“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
“ I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:23-27, 33)
John the Baptizer committed the ultimate heresy: Telling the power brokers of the dominant culture something that they didn’t already believe.
This kind of behavior is what got both John and Jesus in trouble with the local religious leaders. John’s call to repentance seemed to bother them, not necessarily because they didn’t appreciate the idea, but because John lacked adequate credentials. If he wasn’t the Messiah or Elijah or “the prophet,” then what was he doing in his ragged garments and crazy hair telling people to turn their lives back to God before it was too late?
But John knew who he was and who had authorized him to do what he was doing. More importantly, he knew who he wasn’t. He wasn’t the Messiah. He wasn’t the one long awaited by Israel to renew their destiny as the people of God. In the meantime, John served as sign and wonder, pointing through his actions toward a new and better thing that was to come. He drenched people with common river water in the act of baptism; someone was coming, he claimed, who would drench people’s lives with the very spirit of God.
In this Advent season, as we consider and reconsider the coming of Jesus, it might be good to reflect on how our lives are also intended to be sign and wonder for the sake of the world. In all that we do as followers of Jesus—gather together for worship, care for the poor, pray for the sick and hurting, work for justice in the world—we give evidence to Jesus’ claim that the kingdom of God is near (Mark 1:15).
Forty or so years after John’s death, the Roman army wiped out Jerusalem, destroying the city and its center of worship. John’s ministry pointed to something better that was to come, and still the world carried on in its self-destructive cycles. John was not about altering that inevitability.
Perhaps, in a similar way, followers of Jesus may not be able to divert the disastrous course of the world, but our lives—both individually and corporately—should serve as sign and wonder, pointing to God’s intentions for a new heaven and a new earth, one in which his justice, healing, and peace will be established.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)
“I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)” (Luke 7:28-30)
John the Baptizer offended people with his message. Calling people a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7) doesn’t seem like the best way to build a following of happy customers. But the imagery was apt: If the ongoing sin of the people of Israel was going to bring God’s wrath to bear on the nation, then they would flee like snakes trying to escape a fire. People were apparently concerned about the situation, and came to John to seek a remedy.
Rather than demand that people become more rigorously religious, John called them to ethical behavior. He told them that their ethnic identity as children of Abraham was insufficient; how they lived out their calling from God was what really mattered.
When Jesus affirms John, he also makes it clear that the Baptizer doesn’t enjoy a place of hierarchical dominance in the kingdom of God. The economy of God’s kingdom values “the least” in ways that flies in the face of conventional thinking about human significance.
Luke’s parenthetical addition to Jesus’ words is worth our consideration. He says that when the Pharisees—significant religious leaders in that time—refused John’s baptism, they were actually rejecting “God’s purpose for themselves.” God’s purpose, it seems, was to realign the people according to his desires as reflected in Isaiah 40: To do God’s will and to have his law written on their hearts. Too many of the religious leaders thought they had God’s desires all figured out, and had reframed them according to their own preferences. Luke says that they missed out on a gift that God was presenting to them and (since we know the end of the story) they ended up trying to protect their preferred convictions by seeing to the deaths of both John and Jesus (yes, Herod imprisoned John and had him executed. But we don’t hear about any Pharisees coming to John’s defense).
In this Advent season, as we consider again how the coming of Jesus challenged the conventions of both government and religion, it might be good for us to reflect on how our convictions are often formed by culture, politics, family traditions, and even church experiences. Do we express those convictions in ways that reflect the heart of God? Could some of our convictions be misplaced? Would it be heretical to challenge some of our most cherished beliefs (heresy shouldn’t be defined as telling me something I didn’t already know)?
Every so often we might stop and reflect on these things. Perhaps God is always presenting us with the gift of repentance—to turn from one way of ordering our lives in order to embrace another way that is in touch with God’s purposes and desires.
If the LORD of hosts
had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:9)
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
The story of the coming of Jesus opens with reminders of the tentativeness of ancient Israel’s existence. In the extensive genealogy listed by Matthew in the beginning of his account of Jesus, he separates the generations between King David and Jesus by indicating those who lived before being deported to Babylon and those who lived after that time of exile.
The Old Testament has numerous references to the time of exile, usually expressed in laments and cries for God’s rescue of his people. Isaiah recognizes that, had there not been a remnant that was allowed to remain in Jerusalem, the city would likely have not survived. Regardless of the responsibility the people felt about why this had happened to them, the sense of abandonment is not difficult to find in the Bible.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people were, for the most part, living in their home country again, but were now under the rule of foreign oppressors. There would surely have been many who would continue to wonder when God would rescue his people, forgive them for generations of rebellion and idol worship, and restore Israel to its rightful place in the world. It would seem to many that God continued to have his back turned and was still demanding that the people measure up to his demands through strict adherence to the laws of Moses.
Into this time of isolation, Matthew has the audacity to quote the prophet Isaiah and use his words to frame the birth of Jesus: He will be called Emmanuel—a Hebrew name which means God is with us. The message is startling: God is not absent, his back is not turned. God is not waiting for adequate religious performance before he will act. He is present, he is with his people, and he is with them in the birth of the baby who is named Jesus.
We revisit and rehearse the season of Advent every year because it is there that our own stories find meaning. We live in a world so violent and threatening that news of death and destruction become commonplace to us. There is enough information available that reminds us that we live on planet earth tentatively, and the health of our world depends, it seems, on human intervention to heal its wounds—wounds that we have largely inflicted by our own power. It seems that we must intervene, since we have come to believe that we are alone in the universe.
Into this precariousness, this tentativeness, the words once again echo in our minds as we rehearse our story anew: "They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, 'God is with us.'"