AS OUR epistle reminds us, the Christian life does not begin with external obligation or self-improvement. It begins with receptivity — with openness to the God who has “begun a good work among you”, and who will “bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ”.
Eugene Peterson writes that the language of Christian discipleship is primarily that of the “middle voice”. As he explains: “When I speak in an active voice, I initiate an action. . . ‘I counsel my friend.’ When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: ‘I am counselled by my friend.’ When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action another initiates: ‘I take counsel’”(The Contemplative Pastor).
The Philippians’ “sharing in the gospel” is a case in point. It is an active participation in the saving initiative of God. Because of their posture of receptivity, they have “produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”.
The ministry of John the Baptist exemplifies this same active participation. This Sunday’s Gospel begins with God’s initiative: “The word of God came to John.” John hears that word only because he has already gone to the wilderness, a place of receptivity. He is neither the initiator of events nor a passive spectator. John’s openness to his word, and his humble and yet courageous participation, is essential to the work of grace.
John responds freely to the call of the desert. But, in the history of God’s people, sojourns in the desolation of the (literal or metaphorical) wilderness are often involuntary. In such desolation, they — and we — are forced to acknowledge the limits of what can be achieved without God’s aid. Only then can his word break through our fantasies of self-sufficiency, calling us back to the banquet of the Lord.
The promises in our first reading were issued in a context of communal desolation. In its last years, the kingdom of Judah was heavily dependent on the Babylonian Empire, but sought to secure help from Egypt. The attempt to play one power off against another was unsuccessful, and Baruch finds himself taken first to Egypt against his will (Jeremiah 43.5-7), and then among the exiles in Babylon.
“Identity and faith became critically important for those separated from their homeland. Without a nation, who were they? Without a temple, where would they worship? How would they worship? Who would lead them? And, perhaps most important, where was God?” (Pauline Viviano, New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Jeremiah, Baruch). It is into this desolation that Baruch speaks God’s word of hope.
The list of rulers at the start of our Gospel reading indicates that God’s people are once again enduring a time of corporate desolation. When Herod the Great died, the Romans gave each of his sons a different region to rule, and Pilate retained direct control of the most important region, Judea. This division was a form of political punishment: a classic imperial strategy of dividing and conquering.
The Baptist’s wilderness existence, therefore, has a twofold significance: it provides a metaphor for the desolation of Israel in his generation; and it models a faithful response to that desolation: namely, a renewed attentiveness to the word of God. John receives a word to declare — “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” — as he prepares his hearers for the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh.
In describing John’s ministry as forerunner, Luke chooses an image from Isaiah, which we also encounter in Baruch. As Judith Lieu explains, “the ‘filling’ of every ravine and the ‘levelling’ — or better, the ‘humbling’ — of every mountain recall the reversal of the Magnificat which we shall meet regularly through the Gospel” (Epworth Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).
According to Baruch, God orders this levelling so that “Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” They will be led “in the light of this glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him”. The Baptist’s preaching heralds God’s fulfilment of these promises, preparing his hearers to receive the coming light; for, as the Benedictus reminds us, in Christ, the “dawn from on high” has now broken, shining on “those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and [guiding] our feet into the way of peace”. Each disciple is to wait, receive, and follow.