So, today is the day. Today we greet an old friend again. Every December he makes his predictable appearance. He shows up to shock us awake from our slumber, to stir our emotions and inspire our devotion. He looks like the prophet Elijah, wearing a camel’s hair garment and a leather belt around his waist. He is perplexing and challenging. While he might not be readily embraced, he is not easily dismissed either. He, of course, is John the Baptizer, the miracle child of Zechariah and Elizabeth. His birth was foretold by the prophet Malachi and announced by the angel Gabriel and while still in the womb of his mother he leapt for joy when he heard the voice of Mary the mother our Lord. He has a crucial and pivotal role in the unfolding narrative of Jesus’ earthly ministry. All four Gospels speak about John. They all highlight his importance and so, every year as we recall the advent of our God, we recall the voice crying in the wilderness.
Of course, for us it is easy to hurry past John. After all, we know all about the One he was directing us toward. We know about the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, which is why we are here in the first place. Which is why we have come. Yet, there is much to gain by giving John his due. His role acts as a continuing guide to the Church even today. John is the one Isaiah wrote about when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3:4-6). John is making the way direct, making it clear, making it easy if you will. What was hidden and obscured is now made plain. The promised seed who would crush the head of the serpent is now made manifest in human flesh. At last, God’s great Advent has come, and John helps everyone prepare for such a life altering moment.
The coming of Christ is no small thing. It is not just a Jewish thing or a Christian thing. It is a thing that sets out a demarcation, a line in the sand, for the whole of humanity. Remember the famous song of Simeon? Where he rushes to pick up the Christ child in his arms and says, “Lord now let thou thy servant depart in peace according to Your Word.” We use this line a lot in funerals. We also use it in the regular liturgy of the Church as we sing it after communion. Simeon can depart in peace. He can die. In fact, he welcomes it. Why? Because he has seen the salvation of God. This is precisely what John is getting the world ready for. Isaiah had declared, “All flesh will see the salvation of God.” All flesh, from the political powers in ancient Jerusalem and Rome to the beggars and lepers on the side of the road, from the immigrants to the new world to the newly born children of our present day. All flesh will see the salvation of God.
He announces this Advent of God’s salvation with great urgency. This is not your welcoming and warm invitation to receive the gifts. No, this is startling and abrupt. It prompts a panicked response from the hearers. They are all going out to the Jordan to be baptized by John. They are going to be washed as a sign of their repentance, longing for God’s great working in their midst. As they gather there out in the wilderness, on the shores of the river, eager for what he is preparing them for, eager to see the salvation of God, what message greets their ears? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” This is not some sideshow curiosity. It is not some comfortable pleasure trip to the river. This is the dividing moment that calls for clarity and commitment.
He calls for them to bear fruit in keeping with their repentance. In other words, repentance is not just saying you are sorry. It is an action, a willful turning from your current course to head down a better path. John stands as the doorkeeper who will present to the world the long-awaited Messiah and he knows what is at stake here. This is not a usual prophet. This is not the redoing of the revelation that was done previously. This is a new thing which will change the world. He tells them that, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). The axe is ready to fall. The time is now. This is not a moment of deliberation or thoughtful thinking over the options, this is the line drawn in the sand. This is that crucial moment requiring action. It is either salvation or eternal fire. When Jesus comes nothing is theoretical or mystical, it is real and concrete. This is the One who ushers in the Kingdom of God, a specific name under Heaven by which men will be saved, a sacrifice and death that turns back the threat of the Law and the condemnation hanging over all humanity.
Therefore, bear fruit in keeping with this repentance. Just as faith without works is not faith, so repentance without fruit is not repentance. The coming of salvation actually changes the world. It transforms lives. Things do not roll on unscathed by the Advent of our God. If we skip past John to get to our Lord, we are tempted to think we are the ones in control, that our faith and our fellowship is something of our doing, some voluntary thing we join and leave at our convenience. In fact, this is precisely what happens. Our faith becomes convenient. Our churches become comfortable. We have long forgotten about that axe and the threat of being cut down.
But John the Baptist will not allow us to be so complacent. He has no room for modern apathy. The coming of the salvation of God, to you, changes things. You are not your own. You have been died for. You have been washed and fed by the blood of the Lamb. You are called the children of God, heirs of eternal life. Things cannot go on as they were. How could they? Everything you do, every course of action you take, every interaction in this world is now cloaked with the promises of your God. Repentance is now a part of your life. This is what it means to be the children of God.
It is fascinating how the people who went out to see John respond. They are certainly roused to action. They know things are changing, that this is sort of Rubicon moment for them. They cannot just go back to the way things were. So, they ask, “What then shall we do?” What is the course of action they should take? Are they to feed the poor, go on a missionary journey, build homes for the homeless, start a new church? What are they to do? What grand thing are they to do? What is the glorious fruit they are to bear? Well, what does John say? If you have two shirts and the guy next to you does not have a shirt, give him a shirt. If you are collecting taxes do not steal. If you are a soldier, do not threaten or extort anyone. Be content with what you have.
I love that. He essentially says, “Look don’t be a jerk. Be content with what you have.” If you think about it, he is calling them to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. To trust God will do what He has promised, that He will not abandon His children. Do not go around acting like you do not have a loving Father. He will not forsake you. He will not leave you. He will not despise His own children. He has forgiven you. He loves you. Repent and believe this Good News. For it is not some theoretical practice or philosophical pondering. Christ has come. He has come to save you. The line is drawn in the sand, and He has carried you to His side. He has clothed you in His righteousness. He has embraced you in His forgiveness.
All flesh… all flesh will see the salvation of God. And what you see now is but a dim image of the glory He has prepared for you. Come Lord Jesus. Amen.