John the Baptist is one of the key figures in the drama of Advent unfolding in these weeks leading up to Christmas.
The New Testament tells us that he was born around the same time as Jesus. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were very old and had never had children. One day, while Zechariah was ministering in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him to announce that he would have a son whom he was to name John. As we can imagine, Zechariah found it hard to believe that he and his wife could have a child at such an advanced age. Because of his lack of belief, Gabriel told him that he would be unable to speak until the birth of the child. And so it was. Zechariah's inability to speak when he left the sanctuary made it evident to the people that he had seen a vision. And Elizabeth's pregnancy at such an old age made it clear that the child was to be great, that God's mighty hand would be upon him.
Many centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah spoke about John the Baptist. We hear it in today's first reading. He would be a voice crying out in the desert to make straight a way for the Lord. He would call the people to clear out of their lives all the obstacles that kept God from being able to reach them. John preached a baptism of repentance, and the people flocked to receive it. They sensed that, in John, God was doing a mighty work. They didn't know all the details, but they did know that if they failed to listen, they would be missing out on God's offer of salvation.
Two-thousand years later, we still find the Baptist's call to repentance gripping and compelling. We have a sense that God has worked in our lives and called us to this place. We enjoy a lively sense of his presence and love around us. Yet, we must acknowledge that we so seldom live up to the great call he has given us to be light for the world and salt for the earth. The concerns of daily life crowd out the voice of God. The striving to earn more and to have more keeps our hearts from attuning themselves to their one great desire - to be united in intimacy with God.
Saint Peter warns us of this in the second reading. The earth will pass away. Nothing we have accumulated will have lasting value. Our true treasure is our soul and its relationship with God. Only that will survive our personal death and the end of the world. Knowing this, we must then strive to live "...in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord."
And so, we come here today, not unlike the throngs that lined the banks of the Jordan River, heeding the cry of the Baptist to make our crooked ways straight. We want to change. We want God to have more access to our hearts and to our minds. We want to put him at the center of our lives so that we can receive the mighty works he wants to accomplish in them.
We know how weak our resolve can be. We know how willing we can be on Sunday, but how distracted we can get on Monday. The source of our hope, then, is not our own willpower and self-discipline. Rather, the source of our hope is the desire of God to have an intimate friendship with us. God's desire for us is so much deeper than our desire for him. And so he doesn't rest until he has straightened out our crooked ways. He labors to penetrate the defenses we have built around our hearts and the darkness that veils our minds.
John the Baptist made his appearance in Galilee to announce the arrival of someone greater than he, someone whose sandals he was not worthy to loosen. John came to baptize with water which can only give a superficial cleansing leaving us capable of getting dirty again. The one who was to come - Jesus - would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Matthew, in his gospel, tells us that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Unlike water, fire changes what it touches. After something has been burned, it can never go back to what it was before. It is marked forever by the flames.
And so, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and have been lit with the fire of the Holy Spirit through the anointing of our Confirmation, have been changed forever. There is no going back. We can't be unbaptized or unconfirmed. The gift we received through those sacraments can be tarnished and disfigured by sin and neglect, but they can never be lost. Our souls are permanently marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit giving us the foretaste and the promise of everlasting life. We belong to God, and he will never forget or abandon us.
The God who created us is coming to visit. He desires to sit down at a meal with us. Are we prepared? Have we confessed our sins sincerely and thoroughly? Are we determined with God's help to change the way we live, the way we treat others and the way we spend our time? God wants to do something great in our lives. If we can set our sin aside, we will witness it, and it will leave us speechless.