Profit in the Desert
by Rev. Matthew H. Zuberbueler
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father. For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
How does a prophetic preacher draw a crowd in the desert? When John the Baptist “appeared, preaching in the desert” how large was the first crowd to hear him? Why did the crowds increase? Why did they want to make the trek out into the country to see and hear this oddly dressed man? Why did they keep listening when they heard his message was one of repentance, a call to change their lives? When He begins His own ministry among the people, Jesus Himself asks the people similar questions: “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Mt. 11:7-9)
John the Baptist came to preach the arrival of the Kingdom, the urgent need for people to prepare themselves to receive it, and to take their place in it. The Kingdom is found in the person of Jesus. John lived entirely for Jesus and not for this world. He was in this world but clearly not of this world. His authenticity, his real way of living reached something deep within the people. They knew they wanted what he had. They readily accepted his call to repent and be converted. One by one they were baptized in the Jordan “as they acknowledge their sins.” We can imagine the solemnity of the moment as words of humility and sorrow welled up from within them and found expression in hopefulness. The cool water being poured over them affirmed their desire to live differently as its cleansing effect on the outside mimicked the freedom they felt within. One by one, personal expressions of real repentance — unconcerned about what anyone thought or heard — all brought about by the words and witness of the preacher assigned by God himself to bring about a fitting welcome for his Son, his Son already among them.
When we reflect on this moving moment we recognize in it something great: God can reach us through us. He sends one of us to speak to us. Of course, this is the wise and special way of Jesus.
The Kingdom is present in this world in the person of Jesus. His way was humble. In fact, His way was more than humble. God became man. Then He waited to let that extraordinary fact be known. Instead of a dramatic entry into His public life, Jesus will present Himself for baptism among the lines of repentant sinners to show that He is here with and for us, sinners. After His own baptism by John, Jesus goes out into the desert to pray and face temptation. Finally, after all of that, He begins to approach the people with His transformative teachings that will invite them into a friendship with Him so great that by it they become sharers in His Kingdom. We learn from this that the pattern Jesus follows brings us to glory by first calling us to turn away — definitively turn away — from our worldly, sinful ways. Repentance is a requirement for entry into His Kingdom.
John the Baptist called forth that kind of change in the lives of his hearers. The success John was having drew the attention of another group of hearers from whom, by contrast, we can learn a great deal. The Pharisees and Sadducees bring out another side of John because he sees in them an insincere interest in him and in his preaching. He sees their hypocrisy and puts it before them, hoping, no doubt, that they might acknowledge and repent as well. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”
These stern words express John’s love for the sinners he addresses. He wants to impress upon them the need they have to look deep within themselves, deep enough to find the inauthenticity of their unrepentant lives. Repentance must be real. With actual repentance we find ourselves able to be the authentic witnesses, like John, who can be the voice calling others into the Kingdom by the same desert road.
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