John son of Zechariah, the prophet of God, who dwelt in the desert wilderness, is starkly contrasted with all the contemporary powers – the great names of his time, and that place. The tetrarchs of Galilee and of the regions of Iturea, Trachonitis, Lysanius and Abilene are mentioned; all very impressive of course. Much more impressive, Tiberius Caesar; who was surely the most powerful man of the time? And his Governor, Pontius Pilate, is also cited – whose name will become infamous later in the gospel – and indeed even later through the Creed. Impressive though all these powers might be, St Luke bids us listen not to any of them, but to this other man, John. Surely if we could have seen him the least impressive of men? He had no material wealth: he wore a simple camel-skin, a leather belt, a staff; and we know, he ate locusts and wild honey. He was a man who was on the edge of human society – in fact, who had deserted human society in preference for a lonely existence in the wilderness. Why should anyone take any notice of him? What possible contribution could he make to anyone's life?
Yet it was he, John son of Zechariah, whom God chose to be His spokesman, His prophet. In fact John was to be the last of the line of great prophets. The word of God came to John in the wilderness – and John emerges to proclaim God's word to all people in the region. St Luke explains who John is, and his great significance, by quoting Isaiah. “A voice cries in the wilderness...” John is the voice that Isaiah prophesied. John is a great prophet and that means his vocation is be the voice, the voice that speaks the word of God, and that alone.
At times we might speak the word of God, but we so often clutter God's word with our own words. We hear God's word at times, but we also clutter it with our thoughts and the noise of the world. John in the desert found the outer stillness, and in prayer found the inner stillness, that meant when he heard the word of God, he knew it for what it was, but most importantly, proclaimed that word and nothing else. This is what made him a great prophet. And it is also why people listened to him. They heard not John son of Zechariah – but a voice that spoke with authority. Through John, they heard God.
When we hear God's word we have a choice: ignore it or be changed by it. There is no alternative. God's word always achieves its purpose in us, which is not to leave us as we are, but to transform us. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill be made low, winding ways be straightened and rough roads made smooth.” John was not called to be a town planner or civil engineer, of course! This refers to us; to each of us. We are to make smooth the way for the Lord within us. We are crooked, we are filled with valleys and mountains and hills, that all need smoothing. John, we are told, proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is the making smooth, and preparing the way for the Lord.
Without it, without making the path smooth by repentance, the Lord when he comes will not reach the places He needs to reach for our salvation. John came first, the fore-runner, to prepare the ground, so hearts were ready to respond and welcome the Lord, when He came.
We too must remember the lesson. We must remember that we are called to holiness – to repentance, to conversion of life, to make straight the highways for God within our hearts.
St Paul in his letter to the Philippians, describes this straightening of the road: “My prayer is that your love for each other may increase more and more, and never stop improving your knowledge, and deepening your perception so that you always recognise what is best. This will help you to become pure and blameless, and prepare you for the Day of Christ, when you will reach the perfect goodness...”
If we think, “well I am moderately good, not too bad, I haven't robbed a bank recently, I haven't murdered anyone...I haven't been too bad”; if we think that, then we are ignoring the word of God. Isaiah says “make straight”, not make it a bit straighter! As St Paul exhorts, we must strive for purity and be blameless.
This is really for the same reason John was a great prophet. His heart was made pure through his desert years, so that nothing got in the way when the word of God came to him; and nothing got in the way when he answered the call to proclaim the word. This is what God wants from us; for us not to get in the way. But we do get in the way ; which is sin.
Our work as Christian is to grow in love for one another, and to grow in knowledge and perception, so that when temptation comes we can discern clearly what it is we must do or not do. Growing in charity, and growing in knowledge are the two things we therefore need to be about. It is not sufficient to just fulfil our obligations. We must grow in community and fellowship, supporting one another, and finding opportunities to show our love for one another. The reason for this is not to save ourselves, but as Isaiah states clearly, that all mankind shall see the salvation of God.