instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

In the desert

The word that jumped out at me when I heard Sunday's Gospel proclaimed was "desert," specifically in this sentence:
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
If you want to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, why appear in the desert? Wouldn't appearing in the city, or at least a town, make more sense? If a prophet proclaims in the desert, and no one hears him, does God's Word return empty?

Of course, the next sentence in Mark is
People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
So it's not as though no one heard John. Still, it seems a strange way of beginning the proclamation of the Gospel.

There's no suggestion that John did anything to drum up interest. I doubt he advertised in Jerusalem, or went into a nearby town when things got slow to get people talking about him. As Christ was soon to be, he was led by the Spirit into the desert, and there he stayed, until he was led away to prison by a different spirit.

Proclaiming in the desert puts a lot on the prophet. He has to trust God to supply, not just his words, but also his sustenance -- and his audience. To be wholly dedicated to telling others the word of God, with no guarantee of there being any others to tell, is a call to great humility.

I suspect a few of the Old Testament prophets would have been delighted to preach in the desert, far from the mockeries and pains speaking to a crowd in Jerusalem brought. But John had a happier story than most prophets: the Messiah was coming, was even here!

Proclaiming in the desert also puts a lot on the audience. You can't listen to a desert preacher by pausing for a few minutes on your way home. You need to journey outside your normal life, endure discomforts if not exactly hardships. You must respond to ... to what? The excitement of a neighbor, a brother-in-law who says, "You have to listen to this man," the promptings of your own curiosity or hope.