Today we are reminded that God outworks human powers, often from a desert. The Jews remember this particularly from their historical deliverance from Egypt and into the promised land. Those powers are thwarted not by their own hand, but by God's, right before their eyes in the desert.
When you hear desert in the Bible, do not think of Arizona. Think of the Dakota Badlands. The desert, more of a semi-mountainous and very bleak wilderness, is a symbol of powerlessness and stripping bare. It is the desert more specifically where God, on a mountain, formed a covenant with his people through Moses. Centuries later, the people needed another wake-up call, since they had abandoned their hearts from that covenant. They needed the silence of the wilderness; they needed a reminder of their powerlessness; they needed to be robbed of all those things that take their attention away from God.
This is where our reading from Baruch comes in. The fall of Jerusalem in 587BC was the most devastating even in Jewish history. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed, the leaders were bound and enslaved, the inhabitants were either likewise taken captive or their lifeless bodies were left under the open sky. And it is right then (after such great devastation) and right there (in the desert on the journey to slavery) where the prophet Baruch speaks today's words: Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever … Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God. That “east” to which they look is taken up by the Church in her liturgy, where churches were built facing the east so that we could pray with our hope set on the rising sun, the perfect symbol of Christ's resurrection and God's divine action in our world. This is also why Catholic cemeteries bury their dead so as to rise facing the East. None of those people at that time felt particularly “remembered by God.” Yet the prophets words of hope prove true, for both Babylon and Jerusalem both fail under the power of God. God alone changes those hearts, and in that desert and that captivity in Babylon, the people recommit themselves to the Lord. His word pierces us, converts us, brings us to change ourselves and our world. God outworks our human powers, often from a desert.
The same reality is found in the Gospel. Luke puts the ministry of John the Baptist in a stark contrast with the big names of his day: the emperor Tiberius, his local administrator Pontius Pilate, the tetrarch Herod (a ruthless Jewish sell-out to the empire) and the high priests. All these big powers of the world, the ambition-driven movers and shakers who do all they can to bring people and daily affairs under their own influence, are ultimately silenced by God. They are shown to be nothing, both by their inability to change hearts and by God's choice to work through an apparent nobody. Even the high-priest fails to be the source of God's message, because God's primary work is done in the midst of a desert, de-void of any semblance of human power.
Advent is a reminder that God outworks our human powers, and often needs to call us back to Himself from a desert. Let us heed the call of the Baptist to the desert, to strip ourselves of all unnecessary things, so that we can return to the Lord with a clearer sense of what is important in life: our salvation, our redemption, and God's work before our own. Here in this Mass, God's power to change hearts is at its greatest height, even to make saints of us. Here, today, we ask God to change us and to prepare a way for His Son.