John the Baptist takes centre-stage this week. The last of the Old Testament prophets, it is his job to be a bridge from the old times into the new, to bring the people into a new relationship with God where God isn’t just a far-away presence, but is now ready to walk among his people as one of them, to roll up his sleeves and to complete the work of Salvation.
We begin with Isaiah’s great proclamation of God’s forgiveness. The People of God have been in exile in Babylon for sixty years and God instructs his prophet to cry out in the wilderness, to give his people a new heart. God’s anger has abated: the people have atoned for the sins of the past. The time has come for God’s people to return to their homeland in peace.
Of course, having lived in Babylon for sixty years, the people have become somewhat settled. They have houses, they have kids at the local school, they have jobs and friends and roots. How many will heed the call and return? Jerusalem was reduced to rubble by Nebuchadnezzar, and it’s not going to be an easy trip: many miles across the desert, across the Jordan and then start to really work.
God calls the people anyway. He will be their shepherd (an image present in last week’s psalm), and gather them to his breast, to feed them and nurture them. God’s yearning in this passage is palpable: this is a call straight from the heart of God, a heart now filled with desire to enfold his wayward people in his love, to stand at the head as they become, once again, a wandering tribe, crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.
The psalm this week is all about the fruit that springs forth from the from the very soil when God is standing there. If ever we wonder what God’s work looks like, this is it.
In the second reading, a rare peek into the writing of St Peter, we are reminded that God’s notion of time is rather different from ours. He is big beyond our imagining, and can see a thousand years in a single day, yet he has unimaginable attention: he can spend a thousand years appreciating the tiniest of moments. In Advent, our time of waiting, we are called to renew our commitment to holiness so that we are not found with our spiritual trousers around our ankles when God decides that we have waited long enough.
St Mark begins his Gospel in the wilderness, reflecting on the great prophet who called the people back from Babylon 600 years before, linking Isaiah explicitly with John, whose voice was crying out to the people, exhorting them to get their hearts ready for the coming of the Messiah.
The people went to him in droves. Leaving sacred spaces and great cities behind them, they went out into the wastelands East of the Jordan to see this man who had been chosen by God, not by the religious authorities of the time. He was not in the Temple, yet they went out to him in the desert. He was not a priest, yet they went, and confessed their sins. He baptised them (for free), washing off their sins with water (at the Temple, the people would have had to buy an animal and present it for sacrifice: the larger the sin, the larger the animal. What would you think if you saw Uncle Tony in the queue, leading a giraffe?) and calling them make themselves ready for the coming of another prophet, to make a straight path in their hearts for the Lord.
He is coming in a fortnight: what are we doing to straighten his path?