One of the great joys of the Advent season is that each week has its own theme. Part of the liturgy allows us to focus on different topics of our faith ranging from the hope of a Savior, to the joy of the Lord, and the peace of Christ.
The Second Week of Advent has traditionally been reserved to focus on the fact that Christ is the way to the Father. It is also the week we traditionally focus on one of the more eclectic characters of faith. That is John the Baptist. His ministry has been defined as much by where he lived, what he ate, and how he dressed as the content of his message and life.
What we know of John is that he lived in the wilderness, ate locus and wild honey, and dressed in camel hair. Luke doesn’t tell us this, but we gather this information from Matthew and Mark’s description. John’s unique way of living had a purpose. It connected him back to the prophet Elijah from 1 and 2 Kings.
We may not know much about John other than this little tidbit about his lifestyle. The Four Gospels give us some more information about him, but not much. We know he was a baptizer of the people near the Jordan River, including Jesus. We know he grew frustrated with Jesus’ ministry and sent some of his followers to question if Jesus was truly the Messiah. Finally, we know he was imprisoned and later beheaded by Herod.
Just because there are few references to John does not mean his life and ministry are not worth examination. Indeed, his life and ministry is worthy of study. His ministry serves a specific purpose to the life and mission of Jesus Christ in the world.
To understand this we, perhaps, need to take a deeper look into the person of John the Baptist. As we mentioned during our Advent Candle lighting devotion, John was the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. They had no reason to suspect they would be blessed with a child. They were old in age. It seemed time had passed them by.
You can imagine Zechariah’s shock and confusion when he was serving in the Temple and in the Lord’s sanctuary was told he and his wife would give birth to a son. It was an announcement made to him by Gabriel. Zechariah had doubts and didn’t believe God would do what the angel said the Lord would. As a result, Zechariah was unable to speak during this amazing time of his life. It wasn’t until this child who leaped in Elizabeth’s belly when she was with Mary was born and circumcised that he could speak. When he was able to speak, he offered a prophetic word of praise and blessing to his son. He said, “And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord.”
Zechariah understood there was a purpose for John’s life. A purpose John was wrestling when he moved to the desert region near Jerusalem. The desert was a significant place for both the people of the time and us. It reminded the people of how Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt. During this time, the Israelites had to learn what it means to depend on the Lord. John is in the wilderness to hear from God and to become dependent upon God’s presence. In time, John receives affirmation of his father’s blessing. John was the one who would come from the wilderness to call the people to be prepared for the Lord’s coming. John comes out of the wilderness to challenge the people then and today to experience our wilderness and need of Christ. His act of preparing set the stage for Jesus’ public entrance and ministry.
There are perhaps three ways John fulfills this preparatory calling. We can see it through Luke’s quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5. Like our Old Testament reading from Malachai, this was Isaiah’s announcement that a person, John, would come and prepare for Jesus’ ministry.
One way John fulfills this role is by being the “voice shouting in the wilderness.” John announces to the world that the time has come for the Messiah to arrive. John serves as a prophet who makes a grand announcement that Christ is coming. A prophet is someone who has a word from God to announce to a community or an individual. The word can be an announcement of judgment or the need for repentance. It could also be a word of joy and the announcement of hope.
John serves this role by telling all who would hear that the time for waiting for the Messiah’s arrival is over. The Messiah, he says, is coming and will be here soon. Israel had been waiting for the Savior since the end of the Exile. John firmly states that hope is on the way.
By doing this, John serves both prophetic roles. He announces the Messiah will come and will challenge the ways of the world. He announces a word of hope that the One who will redeem the people and bring all of humanity and creation back into a relationship with the Father is coming.
As we live in the hope of the Second Advent, John’s words remind us Christ will come again. His words announces that the world’s powers will be fully defeated. These words are also a word of hopeful promise as we wait with longing anticipation for Christ to return. John’s call announces to us, as it did then, that Christ is coming soon … get ready.
