Almost everything about John the Baptist in today’s gospel (Matthew 3.1-12) emphasises his separation from the world. He does not wear ordinary clothes, preferring a rough coat spun out of camel-hair. He eats food from the land such as locusts and wild honey.
Even so, it would be a mistake if we see John the Baptiser as someone who hated the world. He was in fact a great encourager of ordinary people. You can sense his sympathy for those who are bowed down, bullied, or oppressed. His separation from the world is not contempt for the world, but rather an attempt to make it clear that he rejects the values of society and calls on all who hear him to live by a higher standard. His whole life is a challenge for the world to do better. It is even a love for the world, for it is to this world that the Messiah he expects will come, it is to this people that the new beginning promised by God will be given.
Hence his message of repentance. Repentance means ‘Turning yourself around’ – it means a fresh start. So John the Baptist believes that this world is one in which men and women can make a new beginning. He preaches, in fact, because he has faith in those who hear him. He believes that some of them will be able to hear him and to respond from the depths of their being. Their hearts can be awakened. Even his harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees still contain this hope: ‘Produce the appropriate fruit’ (3.8). So, you might say, John the Baptist prepares the way for the coming of the Messiah by preaching the necessity of repentance, the necessity of making a new beginning, confident in the loving mercy of God.
A new beginning may require courage. We live in a world which sets great store by appearances. To live spiritually may mean that we seek to go beyond surface appearance, so that we can honestly acknowledging the truth about ourselves – and the truth about the weaknesses of the society around us. John the Baptist’s message is one which rejects falsehood and self-deception of the kind that is present in every age. Self-deception was present in his times and it is found in ours also. The coming of the Messiah, who is just around the corner, prompts John to proclaim that new times are here. Things will change. The new way which is opening up will be a way of peace and reconciliation, of honesty and integrity. In the first reading today we hear that the coming Messiah ‘does not judge by appearances’ (11.3) but by the standards of true justice. Public relations has no part to play in our relationship with God. He sees us as we are and the first step often, on the road to spiritual growth, is for us to acknowledge the reality of our lives and to ask God to lead us into a deeper, truer way of living.