PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD! REPENT!
Is 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Pet 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
Today is 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B. Every year, on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we read a passage on John the Baptist from one of the gospels, covering his role in the story of Christ. In today’s gospel, the church extends to us the call of John the Baptist to repent and confess our sins in preparation for the One who is to come. We see John the Baptist in the desert calling out to the people of Judea to come out into the open desert and to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths”. The message of John is the fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah 700 years earlier, when Isaiah told the people of Israel that when it will be time for the Messiah’s coming a voice would alert them on how to prepare for his coming.
1. A CALL TO REPENTANCE
The Gospel of today tells us: “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of REPENTANCE FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS” (Mk 1:4). He called on people to turn away from their sins. We are being called today to change our lives, to become less me-centered and more God-centered, so that we can squeeze ourselves into this season of repentance.
What is repentance? The Greek word that Mark uses for ‘repentance’ is “metanoia”. This means changing the attitude of our minds, by turning from a LIFE CENTERED ON SELF to a LIFE CENTERED ON GOD. In today’s 2nd Reading from 2Peter, we hear that Jesus’ Second Coming is still being delayed because he does not want to lose any of us. He is giving us more time to repent and prepare. He is calling us to metanoia—to a complete change in our lives. One of the most fundamental elements of metanoia is “acknowledgement of sin”. We read from the gospel “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River AS THEY ACKNOWLEDGED THEIR SINS” (Mk 1:5). Those who came forward for baptism, acknowledged their sins. Here, we see the foundation of the Church’s Sacrament of Reconciliation. The people were transforming their lives, becoming righteous in preparation to receive the Lord Jesus. Equally, when one receives the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he/she is made righteous in the eyes of God so that he/she may receive Jesus in the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist.
2. A BIBLICAL EXAMPLE OF TRUE REPENTANCE
A classic example of repentance as preached by John the Baptist can be found in Psalm 51 (Read our part of the psalm), which records the response of David, the ancestor of the expected Messiah, when a series of sins he thought he had concealed were suddenly revealed. David does not seek to make excuses or pass the blame, but he acknowledges his sin and seeks forgiveness and restoration. In spite his of being the king of Israel, and being acknowledge as a mighty warrior, David stoops low and acknowledges his sin (the sin of Killing Uriah and taking his wife Bathsheba). The first thing we notice David doing is pleading for mercy from God. When someone asks for mercy, he/she is asking not to receive what he/she deserves. When David asks for mercy, he is admitting that what he deserves is punishment, nonetheless he is pleading that God should spare him from the punishment that he deserves. He does not demand forgiveness as though God owed it to him, but he asks God to extend him mercy, because he knows what he deserves.
The typical response many people have when their sin is revealed is to either try to pass the blame or try to rationalize it. David could have tried to blame Bathsheba, calling her immodest. He could have blamed his servants for not stopping him. And he could have even tried to blame Uriah for not going home to be with his wife. But David knew that all of those things were excuses—HE WAS THE ONLY ONE TO BLAME. He had made bad choices that had awful consequences, and now he needed to take responsibility for his choices. David did not come to God with excuses; HE CAME TO GOD WITH HIS SIN. He did not come to God with a list of reasons why he deserved forgiveness; HE BEGGED GOD TO SHOW MERCY TO HIM. David understood his sin. “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:3-5). This a perfect example of repentance. This is the right and just way of making straight the path of the Lord and preparing to receive the coming of the Messiah.
3. “JOHN THE BAPTIST APPEARED IN THE DESERT”
What is the meaning of a “desert experience”? The desert is the place of nothingness. There is simply no water, no food – it is so quiet and bare. For John, nothing was there, except God. A desert is perfect place to have an encounter with God in the complete silence and prayer. That’s the reason why people believed in John. People believed that he was always in contact with God, thus, his words become the voice of God.
Therefore, to go into the desert is the first step in true repentance. Going into the desert is to leave behind the daily huddles of life. Such life problems we often find in our job, in relationships, in our struggles to “make ends meet” and in routine religious practices. God cannot do much with us as long as we hope and trust in these things as the source of meaning to our lives. When the heart is full, no one can come into it, not even God. One has first to let go of what one’s heart is holding on to before one can embrace God. This letting go is symbolized by a journey into the barren desert.
