Sunday, June 24, 2018

IN THE WILDERNESS PREPARE A WAY FOR THE LORD: a homily for the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist (2018)

            John the Baptist must've been an extraordinary character.   John was the son a priest of the Jerusalem Temple and through his mother he was a descendent of Aaron, brother of Moses.  That made him a priest and put him at the heart of the Jewish Faith.  The instruction given to John's father before he was born is very like that given to the parents of Samson.  He was to be dedicated to God from birth and so he had never touched alcohol, never cut his hair and lived from an early age in the hard rocky hills and desert of Israel.  John's austere diet of insects and wild honey recalls the stern self-sacrificing, self-denying ministries of the Old Testament prophets, not that of a comfortable and wealthy priest.  John would not have had weight problems!  He chose to wear camel hair clothes and a leather belt, the same clothing as the great prophet Elijah. Therefore his very clothing was a proclamation of his ministry and his mission.             
            There had not been a prophet in Israel for over four hundred years.  John was sent by God as a prophetic herald to prepare the way for Christ and so his clothes were appropriate to the humility of the arrival of the King who was born to an unknown family, laid in an animal trough, and announced to mere shepherds.  In addition John's clothes were an visual parable protesting the barrenness of a people who no longer listened to God and calling them to prepare for the Lord's coming through repentance and conversion of heart.  
            If you read the bible, and I do hope you read it, you may remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  So awful was their behaviour, the story goes, that the screams of their victims were heard in Heaven and God goes down to investigate.  He visits Abraham who, assuming that God is about to destroy them, starts to haggle with God. How many righteous men does God need in a town before he will not destroy it Abraham wants to know? He haggles God down to ten righteous men and since there aren't that many in Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham, Lot and their families have to flee before the Divine wrath descends.  
            That's how the story has often been read. I recently read an article that argued something else.  Abraham is the first of the prophets and as a prophet he has access to God's counsel as God's friend and co-operator.  God gives him the chance to plead for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, to ask for mercy, but since Abraham has yet to grasp just how deep God's mercy is he stops short at ten men.  God accepts Abraham's decision, removes His protection, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed not because God wanted to destroy them but because that's what Abraham had decided.  The later prophets did not make the same mistake and had no hesitancy in pleading with God for mercy, a mercy He wants to give but which He will not force on us.  His hand is extended to us and we must reach out and grasp it.

            So the man whose birth we celebrate today was an outsider, the last of the prophets and among the first of the saints.  John gave up the possibility of marriage and a home, of social status, power and influence, of mere everyday comfort to live on the extreme margins of his society so that he could speak God's word to the people of Israel.  John had the courage to respond to God's grace, to listen to His word, and to put it into practice regardless of the personal cost.  By making those sacrifices John prepared the hearts of his fellow Jews to hear the Word Himself, God Incarnate, Jesus Christ out Lord.
            Celebrating this feast is a way to remind ourselves that if we are truly followers of Christ then we too are called to prepare a way for Him into the hearts and lives of others.  We too are forerunners of God, heralds and ambassadors for Christ.  We too are prophets called to speak the truth, God's word, to our nation, our society and our families.  We too are called to ask for mercy and forgiveness for ourselves and for others.  To do that we need to be in this world but not of it.  
            There are no deserts nor are there even proper wilderness in our little green island.  We have family and vocational commitments, jobs and roles in our society.  Do we need to give them up to be disciples of Christ?  Not at all.  Yet we do need the desert, a wilderness space, in our lives and we can create that desert by withdrawing from unnecessary and distracting activities, conversations and entertainments and giving the time instead to listening to the Lord.  
            The purpose of our life here on earth is not a happy retirement in a comfortable old age but to get to heaven. Getting in to Heaven is not automatic.  There's no easy way in.  You have to choose eternal life with God by having faith in Him, putting His will first here on earth, by avoiding doing evil and actively seeking to do good.   God will not force His love nor will He force Heaven on us.  We have to reach out and grasp His outstretched hand.

            John understood this and he reached out for God's hand will all his might.  His devotion to God's plan cost him his life.  He literally stuck out his neck and put his head on the line. He paid the ultimate price but won a glorious place in Heaven.  Who among us today has a like courage?

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