A little bit of desert before Christmas
Bishop Peter Muhich
Homily from the Televised Mass, NewsCenter1
Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2022
John the Baptist appeared preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand for you!”
John the Baptist is clearly the focus of the Gospel on this Second Sunday of Advent and so let’s focus on him. Let’s learn a little bit more about him and his ministry. So, I will talk really about three things in this homily. The first is a brief biography of John. Who was he? Secondly, the desert setting for his ministry, and third, what he means by repent or repentance when he preaches his baptism of repentance.
First a biography of John. John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Messiah. We know that he was a cousin, a relative of Jesus, and he was considered by many in his day, his fellow Jews, as a prophet and certainly, he was considered so by Jesus himself. John lived an austere life of penance and self-denial. He’s what the Old Testament refers to as a Nazarite like Samson in the Book of Judges. You know, Nazarites wouldn’t cut their hair. They wouldn’t drink any strong drink or wine. They lived a penitential life. John lived such a life. And his clothing is described, and that’s significant too. He wears the same clothing that Isaiah the prophet wore in his day. And of course, he’s a forerunner of Jesus and there was a belief among the Jewish people that Isaiah would return before the Messiah king. His hair cloth garment and belt evoke Isaiah and his ministry in the people’s minds. And of course, he preached repentance of sin, and he baptized the baptism of repentance in the Jordan river.
Now, the setting for John’s ministry in the Judean desert. The desert is a very special place in the Bible and in the life of the church. Moses spent years in the desert before taking up his mission to go and free the Israelites from pharaoh. Elijah, the prophet sojourns in the deserts during his ministry. The Israelites, we remember, spent 40 years in the desert before they entered the promised land. Then Jesus himself went to the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to fast and pray before he began his public ministry. And in the first centuries of the church, monks went out to the desert to live there and encounter the Lord in the severity of that place. We have the collection of their sayings, the sayings of desert fathers, that enrich our spiritual lives to this day.
Why the desert? Well, the desert is a place of simplicity and poverty. Where everything is stripped down to basics. Where distractions and attachments are eliminated. We know that only when distractions and attachments are eliminated can we clearly hear the voice of God. You and I live in a very distracted kind of culture with many attachments. You know, if you don’t think you’re living a distracted, attached life just go home and for 24 hours don’t turn on your phone. Turn everything off — your computer, your laptop, your phone, your television and see what that feels like for you. We’re so used to being in the maelstrom of all that distraction and all those messages that get us attached to things.
To hear what God is saying, to know what God wants from us, we have to go to a place of simplicity and silence. We shut off all those other voices, so we can hear the voice of the Lord. This is why spiritual people throughout the centuries have had an attraction to the desert. They want to go someplace to have that kind of silence and simplicity.
Advent, liturgically for us, is a little bit of desert before the coming of the feast of Christmas. It’s meant to be a preparatory time of being undistracted, of listening and waiting attentively. But of course, we live in a culture that’s already pre-celebrated Christmas since maybe Halloween. It’s hard for us sometimes to enter into the spirit of the season of Advent, but the church implores us to do that so we can get the spiritual benefit from celebrating the great mystery of the incarnation at Christmas.
Repentance. What does John mean when he says, “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand?”
In the Judean desert, God calls us, through John, to make a change in our lives. That call to repentance resonates with us because we all know we do need to undergo a deeper conversion. We all fall short of the glory of God and live in patterns of self-absorption and distraction and even addiction. God calls us out of all of that — to have a strong relationship with him by turning away from our sins.
When John uses the word repent and when Jesus uses the same word in the Gospel elsewhere, he is meaning something very specific. He uses the word metanoia, which means a change in our way of thinking and living. A change the way of our thinking and living.
John the Baptist, during these Advent days, calls us to stop thinking about our lives as our own projects, to stop thinking about life is really about us and instead, start consciously choosing to make our lives about God, and God’s will. That takes a change for us, and I know we get a little afraid when we think about making such a change, but that’s really the devil’s false promises and lies ringing in our ears that say that somehow God is a threat to us. That’s not true. By shedding our other attachments and turning away from our sins and towards God we will find the fullness of life.
So, the Advent lesson of the Gospel, this Sunday, is to let John the Baptist speak to us personally. Let him call you out to the desert, to that place in silence and clarification, where you can clearly hear the voice of God. Let God help you to change your way of thinking and living, For the kingdom of God is at hand for you.