You probably didn’t notice, but a Gospel reading about John the Baptist
comes up every year during Advent.
We don’t know much about John, but we do know that at some point,
John went out to live in the desert,
wearing simple clothing and eating whatever he could find there.
And he began preaching repentance,
and he attracted a lot of attention;
lots of people came out to the desert to be baptized.
After this, John ends up in prison,
because he publicly scolded King Herod for entering into marriage
with his brother’s wife; and, finally, he is beheaded.
Now why would John even want to go out into the desert like that?
Why would anyone?
And the answer is, for some people, that’s how they draw close to God.
Getting away from noise, from distractions,
from the world: alone with God.
This is an impulse many of us can’t understand;
but I suspect there are many of us who do understand it –
and we wish we could do it.
But what holds us back are the obligations to our families,
or to our businesses or farms; or fear of what others might say.
Maybe we put it off for another day.
Or, maybe we can’t bring ourselves to give up
the creature comforts we like –
like refrigerators full of food, and hot showers,
and heat and air conditioning, and beds!
By the way, this is the value of making little sacrifices,
like getting up early, or giving up chocolate and beer and cookies
and video games – and I don’t mean just during Lent, either.
I saw a program about Saint Thomas More the other day,
and it mentioned that he wore something called a “hair shirt” –
which was designed to be uncomfortable.
That may seem odd, but when he ended up in prison
because of his witness to the faith,
I bet those little sacrifices he made, day by day, paid off –
don’t you think?
The point is to free ourselves, so we can seek what really matters.
We might wonder why people go out into the desert like John.
There is a longing that some people feel –
to put everything else aside so that they can draw closer to Christ –
and for thousands of years, people have been going out into the desert,
or into monasteries and cloisters,
so that they could give themselves entirely to the Lord.
There may be some here who feel that longing,
and you may not be sure what to do with it.
If that’s you, you’re welcome to come see me, and we can talk about it.
But don’t simply ignore it; try to understand what it means.
It could mean many things.
Wherever it leads, don’t be alarmed, be grateful:
because if you follow that longing,
nothing will make you happier.
Now, back to John the Baptist.
We know very little about what he did with his life,
apart from a few details. So what makes him so great?
And the answer is really simple: he had a call from God,
a unique role to play in God’s Plan, and he answered it.
As measured by worldly standards,
his accomplishments might not seem like much.
Let me put this in modern terms.
Suppose someone we knew decided to walk away from everything,
and go out into the woods and build a shelter, and live there.
Your friend, your relative,
decides to live off of whatever he can find to eat there,
and to wash his clothes in the creek.
We all know what we’d think about that.
Who wouldn’t try to talk our friend out of doing this?
There’s a funny detail that shows up over and over
in the lives of the saints, whether it’s Thomas Aquinas,
or Joan of Arc, or Francis of Assisi, or Dominic Savio, and hundreds more.
There were family and friends who tried really, really, hard
to talk them out of it.
And I’ve often wondered, what would it be like,
to be that person who tried to talk a saint out of being a saint?
Who wants to go down in history that way?
Picture the scene in heaven; you’re meeting people,
and you ask this guy who is.
“I’m Thomas Aquinas; I was one of the greatest philosophers in Western Civilization.”
Nice! And you, who are you?
“Um, I’m his father. I tried to stop him.”
Chances are, God isn’t calling you to go live in a cave or up a tree;
but he may be calling you to something very different
from what everyone else thinks makes sense.
He may call you to give your life totally to him
as a sister, a brother, a priest.
And if you wonder what difference it will make,
think of John the Baptist.
God chose him for one brief, shining moment in history:
to be the voice who cried out, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
It might not have been much,
but it was enough for Jesus to say of John,
“among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”
Whatever our task may be, whatever sacrifice we might have to make,
won’t it be worth it, to have Jesus speak words like that of us,
when we stand before him some day?