“The voice of one calling in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3)
You know you’re in the season of Advent when John the Baptizer shows up. There he is in all his wilderness glory – clothed with camel’s hair, a leather sash around his waist, a strange macrobiotic diet of locusts and wild honey, which means honey that you grab with your bare hands while angry bees were buzzing around your head. Imagine John walking into service this morning – munching on a grasshopper, a few bees stuck in his sticky beard. What would you think? Would we even let him in the door?
John is one of those characters in the Bible that make you more than a little nervous. He is intense, driven, focused, “holy” is the word. John was holy. Holy as in set apart for a sacred purpose. When you think of John, think of “prophet.” Old Testament, in the line that extends from Elijah to Malachi. John even makes his appearance at the same place where Elijah disappeared into heave in a chariot of fire. In the Jordan wilderness.
John was the last of the OT prophets, the forerunner of the Christ. His task was to prepare the way. He came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There was no such thing as baptism in the OT, at least not the kind that someone did to you. It was something new. In the OT, your sins were forgiven by the blood of the sacrifices. But now John brings a baptism, a water of washing for repentance and forgiveness. The people could have said, “We don’t need that, we’re already forgiven,” the way some people say, “We don’t need church or Baptism or the Lord’s Supper because we’re already forgiven.” That’s not the way of faith.
Baptism was God’s idea. However John came to that understanding (some people think it was in the Essene wilderness community where John was likely raised as an orphan after his aged parents Zechariah and Elizabeth had died), John’s baptism came from God. John was sent by God. It had been almost 500 years since Israel had heard from the prophet Malachi who said that the Lord would send his messenger, Elijah, to prepare his way. And now here’s John 500 years later, living proof that the Word of God is never broken.
John’s message was hard edged law. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent. Turn around. You’re going the wrong way. Repent. Come to a new mind, a new way of thinking. John was calling Israel out of its comfort zone, away from its religious institutions, away from Jerusalem and the temple into the wilderness. That was the point. It was a reverse Exodus through the Jordan into the wilderness. A rebirth and renewal through the water. That’s how people were prepared for the coming of the Messiah – repent and be baptized. That’s how people are prepared for the second coming of the Messiah – repent and be baptized.
You say, “But I’m not in a repentant mood. I don’t feel repentant. I don’t feel I have anything to repent of.” John would say, “Then repent of your slavery to your feelings which will one day lead to hell. Repent of your deafness to God’s Law. Repent of your religious security, your comfortable idolatries, your sentimental sanctuaries where you try to hide from God, your faith, hope, and trust in religious institutions. Repent of your anxieties and adulteries, your disregard for human life, whether in the womb or the nursing home, your trust to technology, your faith in science over the Word of God, your casual approach to the holy things of God. Repent of the comfortable suburban sanctuary that you defend at all costs. Come out into the wilderness where God shapes an Israel, a people who wrestle with God on God’s terms and not their own. Be baptized as a filthy sinner in need of cleansing. It’s not surprising that the religious avoided John like a plague from Egypt.
The prophet Isaiah hears voice that says, “Cry!” and the question comes “What? What shall I cry?” This is what: all flesh is grass. People may not want to hear that; you may not want to hear it, but you need to hear it. Your flesh is like the grass of the field, like the flowers that bloom in spring. Do you get the point? Grass withers; flowers fade; your flesh dies as it is destined to do. Hear it and embrace it; there’s no getting around it. The wages of sin is death. Some of us know, or at least have an inkling as to what will likely kill us. That’s kind of a privilege. Most of us don’t. It may be a popped blood vessel in your head, a stray cell run amuck, a tiny blockage in a key artery, an errant bullet intended for someone else, a drunk driver who jumps the median strip into your lane. The grass withers, the flowers fade, you die.
And if that’s all there was, and for those who have no faith in Christ, that’s all there is, it is hopeless and desperate. The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the Word of our God endures forever. The Word endures, and that’s your life. The Word became Flesh, born of the Virgin. The Word endured the cross in your place. The Word conquered the grave. The Word rose from the dead. The Word endures forever, and in HIm you do too.
John spoke of the Coming One, his cousin Jesus, younger in age yet greater in status. John said he wasn’t worthy to bend down and loosen Jesus’ sandal straps. “I baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” With John’s baptism came the whole lot, and with Jesus comes a whole lot more. With the water, the Spirit. That’s your Baptism. You have been baptized with the greater Baptism of the greater One, the One who died and rose in the flesh to save you from eternal death. Oh yes, something will kill you, that is for certain. But Christ will raise you. You have been baptized into Him by water and the Spirit.
“Get up on a high mountain,” God says through Isaiah. He’s speaking to the Church, to Zion, the herald of good news. Lift up your voices with strength. You can’t keep this a secret. It must be broadcast far and wide. John prepared Israel for the first advent of Christ. Do you know who prepares the world for His second advent? Who is John the Baptizer today? The Church is. God’s Zion, His redeemed people. You. The Church is John the Baptizer of the end times – calling sinners to repentance, to Baptism, to faith in Christ. This is the mission side of Advent.
Think of yourself as a John the Baptizer. Oh, you don’t have to eat grasshoppers and dig your own honey from beehives in rotted logs. You don’t have to wear scratchy camel’s hair and a leather sash. If you let your light shine into this dark world and let your Baptism show, you’ll appear strange enough in this strange world of ours that values all kinds of strangeness except one – holiness.
And let’s face it – what can be a weirder diet than the Lord’s Supper? The world will consider you a first-rate religious weirdo. Richard Dawkins, the biologist turned atheist apologist says that Christians are deluded people who worship sky fairies. So don’t worry, you’ll have your share of trouble from the left and the right, from church and state. The Pharisees rejected him and thought he was demon possessed. King Herod had him arrested for publicly criticizing Herod’s shacking up with his sister-in-law. Yeah, speak of grace alone through faith alone for Christ’s sake alone and the world of Religion will come after you as a heretic. Speak against the systematic murder of unborn children or the gross distortion of marriage, and you’ll be charged with taking away people’s rights.
But the message you bring is a message the world needs to hear clearly. “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; Behold His reward is with Him and His recompense is with Him.” Jesus quotes this verse in the Revelation as His last word on His coming: “Behold, I come quickly. My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” And if that last word of Jesus is to be heard as good news and something to look forward to, then it must be heard through faith in what He has done, for only in what He has done can what we have done be rewarded.
“Prepare the way of the Lord.” It doesn’t get more simple, more focused, more expectant, more “Advent” than that. The Day of the Lord is coming, sooner that you expect, quicker than you or I can anticipate. What sort of people ought we to be, asks St. Peter? A holy people – living lives of holiness and godliness, living in our Baptisms that cover every spot and blemish of sin, living in peace with each other. A peculiar people, set apart for a purpose. A chosen people, graced by God to know His undeserved kindness to sinners for Jesus’ sake. A royal people, who live under Christ the King in His kingdom. A priestly people – teaching, blessing, interceding, offering up living sacrifice of thanksgiving.
In short, a John the Baptizer kind of people, wilderness wanderers awaiting a promised land, a new creation and resurrection to life. An always-Advent people – watching, waiting, hoping, prepared.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.