaped economics. But the special gift we will give to the world when we tell the good news about Jesus is the gift of hope; and that’s the most practical virtue of all.