Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
Two images stand in contrast with each other in today's readings. One is the image of the desert and the other is the image of the harvest.
The desert is the place in which John the Baptist appears, a location rich in significance for the people of the covenant. It is the place in which their hearts are tested, to see if they really do love God with all their heart, all their strength and all their might. John the Baptist is a prophet calling them back to this relationship with God as many prophets before him had done.
The portrait of the Baptist is familiar, his message, lifestyle, identity and impact. His message is the call to repentance, shown by submitting to his baptism. His lifestyle is strange, a diet of locusts and wild honey while dressing in camelskin and living in the desert. As for his identity, he is the voice crying in the wilderness, he is the Elijah who was to come before the great and terrible day of the Lord, he is not the light but one who bears witness to the light and points out the Lamb of God when he appears. His impact is significant: Jerusalem, all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan go out to him.
There is fruit to be borne out of this experience of the desert, a moral and spiritual fruit that means the people are truly living according to the covenant the Lord has established with them. There is a harvest to be saved and John the Baptist says that the One coming after him will preside over this harvest. He will winnow, thresh and gather in what is good, and he will burn what is left over and has not borne fruit.
A journey through the desert place is necessary if the harvest is to be achieved. Just as the people of Israel were brought into communion with God through their experience in the desert, so anybody who wishes to live in that communion must be prepared to visit the desert and to do it more than once. It means repenting of our sins, purifying the motives of our actions, seeing once again the ways in which we ought to be bearing fruit. It means being ready to lose everything in order to gain the complete simplicity needed to share the life that is promised.
The Messiah comes in the power of the Holy Spirit, baptising in that same Spirit and with fire. This does not simply mean punishment. It means refinement and purification, it means a deep cleansing and a new creation, it means making strong and capable of endurance hearts and minds that otherwise would be feeble and vacillating. The greatest spiritual teachers tell us that the quality of the harvest depends on the time spent in the desert.
The more we empty our lives of the things that do not really matter in order to make space for the one thing that is necessary, the more we are open to the refining fire of the Holy Spirit and the recreating power of His gifts. We will have courage for the desert, in whichever way it comes to us, and we will bear a rich harvest, loving God ever more deeply and sharing ever more deeply the communion of life and love He wants for us.