Preparation. The season of Advent is about preparation. Preparing for the holidays and the holy days of Christmas. Preparing for the end of all things and the coming of Jesus in glory. Preparing the way of parents expecting their first child prepare – with anticipation, excitement, fear, and joy all at the same time – preparing for the baby’s arrival. In fact, Advent is like a pregnancy. Time is pregnant with the Promise of God. Christ is near. It’s time to get ready.
Our guide for our Advent journey during these next two weeks will be John the Baptizer. He hardly needs an introduction. Of all the characters in the Bible, I don’t think there is anyone stranger than John. Jesus called cousin John the greatest man ever born, though I daresay he doesn’t stack up to our world’s measure of greatness. John never invented anything, never led a nation, never ran a corporation, never wrote a popular song or directed a movie or authored a book. He spent his days baptizing and preaching, paving the way for cousin Jesus to make His grand appearance. And when his preaching and baptizing days were ended, his head became a present for King Herod’s mistress. The religious leaders of John’s day concluded he had a demon. Today’s critics would say that John was narrow, out of touch, intolerant, a religious fanatic, perhaps even a psychopath. We’d put him on Prozac and ship him off to the coast to chill for a while.
John lived as one who was “in the world but not of the world.” Clothed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, John was unfashionable, rough, untamed, non-conforming. He didn’t care about the latest trends in fashion or style. If “clothes make the man,” then John was doomed from the start. Subsisting on a wilderness diet of locusts and wild honey, John lived by the hand of God. John came out of that OT tradition called the “Nazerites,” ascetics who voluntarily gave up the pleasures of life to point people to God. People like that make us uncomfortable with our comfortable lifestyles. They should. That’s the point. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
John was a revolutionary without an army, a radical who didn’t hesitate to call the high and mighty to repent, even when it cost him his own freedom and life. He was a rebel whose cause was nothing less than the kingdom of God.
John came from the wilderness where he was raised. We can only speculate about his early life. Luke’s version of the Gospel simply tells us that John “grew and became strong in the spirit, and was in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” Some think that John grew up in one of those wilderness messianic communities called the Essenes who were preparing the way for the Lord in the wilderness. You’ll remember that John’s parents – Zechariah and Elizabeth – were quite old when John was untimely born. Perhaps it was the Essenes, or a group like them, that gave John his wilderness roots. He called Israel back into the wilderness, a kind of reverse exodus across the Jordan, away from the safety and security of priest and king, of synagogue and temple. He called Israel back to the wilderness, the place of testing and temptation. The wilderness, where God has first made a nation out of a rag tag bunch of slaves.
It was time for Israel to start over. To repent. To come to a new mind, a re-cognition of who they were and who God was. The religious types, so invested in the creed, cult, and conduct of Judaism, wanted nothing to do with John. He was a threat to the status quo, a threat to their religious power base, a threat to the institution. John was the kind of guy that institutions keep a careful eye on. Not a team player, not a company man.
The religious leaders rejected his baptism. What was this ritual washing unknown to Judaism? Where did John come up with this? And why did the clean need to be cleansed? Washing was for the filthy – those traitor tax collectors and prostitutes and immoral sinners and Gentiles.
They rejected John’s message. What sins did they have to confess? They were the ones who walked the walk and talked the talk; they were the teachers of the Torah. How dare John instruct them. They were the religious people, the righteous people, the people everyone looked up to as role models and examples of righteousness. How dare this shaggy prophet from the desert call them a bunch of snakes! Who did he think he was, anyway?
John was a voice. Just a voice, calling in the wilderness. Prepare. Get ready. John was a prophetic voice. The voice of Elijah. It was no coincidence that John appeared in the Jordan wilderness. That was the place where the prophet Elijah had been whisked off to heaven in a fiery chariot. And it’s no quirk that John appeared wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. That was the clothing of Elijah. John’s voice was the prophetic voice of the entire OT. Through John, all the prophets were crying out together: Get ready! Prepare! Pave the highway! The Lord is near!
By all appearances, John was popular with the people. They flocked to him in droves. Mark says the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Perhaps they came out of curiosity, to get a look at this strange preacher. But those who heard his preaching and took it to heart, went away dripping wet with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins.
They came confessing their sins to John. John is called “the Baptizer.” You might just as well call him “the Confessor” too. People brought the dirty laundry of their lives to John – their blasphemies and idolatries and adulteries and murders and thefts and lies, their misdemeanors and their felonies. And he baptized them into the forgiveness of their sins. He washed away their sins with water and the word.