In the Bible, the desert has come to mean a place of encounter with God. It was in the desert that the people of Israel met God and learnt the ways of God. There they became God’s own people and the Lord became their God. But, first, they had to give up all the things that made for the good life that they were enjoying in Egypt: “the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5). Jesus, before beginning his public ministry, spent forty days and nights in the desert. It was a time of discovering and deepening his personal relationship with God. By calling the people into the desert John was calling them to let go of their false hopes and securities, and learn to hope and trust in God alone.
4. THE LIFE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Here, we seek to know who John the Baptist is? We want to trace why he is so important to us especially in this season of Advent?
a) John the Baptist is a messenger. He is a messenger because he applies the Old Testament prophecies to Jesus. His life, however presents still a much greater message for it foreshadows the implications of loyalty to God’s work: simplicity of lifestyle and fearlessness in preparing the path for the coming of God’s kingdom. John is part of the good news through faithfulness to his mission. We too can be messengers. Has it ever occurred in our minds that we are where we are now because God wanted us to be there or here? Maybe we go to another place because of financial reason s for our family but have we ever considered that we are where we are now because of God’s plan? Nothing happens by accident for those who love God. We are where we are now because God has a mission for us to do there.
b) John the Baptist is known for his prayer life. He is a man of prayer. Therefore, he is closed to God. He knew and believed in the fact that if we want to change the world, we must start with ourselves. He led a simple life. In order to experience God who is with us, we also need to go for a desert experience like Saint John the Baptist. Such an experience offers us the opportunity to be alone with God and pray. But to pray one requires certain dispositions. First of all, we need simplicity. In order to pray, we have to get rid of the excessive baggage that blocks our way to Christ and to seeing things as they really are. Secondly, we need silence. We need to be still, to be healed of our disturbed spirits. We need a place of quiet in order to calm our tickling nerves and hear God speak to us. Thirdly, we need to be alone, we need solitude. We cannot allow ourselves to be driven all the time by an instinct to perform, to produce and to do many things at one go. Sometimes we have to stand in solitude to discover who we are and who our God is. This spells the need of regular recollections or retreats in the lives of Christians.
c) John the Baptist is an authentic person. He lives what he preaches. By his lifestyle, his dressing and eating habits, John shows that the meaning of life is not to be found in the abundance of material possessions but in relationship with God. Simplicity of life and detachment from unnecessary cares and worries of social life frees the heart for a personal relationship with God. As said earlier, going into the desert is the first step in true repentance. It means abandoning our usual concerns and worries, and putting ourselves in a situation where God can easily reach us. John is authentic because there was nothing shady about him. He was genuine through and through. His lifestyle lent credibility to his preaching. He did not try to take advantage of his ministry, neither did he enrich himself from his preaching.
5. JOHN’S MINISTRY CREATED A GREAT IMPACT ON THE PEOPLE
It is clear that the ministry of John was mightily effective. The people flocked to listen to him and to submit to his baptism. He made a great impact on the people for several reasons:
a) First, he was a man who lived his message, not only his words, but also his whole life was a protest. When John came on the scene, the people were somehow forced to listen to him. In his person, John was the message, the message of protest against the establishment of the day.
b) His message was effective because he told people what they knew in the depths of their hearts. He brought them what in the depths of their souls they were waiting for. When John summoned men and women to repentance, he was confronting them with a decision that they knew in their heart of hearts they ought to make. Plato once said that education does not consist in telling people new things; it consists in extracting from their memories what they already knew. No message is so effective as that which speaks to a person’s conscience. The people had been longing for some authentic word of God, and in John they heard it.
c) John’s message was effective because he pointed to something and someone beyond himself. John told men and women that his baptism soaked them in water, but the One who was coming would drench them in the Holy Spirit. While water washed their bodies clean, the Holy Spirit would cleanse a person’s heart. John’s primary aim was not to occupy the center stage, but to try to connect men and women with the one who was greater and stronger, the Christ. The people listened because John pointed, not to himself, but to the one true redeemer.
Advent gives us an opportunity to rediscover our total dependence on God. God has made us for Himself, as St Augustine discovered, and our hearts are restless till they rest in God. When we realize this and make room for God in our lives, then we are on the way to true repentance after the example of John the Baptist.