Another way John prepared the way for Christ is by how he interpreted the words “clear the road for him.” This was John’s most prominent function. He was a prophetic preacher who called people to repent of their sins. What John meant was an active turning away from their lifestyle by taking on the life the Father desired for them. John invited the people to look in the wilderness of their soul and see their need of Christ. He wanted them to see where the life they were leading was not leading them to the Father and how only through a life in Christ could they ever come to a deep relationship with God.
John did something else. He called the people to be baptized as a symbol of this new life. John was repackaging a Jewish practice. The custom of the time was for Gentiles, those who were not born Jewish, to be baptized if they wanted to convert to the Jewish faith. It was a way of cleansing that would prepare them for being in the community. What John says is that all who would desire to leave in peace with God are called to be cleansed of their sin.
The baptism John would do is not the same that we participate in. It was void of the power of the Holy Spirit, because it was absent of Christ’s participation. For John, baptism was a symbolic act of recognizing our desire to live in the grace and peace that comes from the Lord. For us, baptism is an “outward sign of an inward grace.” It is the act by which we recognize the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the Holy Spirit’s power that cleanses us and brings us in alignment with the Father. The baptismal water “symbolizes cleansing from sin, death to old life, and rising to begin new life in Christ.” It is why this act of grace is available to all, from young to old, to infant to adult, and is defined by the basic desire to live in the hope of the One we await this Advent season.
John challenges us to look within ourselves this morning. He invites us to embrace our wilderness and how our lives might not be lived according to the Father’s will. John invites us to prepare for Christ’s coming, and the Christmas celebration, by turning away from the things that distract us from a deep relationship with the Father and take on the life of Christ. John calls us to get ready by being spiritually prepared for the Lord’s coming.
Finally, John’s act of preparation comes in announcing that the Messiah’s will be for all people. Luke makes this clear in two ways. First, Luke extends the Isaiah 40 quotation to include more than just verse 3. Matthew and Mark stop at verse 3’s words of a voice shouting from the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord. Luke extends it to verses 4-5. The words state, “The valleys will be filled, and the mountains and hill made level. The curves will be straightened, and the rough places made smooth. And then the people will the salvation sent from God.” Luke is saying that not only does John announce the Messiah’s coming, but he will announce something specific about the Messiah. The message and hope of Christ is for all people. It is not limited to a certain class or group. It is open to all people, races, classes, and groups.
The message of Christ will be made as available to the poor and forgotten as it is to the rich and blessed. This connects to how Luke detailed when John arrived on the scene. He lists seven political and religious leaders. He does so to state that they may be in power now, but their power will soon crumble at the Messiah’s feet. The power that the political and religious authorities use to hinder the lives of others would be no more. The Messiah comes to convict the powerful of their sinful ways and eliminate their power structure.
John prepares us for the Messiah’s coming by asking us how we are allowing the message of Christ to be available to all people. His words alert us, this Advent season, to make sure that our commitment to the Gospel is to ensure that all people have the same opportunities to hear the hope of Christ. John’s call and ministry asks us to see how we might open our doors and welcome the community that is before us in ways that proclaims the love and hope of the Lord.
It also reminds us that the power of this world will have no sway in our lives. It is a reminder that the Messiah will come and end the injustices that exist in the African desert to the lonely deserted streets here in this country. It is a call that says that those who have plenty and ignore the plight of the less fortunate will be challenged by a call to give to others freely. It is a call of a Messiah who has and will challenge the powers of this world.
John the Baptist is an important character and ministry to study this Advent season. He announces that the Messiah is coming. The Incarnation at Christmas will come and Christ will come again. He proclaims a time of repentance, the same message that Christ proclaims, and challenges us to examine our own need of the Messiah in our own spiritual wilderness. John calls us to see how the message of Christ is available to all people who earnestly seek a deep and loving relationship with the Lord.
John had a lot to say in his preparatory ministry to the people Jesus’ public ministry. He has a lot to say to us. What will you take from his message this morning and how will you share with others in ways that prepares them for the day of Christ’s return?