John answered, “One who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
At the heart of Advent stands the figure of John the Baptist. The voice crying out in the wilderness, calling us to repentance. The gospel readings for two of the Sundays of Advent focus on this great herald of the word. A figure of great importance, not only for this Advent time, but for the entire salvation story. Even before his birth, John was marked as a figure of unique significance. In the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel, the Archangel Gabriel visits the aged Zachariah to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son to be called John, who would be great in the sight of the Lord. And who would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he would go before him to make ready a people prepared for the way of the Lord.
Before birth John was identified as a prophet who would follow the path of Elijah, that great prophet of Israel. Jesus himself says of John, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. We cannot deny John’s importance. Yet we are usually unsure quite what to do with him. In my experience, at least, there are few people who claim John the Baptist as their favorite saint or biblical character. He’s not a figure found in any Advent calendar or creche set that I’ve ever seen. I know very few churches named for him. John is often reduced to an eccentric figure we view with a sort of dismissive curiosity. His wild appearance and strange diet. Details, we should note, that are not found in Luke’s gospel.
Those, along with his forceful speech, are often used as a means of portraying John as an odd figure, perhaps one not to take too seriously. Yet, try as we might to ignore him, John the Baptist still stands at the heart of Advent calling out to us. Today I would like to invite us to reconsider the message of John as something to take quite seriously. Indeed, as the key to understanding Advent and the Christmas celebration, we eagerly anticipate. In short, as good news, just as the crowds who first heard him around the Jordan received his message.
Our text this morning opens with John speaking in a seemingly harsh, critical and condemnatory way, that captures well what many find challenging about John’s proclamation. “You brood of vipers!” he says to the crowd, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance”. Now this crowd that John addresses is of unknown composition. We know nothing about their background or where they came from. The only thing we know from the text is that they came to John to be baptized.
That note, however, raises the question of what exactly was this baptism offered by John? Even today, the answer is not entirely clear. John’s baptism might have drawn on existing Jewish practice of a ritual bath that served as a cleansing from ritual impurity, often performed before entering the Temple. John’s baptism, however, was not something that was repeated, as in the case of this existing Jewish ritual practice. John’s baptism was about conversion. Not to a different faith per se, but to a changed status; a forgiveness of sins and a form of personal reorientation to justice and righteousness.
His baptism was rooted in his keen sense of the immediacy of God’s judgment. And that must have in large part been what drew people to seek his baptism. We should expect then that those who heard these words of John would not have found them as off putting, but instead as reflecting a deep truth. Of course they would agree to that they needed to repent and reorient their lives. That’s why they had come to John in the first place. The crowd’s response reflects both their acceptance of John’s message and their readiness to actualize it in their lives. They ask him, “What then should we do?”
They want to know how they are to change the way they live in light of John’s proclamation. He responds, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”. To share what we have with others is such a simple instruction. Yet it is one we need to be reminded of often, given how we can so easily remain oblivious, or even worse still indifferent, to the countless people who lack basic necessities in our own cities, towns, and communities. John tells the crowd that the Messiah has not yet come, but it’s time to start living as if his reign has indeed come. It is time to live as God intended us to live. Not in greed and indifference to the needs of others, but in such a way that affirms the dignity and meets the basic needs of all God’s children.
Again, the question emerges, “What should we do?”, this time from tax collectors, who in Jesus’ time, often collected more money than was actually owed for the sake of their own personal gain. John tells them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”, a response that speaks directly to their occupation and the potential temptations that came with it. Exploitative practices and the amassing of wealth on the backs of others are inconsistent with God’s intentions for us.
A third time the question emerges, “What should we do?”, this time from soldiers. John replies, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages”. Again, it is a response tailored to those who ask the question. Soldiers are not to use their power or position to exploit or threaten others.
We ought to ask ourselves that same question. What should we do? The answer might well be unique for each of us. But we can be assured of a response that will challenge us to change how we live. The repentance that John speaks of clearly has some immediate ethical implications. It demands a change in the way we act and treat others, but it is about something much more encompassing than just these ethical demands.
As the crowd grew in expectation and were questioning if John could be the Messiah, John reveals the core of his message. One is coming who is greater and more powerful than him. John’s message then is fundamentally not about him. John’s most remarkable quality is his steadfast, unwavering sense of his identity and purpose. He is not the Messiah. He is the prophet calling out and pointing the way to the promised one who is to come. Such a resolute, understanding and commitment to who he is, and who he is not, is an attribute of this great prophet that I don’t think we often consider. There are few people who can command the attention, energy and loyalty of others only to say, “It is not about me, but someone else. In fact, my entire purpose is to decrease so that the other can increase.” John is merely shining the spotlight, grabbing our attention and fixing it on the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. “He”, John tells us, “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now these words can strike us as harsh, even difficult. I think in part we find them challenging because they speak of judgment. A word that has little positive association for us. Judgmental is not a quality to which any of us aspire. Jesus himself teaches in his Sermon on the Mount, “do not judge so that you may not be judged”. We must acknowledge, too, that the Church has too often been a place where so many have experienced condemnation, shame or exclusion. Such practices, which we must reject as inconsistent with God’s intention, are not what we’re talking about here. What John speaks of in the text before us is a divine judgment of an entirely different sort from the judgement’s we humans hurl at each other with such ease.
The Messiah comes to separate out the chaff, all that needs to be cleansed and purified within ourselves, within our world. And it does not take much time or effort to call to mind innumerable ways in which sin and brokenness afflict us and our world. John’s proclamation of the coming Messiah is an affirmation that we are a people in need of saving and redeeming from the evil and sin that diminishes and distorts the life God intended for us. We need a savior. And that is precisely why we find in this time of Advent cause to rejoice. There is good news because with judgment comes mercy. The one who comes to judge the world comes as one crucified and risen, who bears on his hands and feet and in his side, the marks of this passion, that show forth the depths of his love for us. He comes not to condemn us, but to love us and save us from our sins so that we may, without shame or fear, rejoice to behold his appearing, as the Prayer Book so movingly puts it.
Perhaps the most well-known verses of the New Testament tell us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”.
The savior whom we await comes to make all things new, to write our wronged world and to save us from the horrors that we inflict on each other and ourselves. That is the good news of this Advent time. And of John’s proclamation to us, who wait in eager anticipation. And who with boldness, make our prayer, “Come Lord Jesus, come to your people and set us free”. Amen.