You know it’s Advent when John the Baptizer makes his appearance in the lectionary. It just isn’t Advent without this strange preacher of the Judean wilderness. His message can be summarized in a single word: Repent! The reason is simple and straightforward: the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
John was a prophetic voice. Isaiah foretold him. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” John was the road leveler, the bulldozer. John was a raging bull in a religious China shop. Dressed as an old testament prophet, looking like Elijah. A cloak of scratchy camel’s hair. A locust leg stuck between his teeth. His hands sticky with wild honey, his arms dotted with bee stings. A wild, unkempt, untamable man, not a company man or what we call today a “team player.” Rather, John was a prophet sent by God to Israel for a purpose – to prepare the way for Christ. John came out of the wilderness to call Israel back to the wilderness, back to the place where they were first formed as a nation, back to the Jordan that had parted under their feet as they crossed into the promised land.
John was a bridge between the old and the new, between the old covenant of Abraham and Sinai, and the new covenant about to come in Jesus. John had one foot in the old covenant and one foot in the new. He brought a new sacrament of the covenant – baptism, a washing with water for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. That’s how John prepared the people for the coming of the Messiah. He heard your confession and baptized you. That was how you heeded the call to repent – you confessed your sins and you were baptized by John.
In the old covenant, you confessed your sins to the priests and brought your sacrificial animal who shed his blood in your place. John brought a new way – a washing with water and the promise of God to forgive. The people flocked to John from all over Jerusalem and Judea and the whole region around the Jordan.
John drew the attention of the religious authorities – the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He was especially hard on the religious types, those who thought they were “in” because the kept the Torah and could claim Abraham as their father. They were interested in John’s baptism, but not in his call to repentance. They didn’t need to repent, or so they thought. They were the religious leaders, the keepers of the Torah, the pure and holy. Not like all those sinners flocking around John. But John would have none of it. He minced no words; he didn’t care if anyone was “offended.” He called them a “brood of vipers,” a bunch of snakes. He urged them to repent not only with their lips but also with their lives, bearing fruit in keeping with repentance.
What would John say to us here today? What would John say if he stood in this pulpit and preached to you? First, you’d have to get past his looks and probably his smell. But you’d listen, I’m sure. And what you’d hear is the call to repent, to be changed in your mind, literally to drop dead to your self and your sin and rise out of Baptism a new man, a new woman in Christ. John would say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” He would urge the unbaptized to Baptism, and the baptized to confession.
If anyone started waving their credentials about how they’ve been a Lutheran all their lives or gave their heart to Jesus last year or did this, that, or another thing, John would say, “Repent, you bunch of snakes.” If you started to brag about your works and all the progress you think you’re making in walking the walk, John would say, “Not good enough. Repent.” He would call us to repent of our comfortable complacency, our convenient religion, our “what’s the least I have to do” mentality, our religious pride, all the ways we poke at the speck in eyes of others and neglect the two by four sticking out of our own eyes. John would remind us of the urgency of the end times, how the axe is already laid to root, how fruitless trees are cut down and burned in the fire.
If you wanted to know what the fruits of repentance looked like, John would tell you. If you have two coats, share one with someone who doesn’t have one. If you have more food than you need, share it with those who are hungry. He would point to the ten commandments and say, “This is what the fruit of repentance looks like. To fear, love, and trust in God, to honor His name and His Word in worship, to honor parents and authorities, to help your neighbor in his physical needs, to live sexually pure lives, to help your neighbor protect his property and reputation, and to be content with what you have.
But John would remind you that these are the fruits of repentance, what happens when the Word of God has its way with you. They are not repentance. Repentance is confessing your sin, no matter how “good” you think you are, admitting that even your best works are shot through with sin and covered with the greasy fingerprints of the old Adam in you. John would turn you from yourself to Jesus. You must decrease, Jesus must increase. Jesus is the one to watch for, hope for, wait for, expect. His is the death that can save you. His is the life that brings you perfection and holiness before God. He is the Lamb of God who takes away your sin and the sin of the world. Trust Jesus, not yourself.
John would remind you of your Baptism. He was, after all, John the Baptizer. He would remind you that you are privileged to have received the greater Baptism from the greater One. You have been baptized into the death of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Having been baptized, you are clothed with Jesus, with His seamless robe of righteousness. Not the camel hair of the wilderness, but a garment of perfection that cover all of your sin and its shame and wraps you in a wedding suit for an endless wedding party of the Lamb in His kingdom.
Your wilderness food is not locusts and wild honey, but living Bread come from heaven to feed you with His own Body. Wine from heaven your drink, the life’s Blood of Jesus who died for you and was raised that you might live in Him and He in you. The Lord’s Supper is your wilderness food that will keep you as the manna kept the Israelites until the day you set foot in the promised land of resurrection and life.
John would warn us that the winnowing fork stands ready in Jesus hand – the cross that winnows faith and unbelief, ready to gather the faithful wheat into His barn and pitch the unbelieving chaff into eternal fire. John would remind us that we may never presume in smug security, but must cling in repentant faith to the promise of mercy in Jesus every day of our lives. As Luther said it in the first of his 95 theses, “When our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He willed the entire life of the Christian to be one of repentance.” Constantly and continually using Jesus as our Mediator and Redeemer.
You wouldn’t like John terribly, and John wouldn’t terribly much care about that. But you would be thankful for him. And that’s what God would have us hear – the truth. The awful truth that we are always in need of repentance because we are at our heart and core sinners. And the awe-full truth that the axe of God’s judgment was laid on the Shoot from the stump of Jesse. Jesus, the fruitful Branch of David’s family tree, was treated as a fruitless tree, cut down and cursed on the tree of the cross, thrown into the fire of God’s wrath against your sin in order to save you from the coming wrath at the end.
You and I as the church of God are that prophetic voice calling in the wilderness today. The church is John the Baptizer of the end times, urging people to repentance and Baptism, preparing the way for the Lord’s final advent in glory. To the world, our being clothed with Jesus’ righteousness may seem as strange as camel’s hair and leather. The Lord’s Supper of Christ’s Body and Blood, our wilderness food, may as well be locusts and wild honey to those accustomed to a more civilized diet of vague spirituality and sweet sentimentality. As Christians, we are as strange to this world as John the Baptizer was to his day.
The message to the world is the same as John’s – repent, be baptized, believe – for the kingdom of heaven is near. The kingdom of heaven is coming, where wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, cow and bear, the carnivore and the herbivore live together without killing each other, where a tiny child is safe playing with the cobra. It is the peaceable coming kingdom of King David’s greater Son, the Branch of Jesse’s root, our Savior Jesus.
Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight. The kingdom is near. Christ is near.
In the name of Jesus,