Fire in the Desert

The Sunday before the feast of Theophany is dedicated to the work of John the Baptist (or St. John the Forerunner, to give him his liturgical title). To appreciate him fully, we need to place him in his historical context, and realize that he came to Israel as a thunderstorm at the end of a long drought. Or, to vary the metaphor, as a fire in the desert, illumining the darkened hearts of men.

It had been a long time since the voice of prophecy had sounded in Israel. Though holy writing had never ceased (the Book of Sirach, for example, dates from the second century B.C.), no prophet had arisen to proclaim the Word of the Lord since Malachi lifted up his voice in about 430 B.C. Since that time Israel had endured the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Temple, the rise and internecine strife of the Hasmoneans, and the coming of the Romans, under whose Imperial boot they remained firmly lodged. A modern proverb says, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on”. By the time of John’s birth, Israel had come to the end of its rope. They therefore tied a knot and hung on, and the knot unto which they clung was the Law, with its hope of final Messianic liberation. Hope deferred, the Scriptures tell us, makes the heart sick (Proverbs 13:12), and many had grown discouraged and sick of heart in waiting for the seemingly eternally-deferred hope of redemption. In response Zealots arose in Galilee to use terrorist tactics to force God’s hand. Pharisees buried their heads in the Scriptures and debated its details. The common people just waited with heads hung low, and wondered quietly in the wee hours of the night if their God had abandoned them.

Then came the voice of John sounding like a trumpet in the wilderness: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” In the darkness that hung over men’s hearts in that day, the fire of his words came like a light, and all Israel lifted up their heads, and looked to the desert with new hope. John proclaimed that Messiah was at hand, but that Israel was no more ready to receive redemption than were the godless Gentiles. They must therefore repent, and wash away their sins just like Gentiles did when they were baptized and became Jews. Some questioned John’s authority to baptize Jews as if they were Gentiles. Who did John think he was? Was he Elijah, they demanded? Was he Messiah himself? No, none of these. What was he then? A voice—just a voice. A voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight. Did they object to him baptizing in water? One would soon be among them who would baptize with fire.

John’s voice continues to sound telling us to open our eyes. Like Israel in John’s day, we remain blind, shrouded in darkness. We need to see with new eyes, and look again at the world around us.

That is, we need first of all to look to our hearts. This is the meaning of repentance—to look first at the darkness within us, and let in the light of God. When the light shines in we will see that God is not simply one part of our life, but life itself. Our modern secular society has banished God from its culture, and relegated religion to a single, hermetically-sealed compartment of life (preferably kept far and at a safe distance from the public square). We are surprised when we learn that in previous centuries (and in Islamic lands today) the awareness of God permeated everything. To live was to walk in the presence of God, dwelling beneath His shadow. Our culture today regards such a life as fanaticism, but for ancient societies (and for John) this was simply normal living. They were not the fanatics. It is we who are mad.

Secondly, we need to look to our neighbour, and see him for what he is—that is, as God’s gift to us. We often do not see our neighbour. Those around us are two-dimensional, people without names, histories, hopes, or sorrows. Do we know the name of the person who serves us coffee every day at Starbuck’s? Do we know the name of the person in the street to whom we give spare change? For most of us, these people are not real, and we hurry past them as if they were phantoms. John the Forerunner reminds us that those whom we meet even casually are people like us, and if we have two coats, we should give the second one to the one who has none (Luke 3:10-11).

Finally, we need to look to the horizon. John bid the people look not the darkness filling the land (which often bore a Roman sword), but to the coming Kingdom of God. We live in a later day than John, and the Lord before whom he ran has already come and established the Kingdom of God like seed in the earth. The horizon to which we look is lit with the light of His Second Coming. The land is still filled with darkness, reported duly by CNN and Fox network and a thousand other shrill voices of despair. Like those who first heard John crying in the wilderness, we look up with hope. The prophetic voice of the Old Covenant ended with Malachi calling them to wait for the day of the Lord that would come burning like a furnace and for the Sun of Righteousness who would arise with healing in His wings (Malachi 4:1-2). The prophetic voice of the New Covenant ends with the voice of St. John crying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). In both Old Testament and New, the horizon is the place to look to. For at all times it is illumined with the light of redemption and victory.

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