You know it’s Advent when John the Baptist shows up. He’s going to be our Advent preacher for the next two Sundays. But I need to warn you in advance, you may not like him. Religious people generally didn’t care for John. He called them a bunch of snakes, so I guess you could hardly blame them. You probably wouldn’t care for the way he looked. We tend to want our preachers to be civilized and respectable looking. A nice suit, decent haircut, clean shaven, polished shoes, gentle and polite manners. John was, to put it bluntly, rather rough to look at.
If he walked down your street, you might mistake him for a homeless man. In a sense, he was homeless. He was a man of the wilderness, a desert dweller. John grew up in the wilderness, probably raised as an orphan after his elderly parents Zechariah and Elizabeth died. Some people think that John was raised by a group called the Essenes, who were preparing for the coming of the Lord in the wilderness. They took the punctuation of Isaiah slightly differently and read, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John came preaching in the wilderness.
John was the “voice” spoken of by the prophet Isaiah. When the religious authorities conducted an investigation of John, they asked him point blank who he was. Are you the Christ? Are you the Prophet? Are you Elijah? Who are you? And John’s answer was simple, “A voice calling in the wilderness.” A voice. Nothing more than that. John was a mouthpiece. God’s megaphone. Like any decent preacher, he was not there to draw attention to himself. In fact, if you paid too much attention to John, you were liable to irritate him and you wouldn’t want to do that. Just ask the Pharisees and Sadducees.
John was oddly dressed. Not the 1st century equivalent of a suit and tie but camel’s hair and a leather belt. Wilderness wear. To look at him, you might have thought that Elijah had come back, and you’d be partially right. John was Elijah in the sense that he had come to prepare the world for the coming of the Christ. He was the warm up act, the one who got the crowd ready for the star attraction. John’s diet was strange too. Locusts and wild honey. Wilderness food. Not the food of kings. Not even the bread of peasantry. John was a man who lived not by bread alone but by every word that came from the mouth of God. He lived as one completely dependent upon God.
John appeared in the Jordanian wilderness on the eastern side of the Jordan River. It was the same place where Elijah had gone off to heaven in a fiery chariot. It was the place where Israel has crossed the parted waters of the Jordan from the wilderness to enter the Promised Land. Now John was calling Israel back to the waters of the Jordan, back into the wilderness. He was calling them back to their wilderness roots, away from the religious structures and institutions of synagogue and temple, back to where God had made them into a unique people.
John called people to repent and be baptized. That was his message. That is how he prepared the way of the Lord. This is how people are prepared to meet the Lord.
Preaching and baptizing. Sound familiar? It should! It’s what the church does in the end times. The church is the end times version of John the Baptist – calling the world to repentance, urging the world to be baptized in order to escape the wrath that is to come on the coming Day of the Lord.
I wonder what John would say to us here today on this Second Sunday of Advent devoted to his preaching? He would certainly approve of the Baptism that happened here. John was all about baptizing. He’s called “John the Baptist” after all. And John would certainly have approved of our confessing our sins and sinfulness at the start of the service. In fact, he might have noted that we probably haven’t fully plumbed the depths of our sinfulness, that we were being a bit trite and superficial in our confession. He might even give us the same look he gave the Pharisees and Sadducees, who hid behind their works and their heritage, and say, “You bunch of Lutheran lizards! Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Talk’s cheap. Show me some fruit! And don’t start prattling about Father Luther and how you’ve been a Lutheran all your life and how your doctrine is all nice and pretty and how nice you are. God doesn’t need you any more than he needed Israelites. He can raise up all the children he wants from a bunch of stones.” I told you that you probably wouldn’t like John, but that’s probably what John would tell us.
He’d warn us not to rely on our goodness, our holiness, our works, our piety, our prayers, our anything. If we haven’t repented, we need to repent re-think and re-cognize who we are and who God is. And even if we have repented we still need to repent of thinking that our repentance is enough. If you think you’re doing, you’re not doing enough. If you think you’re generous in your giving, you’re not giving enough. If you think you’re pure in thought, word, and deed, you need to repent of your not taking the Law seriously.
John was the Law; Jesus was the Gospel. John preached the judgment and the wrath of God. Even his view of Jesus was one of Law. His axe is laid to the root. He’s come to chop down the unfruitful tree and throw it into the fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand. He’s going to sort wheat from chaff and gather His wheat in the barn and throw the chaff into unquenchable fire. John baptized with water, but coming Jesus will baptize with the fiery wind of the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism was provisional, temporary, transitional. Jesus’ baptism was the real deal, the main event, the one that would separate sinner from saint.
You can understand John’s confusion when Jesus came to him to be baptized. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The sinner was supposed to be baptized by the Sinless One, not the other way around. The servant should be baptized by the Master. The lesser should be baptized by the greater. You can understand John’s confusion when from Herod’s prison he asked, “Are you the One who is coming or do we look for another?” Where is your winnowing fork? Where is the axe chopping at the root? Where is the fire and wind?
Those will come and are coming. He comes to judge the living and the dead. There is a coming fire that will refine the world. There is a final separation of sinner and saint that will finally destroy the sinner in Adam and raise a saint in Christ with a body fit for eternity. It’s coming, but first Jesus must undergo the judgment, the dying and rising. That’s the part John did not see and could not see. Like all prophets, he was right and yet longed to see the fulfillment of what he spoke. And it was so much greater.
First Jesus had to be baptized as a sinner, a penitent with no sin, to take the place of the sinner, to become our Sin, to bear the sin of the world. The axe of the law had to be laid to the Root of Jesse, to David’s greater Son born of the virgin. The fire of God’s Law had to be kindled against Him so that He might breathe the fire of the Spirit upon the world. He had to become a curse under the Law in our place, cursed on the tree of the cross, so that He might be a blessing for the world and its Savior.
The Law always prepares the way for the Gospel. John prepares the way for Jesus. The commandment leads us in repentance to Christ. And where Christ is, the Law is silenced. Christ is the end of the Law for those who believe. Christ must increase, John must decrease. John himself said so. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John can bring you to the Jordan; Christ will bring you to an even greater Baptism. John can call you to the wilderness; Christ will bring you to the Promised Land. John can point the way; Christ is the Way.
Follow John, this voice in the Advent wilderness. He is your guide and won’t mislead you. Don’t be put off by his rough clothing, his weird diet, his harsh preaching. Follow his gaze. Follow where his finger is pointing. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John is your Advent reminder that you need Christ. You need Him more than you think you need Him. You need Him for much more than comfort, companionship, safety and security. You need Him to save you. You need to die and rise with Him. You need Him to save you from the Sin and Death that would consume you were it not for Him. John does us a service this morning. He cuts through the veneer of our piety and goes straight for our sinful, rebel, wayward hearts, and says the one word we don’t want to hear. Repent! And he points us to the one place our old Adam doesn’t want us to be: Baptism.
Our sins are many; our Sin is great. As children of Adam we are doomed. But behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. You are baptized into this Lamb. You’re a child of God too. And in Him, you are righteous and holy and sinless and safe.
In the Name of Jesus,