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JOHN THE BAPTIST'S LIFE IN THE DESERT IS AN INSPIRATION FOR US ALL
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Monday, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 2019
Isaiah 49, 1-6, Psalm 138, acts 13:22-26, Luke 1:57-66, 80


 

Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted

 

 

 

“And the child [John the Baptist] was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80).

 

 

The angel Gabriel appeared to the priest Zechariah in the temple telling him that his barren wife Elizabeth would bear a son who would be an ascetic, “And he shall drink no wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). The angel also told him that he is to name him John (Luke 1:13) and that “he will go before him [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17).

 

 

This message of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi about the last days, when “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2). In those days, says the prophet Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). This will be John the Baptist’s ministry. This child, John the Baptist, that the angel Gabriel promises to Zechariah and Elizabeth will be a desert ascetic and later a preacher of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to prepare the people for the Messiah.

 

 

We note that John the Baptist was already in the desert before he began to preach and baptize, for “he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80). Then, in the fullness of time, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:2-6).

 

 

John’s preaching ministry was in the desert of Judea. “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 3:1-2). John understood himself to be the voice that Isaiah prophesied, crying in the wilderness, for “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ … He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said’” (John 1:19, 23).

 

 

John was both a desert ascetic and a preacher of the word of God to multitudes of people. He was the one that God used to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah, the Savior of the world. That John was an ascetic we can see from his dress, his food, and the place where he chose to live, for he preached “in the wilderness of Judea” (Matthew 3:1). “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). His dress was reminiscent of the prophet Elijah, in whose spirit he was sent, for Elijah “wore a garment of hair cloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins” (2 Kings 1:8).

 

 

John was known for his fasting and ascetic lifestyle, and the Pharisees pointed this fact out to Jesus, saying, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink” (Luke 5:33). Jesus himself pointed this out, saying, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:18-19).

 

 

John’s ascetical lifestyle was also pointed out by Jesus when he said to the crowds concerning him, “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, and I tell you, more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:7-9).

 

 

A reed shaken by the wind is a weak man, “shaken by every passing wind of human opinion” (William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1995) page 1243). John was not a weak man, not a reed blowing in the wind. He lived a radically ascetical life in the desert, in prayer and fasting, and he later preached a strong message of repentance so that people’s sins might be forgiven, telling the multitudes, “Bear fruits that befits repentance,” for “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:8, 9).

 

 

That John is not a weak reed shaking in the wind is seen in that he even rebuked the tetrarch Herod “for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias,” his niece and the wife of his brother, which required Herod to divorce his wife, and Herodias to divorce her husband (John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Simon & Schuster, 1965), page 443).

 

 

St. John the Baptist is a model for us in two ways: 1) for his ascetical lifestyle in the desert, and 2) for his courageous and prophetic preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and that we must amend our life and “bear fruits that befits repentance” (Luke 3:8).

 

 

Throughout Christian history John the Baptist has been looked upon by monks as the prototype of their way of life, a life far from the world with its temptations, distractions, and noise, a life of silence and solitude for prayer, simplicity, and ascetical eating and living in the desert for the love of God. John was definitely not of this world in an even more striking sense than Jesus, for Jesus fit in, eating, drinking, and socializing with people in a way that John did not.

 

 

John has been the special predilection of those seeking a life of deeper solitude, silence, and withdrawal from the worldliness of the world to seek God in simple eating, dressing, and living in the desert. He has especially inspired those who seek to do this in a literal and radical way, starting with the Egyptian Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries and continuing through Christian history in various monastic movements.

 

 

But even Jesus proclaimed that he was not of the world and that his followers are not of the world, “I have given them [his disciples] thy word [O Father]; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). Jesus prays that his apostles will remain not of the world, but in the world, ministering to it: “I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:15-16).

 

 

Even St. Paul claims to be not of the world, although he spent his apostolic life constantly preaching, arguing, and trying to convince the Jews, Gentile proselytes, and others that Jesus is the Messiah who died for our sins and rose for our justification. In spite of this, St. Paul says that he is not of the world, but that he has died to the world, “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

 

 

St. John the evangelist gives us the same message, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:15-16).

 

 

St. James says the same, “Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

 

 

So Jesus tells us that we should live a poor and simple life, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). But to the rich who are submerged in their worldly pleasures he says, “But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24).

 

 

So John’s ascetical life in the desert, eating “locusts and wild honey” and wearing “a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist” (Matthew 3:4) should be meaningful to all of us, even though we may not wear camel’s hair, eat locusts and wild honey, and live in a physical desert, for we should all have an ascetical spirit, renouncing the unnecessary delights of this world and its unnecessary amusements and worldly pastimes to devote ourselves to the Lord, as John the Baptist did in such a strikingly visible way.

 

 

Monks in particular have taken special delight in trying to imitate John the Baptist’s way of life in the desert, seeking God with all their heart and soul, mind and strength, without any division of heart or distraction by the attractions, temptations, and noise of the world, choosing remote and isolated places to do so. Indeed we are all called to “enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

 

 

This is why we should have one treasure only, the Lord, and serve only one master, for “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).

 

 

John’s life should be an inspiration to all of us, for we are all called to lose our life for Christ’s sake in order to find it, rather than saving our life in a worldly way only to lose it. “For whoever would save his life [in a worldly manner] will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s [by dying to worldly living] will save it” (Mark 8:35). What more vivid example of this ascetical call could we find than John the Baptist, living a life of prayer and fasting in the desert.

 

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