Today in our Gospel we encounter the strange figure of John the Baptist. Someone you and I would deem to be a little- Ok a lot- weird, after all he dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. But there, in the desert wilderness, is this strange man standing on his soapbox calling people to repentance. You and I would probably pay no attention to him. And yet our Gospel says that “people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to meet him”. It is natural, and in fact, important for us to ask why would John go and preach in the wilderness and baptize in the Jordan river- why not go to where the people lived? And secondly, why in the world would so many people go all the way into the desert just to hear a man preach repentance and be baptized by him in the Jordan river? To understand the answer to these questions, we need to better know who these people were.
These people were primarily 1st century Jews who were waiting for the New Exodus. You see, the Jews believed that when the Messiah would come to save them- it would be much like how they were saved in the first Exodus. Hopefully, you remember from the book of Exodus the story of how God through the Passover, saved his people from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. And how, through Moses’ intercession, God did many other mighty deeds as He led them to the Promised land. He saved them from Pharaoh’s pursuit in the Red Sea, and on their journey from Egypt through the desert wilderness, he fed them with the miracle bread- Manna in the morning and flesh in the evening; and gave them water to drink from a rock. And then, finally after 40 years of rebelliousness and sin and God’s forgiveness, the Israelites finally reached and crossed over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. Notice, how the first Exodus was a journey into and through the desert, and how their journey ended when they crossed over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land God would give them.
These good and patient Jews also knew the prophecy of Isaiah, which is our 1st reading. In which, “a messenger would be sent ahead and prepare the way for the Messiah. A voice crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths”. Therefore, when these expectant Jews heard a man was out in the desert wilderness preaching for repentance and baptizing in the same river that the first Exodus ended; they flocked out to him, to await and prepare for the coming Savior.
All the people called to mind their sins and they were baptized by John in the Jordan as a sign of their repentance. However, John the Baptist said, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. John’s baptism was for repentance of sins, but the Messiah will give the Holy Spirit. Listen again to the beginning of our 1st reading, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim that her sins are expiated; indeed she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins”. Not only are Israel’s sins forgiven, but she has received double. Think about what it means if you received double. It is like if you lost 25 cents but you were given double- so 50 cents, then not only would you gain back the 25 cents you lost and so be made even again, the way you were; but to be given double means you had more than you originally did.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is so important for us to remember that in the Holy Spirit which we received at our baptism, we are given double. Not only does our baptism wipe away the original sin on our soul and simply pays the debt and restores to what was there before; but the Holy Spirit goes beyond and gives double.
In the Holy Spirit, we are given grace to go beyond just the forgiveness of sins, but we are given new life- a life beyond what we had before. However, for us who are so sinful of people, simply trying to avoid sin is hard enough, and so all we can hope for is a life restored from sin to what was before. But God gives double, he wants to give us a new life, and so God wants us to desire to go beyond what we had before to a life in the Spirit. Beyond just being restored from our life of sin, God gives us his grace, his life. God instills us with His virtues- to live a life of faith, hope, and love. We are given the virtues of temperance, prudence, chastity, patience, humility, and so on. Jesus had and lived each and every one of the virtues perfectly. He lived by faith, through his suffering and death, he had hope. He had perfect prudence, temperance, and humility when he dealt with the Pharisees and those who were against him. He did it all in faith and for love of the Father. His life was filled with living the virtues, can you imagine what a life full of virtues would look like?
St. Paul knew this new life. Remember, before Paul was Saul, someone who persecuted the Church and tried to destroy all people who believed in and was following Jesus Christ. However, Jesus revealed Himself to Saul; and through his conversion Saul didn’t just go back to his old way of life, but took on a new identity- God changed his identity from Saul to Paul. And this new identity meant more than just being forgiven of his sins, but Paul testifies about this new life. “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come (2Cor 5:17). He also proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul began to live in Christ, his life was infiltrated by Christ’s. Far removed from his old self, Paul lived a life of faith, growing in the virtues and sharing with everyone he encountered the new life God had given him. Paul came to know and testify to the new life God gives. Are you desiring to live that kind of life?
It is so helpful to pray for and desire the virtues, instead of just trying to avoid sin. Growing in the virtues help us to avoid sin. If we grow in the virtue of humility, then the less prideful and judgmental we will be. The more we ask for and grow in gentleness, the less angry and cunning we will be to others. The more we grow in the virtue of chastity then the less the temptations of the flesh will affect us. The new life God has for us is beyond we could ever imagine. But for those of us just trying to avoid sin, then we are short changing ourselves, we are limiting the new life God can give us. God wants to not just restore us, but he wants us to grow beyond the way we were before. God doesn’t just forgive us of our sins, but he gives us new life- His very life. And the new life and the virtues He gives help us to avoid sin. So, let us not short change ourselves and just try to avoid sin, but let us seek and ask for the virtues we need most to really grow beyond where we were before, even beyond the new life we can ever imagine.BACK TO LIST