In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the lands of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrach of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas the word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. He went through the whole Jordan district proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the sayings of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low,
winding ways will be straightened
and rough roads made smooth.
And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.
Resplendent in the latest camel-skin skinnies, subsisting on a trendy Palaeo diet of insects and honey, partial to wild swimming, and sporting a beard to rival the hairiest of hipsters – yes, it’s St John the Baptist, enjoying his annual spot of stardom on the Second Sunday of Advent.
But for all his appearance, John’s no right-on lifestyle guru peddling his wisdom over a green tea oatmilk latte in some trendy Shoreditch coffee shop. He’d laugh at your latte. And he wasn’t much of a city man, either. He’s out in the wilderness, out in the desert. The closest he’d get to a latte would be suckling on a goat’s teat. That’s not in the Bible, though: just conjecture.
So when the Word of God comes, why to him? Why not to some rich city slicker? Why not to Emperor Tiberias, or Pontius Pilate, or the High Priest Caiaphas? Why to this mysterious man of the mountains?
The answer is in the silence.
The desert is a place of few people: few words. Perhaps the cry of the eagle, the humming of the cicada, the complaint of the goat. But words, no. Muzak, no. Distraction, babble, pointless conversation: “hot again, isn’t it?,” “did you see the game last night?,” “would you like soy milk in your frapuccino?,” no. How on earth would anyone hear God’s Word with all that going on around them?
I’m not talking about an actual word, of course. Not one that you hear with your ears. More like a shift in the pattern of reality, a portent, a voice which speaks through little things that all too often go unnoticed, signs; a word perceived with the inner eye by those who are still enough and attuned to hear. The same Word which inspired the prophets of old, Isaiah among them, and now speaks to John loud and clear, because he has made a life of being still and quiet enough to hear.
And it says, repent.
It says, be baptised.
It says, all of humanity will see the salvation of God.
The Word is Jesus; and until he comes, John becomes its voice.
Can you hear it?
If your life is too busy, too crowded out by background noise – not a chance. You can distract yourself from the sin of the world, it’s need for God’s help and grace. And from your own. But honesty, self-reflection, admission of failure, the urge to make amends and restore broken relationships – this requires time, space, silence, deep listening.
If only all the world could hear, and see the salvation of God: not some distant future heaven, but a world receptive and restored. A world where people prefer to listen than to speak. Then we could say with all our heart, “come, Lord Jesus: we are ready for your Kingdom. We have made straight the path.”
But we’re a long way off. Time to dig out those camel skins. Didn’t you have some back in the seventies?