John lived in Judea about the same time as Jesus and was supposed to be his cousin. He was very popular. Large crowds of people came to hear him preach and to stand in line to be baptized by him. He gave people hope and called people to their senses in a time when the world was crazy and mixed up, very similar to our own time.
He was a wiry character. He lived on the edge of the desert and wore a shirt of camel’s hair, that in the hot sun, would have been scratchy and uncomfortable. I would surmise that he was pretty smelly out there in the desert. The scriptures record that he also wore a leather belt around his waist. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. (Locusts are like grasshoppers.) Have you ever had a chocolate-covered grasshopper? Actually they’re not bad. Kind of crunchy. And very nutritious. Lots of protein.
Well, anyway, people were beginning to think great things about John. Large crowds came to hear him.
His message:“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”
(Yeah, I know. You’ve heard that a zillion times before by street corner prophets.)
In our respectable Sunday assemblies, he would probably be looked upon with scorn; he was certainly not the kind of guy we would expect to be the Advance Man for the Son of God. But that’s what he was. (And we should pay attention to his message – which we’ll do this week – because it is critical for our own times.)
He preached with exuberance and passion and sometimes with fury. He raged at many of the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (And I’m sure they seethed and were out to get him.
He spoke fearlessly, unafraid of what the hypocritical religious leaders might do to him. Eventually Herod had him imprisoned and Herodias, his wife, demanded his head on a platter.
John was a prophet . . .
A voice crying out in the wilderness
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
In today’s readings, Matthew has John saying:
One who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire(Mt 3:10-11).
In our respectable Sunday assemblies, though, he would probably be looked upon with scorn; he was certainly not the kind of guy we would expect to be the Messenger for the Son of God. But that’s what he was. (And we should pay attention to his message because it is critical for our own times.)
He spoke fearlessly, unafraid of what the hypocritical religious leaders might do to him. Eventually Herod had him imprisoned and Herodias demanded his head on a platter.
The Presbyterian Scripture scholar William Barclay offers this commentary on this gospel passage.
The Baptist summoned his people to righteousness. He pointed beyond himself. It was the Jewish belief that Elijah would return before the Messiah would come, and he would be the herald of the coming King (Malachi 4:5).
Then Barclay makes this interesting observation: In ancient times in the East, the roads were bad. Ordinary roads were no more than tracks. But Solomon built a causeway of black basalt stone that lead to Jerusalem for pilgrims. They were built by the king and for the king and called “the king’s highway.”
John was preparing the way for the king. The preacher, the teacher with the prophetic voice, points not to himself but to God.
Then John warned the Pharisees. he called them “a brood of vipers!” trying to flee the wrath to come.
Then came the promise. He said he was not fit to carry the sandals of the one who was to come. Carrying sandals was the duty of a slave. John’s whole attitude was self-obliteration. “He must increase; I must decrease,” John the evangelist, would have him say.
He said that One would come to baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The word for spirit for the Jews was ruah, meaning breath; also meaning wind and, thus, power, because wind drives ships. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of power. The Spirit brought truth to God’s people.
And as for the fire, it connotes illumination, warmth, purification. But there is also a threat. The winnowing fan on the threshing floor will separate the wheat from the chaff. In Christianity, there is no escape from the eternal choice.
In John, there is the basic demand: “REPENT!” And that is the basic demand of Jesus himself, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The Jewish word for repentance is itself interesting teshuba, from the verb shub, which means simply “to turn.” Repentance is a turning away from evil and a turning towards God. In Greek, the word is metanoia, and also means to turn around. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says “God allows U-turns.” Repentance is always available. No case is hopeless for repentance; no one is beyond repentance. The Rabbis said, “Let not a man say,’Because I have sinned, no repair is possible for me’ but let him trust in God, and God will receive him. (Barclay ~ The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 pp. 43-58.)
And so, the Christmas message is that Love has entered the world.
As we enter this second week of Advent, let’s ask ourselves:
How can I prepare the way for the Lord (or Love)
at the office,
in my neighborhood,
in our country,
in our politics,
in our world–this week?
God’s message to us in the Christmas story is Love.
That’s why he was born, entering our world as a vulnerable baby.
And that’s why he died – vulnerable / bound / nailed –
because the Father wanted us to have evidence that he loved us.
And in turn, his message is . . .
Love one another as I have loved you.
Now, listen and watch Prepare the Way of the Lord from Godspell Click here. Be sure to turn up your speakers and enter full screen. (Get a chuckle out of Jesus’ 1973 ‘Fro.)