You know it’s Advent when John the Baptizer shows up. Just when you were preparing to have a holly, jolly Christmas with chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleighbells ring ring ring-a-ling, and Santas belting out their friendly ho-ho-hos, along comes John, and suddenly all the fun seems to drain right out of the season.
John is the great buzz kill of holiday cheer, Kryptonite to the Christmas spirit,your grouchy uncle who spoils the Christmas party. He’s edgy, he’s prophetic, he’s unkempt, he’s probably even a bit smelly. Undomesticated, uncivilized, untamable – John is a figure right out of the Old Testament. He even looks like the prophet Elijah, clothed in camel’s hair and leather. He’s supposed to look that way. He is the forerunner, the way-preparer, the messenger who goes before the Lord to fill in the valleys, level the mountains, straighten out the crooked and smooth over the rough.
Today also happens to be the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra, the generous and kind bishop and defender of Nicene orthodoxy whose legend lies behind the mythical jolly old “Saint Nick” in the red and white suit associated with shopping malls. But John the Baptizer is no mythical character. He may be strange, but he’s real. He came at a particular time and place. Luke records the moment for posterity’s sake: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontus Pilate was the governor of Judea, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, Herod’s brother Philip the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanius the tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. This is history, my friends. Not some myth or legend that happened “once upon a time.” Luke, the historian, tells you when and where.
It was the fulness of time, when human history was pregnant “out to here” with God’s promise of salvation. It was the threshold of the new age, the arrival of the kingdom of God, the coming messianic age. John stood on the threshold of history as the last of the OT prophets and the first of the NT evangelists. He came as a prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.
How do you prepare the way of the Lord? We understand the highway image. Fill in the holes, shave down the high spots, straighten out the crooked places, smooth over the rough places. Got it. Make a highway for the Lord. Fine. But what does this mean? In a word: Repent. Turn away from sin and self. Repent. Return to the Lord who has returned to you. Repent. You were going this way, now go that way. Repent. Lose your religion, the notion that you can bribe and butter God up with your pieties and religion. Repent of who you are and of what you’ve done and haven’t done. Repent. Set aside your notions of self-esteem and learn to see yourself as the sinner that you are.
Repent and be baptized. John came to the Jordan wilderness with a new thing: Baptism. Baptism was unheard of in Israel. There were washings, but none that were done on you by another. There was sacrifice for sin, but not a bath for sinners. John was calling Israel back to the Jordan that once parted on their entry into the land. Back to the wilderness, the place where Israel had been formed as God’s people and nation. God was preparing to do a new thing, and His people need to be cleansed, bathed in forgiveness, scrubbed in a baptismal bath of Jordan river water joined to the promise of God. Repentance and baptism go together. You repent by being baptized, and living in Baptism is living a life of repentance.
John minced no words. He was hardly what today we would call “nice” let alone “friendly” or even “engaging.” When people came out to him to be baptized, he called them a bunch of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? What are you doing here? Hardly the way to start a religious movement, is it? John cut through the religious clutter. Don’t credential yourselves by saying “We have Abraham as our father.” God couldn’t care less. If He wanted, He could turn stones into children of Abraham.
John proclaimed judgment. No holds barred, ham-fisted judgment. The axe was already whacking away at the Israelite rootstock, the fire was already stoked. Any tree that did not bear good fruit would be cut down by the axe of God’s judgment and thrown into the fire.
This was not some call to abstract repentance, either. This was a call to a genuine turning with the anticipation of works that befit repentance. When the people asked John, “What shall we do to do the works of repentance,” John told them. He got down to specifics. He didn’t say, “Oh, you’re a sinner, you can’t do them so don’t bother trying.” He didn’t say, “You’re justified by faith so forget about works.” He told them what the fruit of repentance looked like. You share your clothing with one who has none. You share your food with one who has none. You do your vocations honestly and with integrity. Tax collectors – collect no more than the fair tax. Soldiers – do not use your authority to extort money, be content with your wages. In other words, fulfill your God-given callings with honesty, with integrity, with uprightness.
We imagine that “holiness” is some other-worldly thing done by robed monks chanting ancient texts. Not for us, certainly. Not for everyday people with families to raise and work to do and houses to take care of. We don’t have time to be holy. There are only 19 days until Christmas, for goodness sake!
John would say to us, “You brood of Lutheran lizards. Repent! Repent of your complacency, your excuses, your laziness, your religious hypocrisy. And don’t you dare say, “We have Luther as our father,” because Luther’s come a dime a dozen in God’s economy of doing things, and Luther can’t save you and more than Abraham can save you. Repent. Repent of your shallow prayers, your superficial devotions, you endless complaining and whining, repent of your ingratitude for the Word, the Body and the Blood. Repent and start being the people of God that you are because that who God says you are.
Repentance is not a one-time thing. It’s a way of life. It’s what it means to be a Christian. Daily the old man drowns and dies in baptismal water; daily a new man rises up to live in Christ, clothed with His righteousness, covered with His holiness, living in His perfection.
Repentance is something God works in us by His Word, and we shouldn’t be surprised when He does it, nor avoid it because it makes us “feel bad about ourselves.” You’re supposed to feel bad about yourself, because, as St. Paul says, “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing.” There is nothing in you that would make you feel good about yourself. God sends the bulldozer of His law right down the main streets of our lives. The highway of the Lord runs right through the middle of our being, through our very hearts and minds. And that’s why the encounter with John is so uncomfortable, so discomforting. We see the truth about ourselves, and we don’t like what we see.
This is the harsh side of Advent, what makes it a somber and sober season even as the world parties on. We encounter John in all his prophetic edginess, and we realize that we are sinful and unclean. Our thoughts, our desires, our actions – even the best and most noble of them – are hopelessly in need of a bath. We recognize this. You do. After a day of work, you feel like you need a bath, you need to get clean again. There isn’t a day spent in your vocations as fathers, mothers, citizens, workers – whatever God has given you to do – that you are not in need of a baptismal bath of repentance, a washing of water with the Word.
Fortunately for us, and blessedly, Baptism, like repentance is not a one-time thing. It is a daily gift, a daily working of the Word in our lives, killing us and making us alive. Cleansing us in our vocations to serve God and serve our neighbor not to be saved, but because we are saved by God’s undeserved kindness and mercy in Jesus His Son.
John came to prepare the way of the Lord, of Jesus. John’s baptism of repentance came to its completion and fulfillment when Jesus stepped into the Jordan to be baptized as a sinner, to stand with us and in our place. The axe that was laid to the root of Israel fell upon Jesus. The wrath of God that threatens our damnation fell upon Jesus. The fire of God’s judgment against our sin came upon Jesus. Jesus is the good tree that bears the good fruit on behalf of all of humanity. And grafted to Him in baptismal faith, joined to Jesus as branches to a living Vine, feeding off of His death and life, you are a good tree too.
“Make the tree good,” Jesus said, “and the fruit will be good also.” First the tree, then the fruit. Get the repentance right, and the fruits of repentance will surely be there. And where there is repentance, where men and women recognize their sinfulness and confess it, where hearts are turned by the Spirit working through the Word, there a smooth and level highway is prepared for the Lord.
It is Advent,. Time to prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make His paths straight. Don’t be afraid of John or his harsh preaching or his baptism. He is a good and faithful preacher who seeks your salvation. Turn to Christ who comes to you, now hidden in His Word and bread and wine, and soon He comes to you in glory. Get ready. The Lord is near.
In the name of Jesus,