The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”Mark 1: 1-8
In ancient times, before a king set off on a journey he would send a forerunner to follow the desired route and announce his imminent arrival to the people. This was the mission of John the Baptist, as foretold by the prophet Isiah. And the king for whom John was preparing the people was none other than Jesus.
If John the Baptist were alive today, he would be one of the most influential preachers of our time. Stadiums would be filled to capacity with those wanting to hear him speak, and his sermons would be televised around the world. That’s how popular he was back then. People would come out into the wilderness from Jerusalem and all parts of Judea to hear his message to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.
The Jordan was not a pristine, sparkling river. It was as muddy in John’s time as it is today. But from the muddy waters of the river came a message that was crystal clear: John’s message was that mankind needed repentance. His method was to baptize them by immersing them in the Jordan as a public declaration that God had changed their lives. Baptism was a well-known symbol since ancient times, an outward sign of a new spiritual birth. It has been said that John and his disciples baptized over 200,000 people, remarkable considering the size of the population.
John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a relative of Mary. The conceptions of both John and Jesus were announced by the angel Gabriel, and Luke tells us that as an unborn child, John was the first person to recognize Jesus and the promised Messiah.
John must have been quite a sight, living in the wilderness, eating locusts and honey, and clothed in a camel cloak. People wondered who he was — Elijah maybe, or a prophet? His rough appearance made him look that way. When asked, he simply replied, “I am not.”
But John had a divine calling: Prepare and proclaim! He preached that he was preparing the way for the coming of someone mightier than he, one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. While John baptized with water, He who was to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit. How puzzling his message must have sounded to those who heard it — baptized in the Holy Spirit?
It seems appropriate that John was preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness before crossing the same Jordan River into the promised land. And Jesus endured 40 days of temptation in the wilderness in preparation for His ministry. Whenever we read about wilderness in the Bible, the wasteland is always followed by a beautiful new beginning. Each wilderness experience leads to turning away from a former life toward one richer in God. Those who repented and were baptized by John in the wilderness were forever changed, as they began to follow God’s will.
John’s promise that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. On that day, the Holy Spirit descended upon 120 believers, including Mary and the Apostles, teaching them, guiding them, and giving them power. This was the beginning of the Church and since then this baptism has taken place in the life of every Christian at the moment they place their faith in the living Christ.
The world in which John preached was not unlike the world we live in today. We are also in a wilderness, albeit of a different kind. Ours is a spiritual wilderness, full of corruption, greed, pain, and disillusion. We live in a society where hearts are broken in such a way that only the love of Jesus can put them back together.
Advent is a season of preparation. There are shopping lists and grocery lists to write, gifts to wrap, turkeys to stuff, and cards to mail. This year, Christmas will be a little more simple, more in keeping with that first Christmas in Bethlehem. Aunts and uncles and grandparents will be on a computer screen instead of around the dinner table. And at some point, the family may stop to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing.”
John voice in the wilderness –“repent” and “prepare the way of the Lord” — resonates through the ages. Just like the crowds on the banks of the Jordan River 2000 years ago, our lives were forever changed when we repented from our sins and we continue daily to prepare room for Him in this world that so desperately needs Him.
There are so many ways we can prepare the way of the Lord. We can give to the food bank so those less fortunate can have a Christmas meal. We can reach out to a neighbour we know is alone during this season of festivities. Or we can simply share a smile and a warm Merry Christmas (or Happy Holidays) with a stranger. When He changes our hearts, he changes our lives, and it can’t help but pour over onto those around us.
As John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, and as a stable was hastily prepared to give shelter to a couple and their newborn child in Bethlehem, let us take time on this second Sunday of Advent to remember the words to the well-loved carol and let every heart prepare Him room. Amen