Who would ever have thought that sin could be dealt with like this? With water. In the OT, sins were cleansed in the temple was with blood sacrifice. But John introduced a baptism, a washing with water for the forgiveness of sins. Something new and different. John was preparing the people for the end of all sacrifices and the appearing of God’s Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. Through John, God was saying, “The time is coming when my Son will shed His blood once for all, and I will no longer ask for blood sacrifice. Instead you will be baptized into His death, into the forgiveness that’s in His blood. John’s baptism was a kind of sacramental bridge between the old testament and the new. Jesus was new wine, and John was the new wineskin.
The people came away from John’s baptism washed and forgiven and free. It’s amazing. Dirty Jordan river water cleanses from sin. How can water do such great things? You know the answer. It’s not just the water but the Word in and with the water. The promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Son of God. Remember Naaman, the Syrian general, who was cured of his leprosy in the Jordan at the word of Elisha. Water and the Promise of God make baptism more than a bath.
For the people of John’s day, this was a fresh start, a new beginning, a rebirth. People whose lives were so messed up were given a new start. Can you imagine the joy, the freedom, the hope that these newly baptized people must have experienced there in the Jordan. They had a reason to get up in the morning. Messiah was coming. They were prepared for Him. Someone was coming after John, someone so great John said he wasn’t worthy to bend down to untie his sandal straps. Someone who would bring an even greater baptism than John’s. He would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
What’s your hope? What are you looking forward to? What are you preparing for? Do you get up in the morning with a sense of urgency, anticipation, expectation? Christ is near. He is coming soon and quickly. Prepare the way of the Lord. The danger lies in the distractions, those potholes on the royal highway. We get so caught up in things temporal we lose sight of things eternal. We get so caught up in the “spirit of the holidays” that we miss out on the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens us out of our Baptism.
You are baptized. Or if you aren’t, then I would urge to be baptized. Not in the Jordan wilderness. That was John’s baptism. But in the church, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are baptized with the greater Baptism, greater than John’s baptism. John’s baptism prepared people for the first Advent of the Christ. Jesus’ Baptism prepares you for His second advent. You’re baptized. Washed with water and the Word, born of water and the Holy Spirit, buried in the death of Jesus, clothed with Christ. Baptism isn’t just an event in your life, something that happened to you one day. Baptism is your life, it defines who you are and whose you are. You didn’t choose this for yourself, you were chosen. You are part of a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a peculiar people set apart by God for a purpose.
You and I, we’re John the Baptizer for this world of ours. When Jesus said to His disciples, “Go and make disciples of all the nations by baptizing and teaching” He was telling His church to do the same thing John did. Baptize, teach. Prepare the nations to meet their Maker and Redeemer. Prepare the world for the coming of Jesus.
Like John, our clothing is odd, out of step with the religious fashions of the world. No, we’re not called to wear camel’s hair and leather. That may have been fashionable for prophets of the old testament, but not the new. While the world parades around in its winter collection of religions, you’ve been given to wear the seamless robe of Jesus’ righteousness. That’s your clothing. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ.” And in this world of ours, you may as well be wearing camel hair and leather. But wear it proudly, and don’t hide Christ in the closet while you try to blend in. You can’t. You’re strange, you’re different, you’re weird. You’re a Christian. Get used to it.
We’re not called to eat honey coated locusts, either, thank goodness! In fact, John never asked anyone to join him in his odd, macrobiotic diet. I’m surprised no one has picked up on this with our penchant for imitating the Bible. We have “Ezekiel bread” and we even have a cookbook entitled “What Did Jesus Eat?” But I’ve never seen a book based on John’s diet. A stunt on Fear Factor, perhaps. But I don’t see honey coated grasshoppers becoming the next rage in spiritual dieting. Still, when you think about it, our diet does strike the world strange. Every week we engage in a ritual meal – a little piece of bread and a sip of wine, that unique and wonderful Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood. Our wilderness food. Manna from heaven. The joy of the wedding feast come to us. A foretaste of the feast to come.
Do you feel you aren’t worthy for such great things? You’re not alone. John said he wasn’t worthy to stoop down to Jesus’ feet to untie his sandals. John was a sinner, born into the fallen condition that is common to all of us children of Adam and Eve. But that didn’t stop John, nor should it stop any of us from worshipping Jesus as the Christ and pointing the way to His coming. John’s worthiness was in himself, in his diet, his dress, his zeal. His worthiness was entirely in cousin Jesus, the One who was coming to stoop down to death to take away the world’s sin and conquer death once and for all.
Worthy is the Lamb. And in Him worthy are you. Get ready for more. The Lord is near.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.