A Voice in the Wilderness


A Voice in the Wilderness

The second Sunday of Advent features the voice of John the Baptist shouting, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” But what does it mean when John shows up? Why is he included at the beginning of the gospels and how does this help us prepare for Christmas?

Scripture: Matthew 3: 1-12

You know it’s advent when John the Baptist shows up!

It’s an interesting passage to have at this time of year. We are getting ready for the birth of Jesus, but in order to prepare for that we have a passage about John who is Jesus’ cousin. In order for us to prepare for Jesus, we need to allow John the Baptist to prepare the way.

John the Baptist is a bold, loud character. His description is bizarre, he’s one of the very few individuals in the gospels whose clothing and diet is described for us. Matthew is trying to make a point about this individual. He is ministering out in the wilderness, in the wild places. He represents the opposite of the status quo and the traditional practices people would have found in the temple. And the people are interested in what he is saying. They are so interested that the Pharisees and Sadducees come and investigate what’s going on, in fact they are so interested that Matthew tells us that they sought the baptism that John was offering.

Things don’t go well for them. John has strong words, calling them a brood of vipers. The metaphors John uses as he chastises them are ones of destruction. Descriptions of the ax already buried in the root of the tree, having cut down all those that didn’t bear good fruit. He speaks of the baptism he offers, made with water but that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Of the unquenchable fire that Jesus brings.

This is powerful stuff, it’s imagery of change and disruption and was probably more than a little upsetting to hear. But there’s a catch, Jesus doesn’t baptise anyone. Not one person. Why does Matthew write this in his gospel? Why does Matthew introduce John the Baptist and then have John tells us of the baptism that Jesus will bring, but then never have Jesus baptise anyone?

Did Matthew simply forget to include that in the remainder of his gospel? Did he decide he didn’t like that story anymore, but was too lazy to rewrite the opening parts of the gospel? I hardly think so.

If Matthew, through the voice of John the Baptist is telling us that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire, but then he doesn’t write about Jesus baptising anyone then he must be using this imagery to make another point.

What do we know about John the Baptist? He’s Jesus’ cousin, he was a prophet in the wilderness, he offered a ministry of baptism which was not a normal practice, and he angered King Herod (not the one who was alive when Jesus was born) enough that he gets arrested, which eventually leads to his execution.

John the Baptist isn’t a slightly eccentric throwaway character. His story foreshadows what will happen to Jesus. His placement is deliberate, he is both a reminder and a guide. The inclusion of John the Baptist in the gospel accounts is to help situate and orient the reader for the message that is about to come. This is what John did with his ministry and what continues to happen as we read these passages during Advent. We get ready to prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, just as John indicates we should.

Of course, it is also interesting to look at what isn’t included in John’s message. John doesn’t offer us a list of wrongs that needs righting or of sins that have been committed. As Chesley Harmon indicates, “When you think about it, John’s prophetic call isn’t very descriptive; it’s rather broad. Unlike the prophets who came before him, there is no litany of wrongs done by God’s people (besides staking too much claim on being a child of Abraham, that is). We ought to be careful in knowing what sort of sins other people need to repent of, and take this broad nature to consider our own lives with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.” (Chelsey Harmon – Matthew 3:1-12 – Center for Excellence in Preaching (cepreaching.org))

John’s ministry and his admonitions towards those gathered is very general. It demonstrates that there is a sense that things are quiet right. However, he isn’t interested in nit picking or listening to petty grievances. The change that is required is deeper than that and it exists on more than the individual level. What is occurring in this passage is that people are leaving the city, leaving civilization, and heading towards John who is in the wilderness. John doesn’t go to them, they come to him. It’s a reversal, Matthew is telling us that things aren’t right, and people are leaving looking for something new.

Matthew uses the wilderness as a setting to establish the ministry of change that Jesus will bring. Throughout scripture we find God using the wilderness and the margins to speak to us. Jesus would begin on the margins, on the periphery of society and would eventually bring his ministry to the center of society in Jerusalem. John’s message is that things aren’t going well, and the people agree which is why they travel into the wilderness to hear his message. He lays the path for Jesus, he asks that the people prepare for Jesus, and that we prepare for Jesus.

Matthew Skinner writing about the inclusion of John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel states, “it will be a story of repair. Confession and repentance loom large in John’s prophetic lexicon. John knows no one can repair things without first conducting a thorough exploration of what’s wrong. John insists on truth-telling” (Matthew Skinner – Advent Preparation – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary)

That truth-telling will get him killed. Just as the truth-telling Jesus does gets him killed. In teaching and offering baptism John doesn’t ask us to feel good or bad about our baptism, instead John indicates that those coming forth are signing up for something. They are leaving behind what troubled them, the injustice they found in society, and he is saying that someone is coming who can make things right.

That person is his cousin, Jesus. That person is the one who we prepare to receive again in the form of a tiny baby. A birth that would change the world. A life that continues to have profound impact on people. And we so many years removed from that event, prepare to receive him. And we know that our lives will be changed. We look to the wilderness for a message that can change the world. Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security. 

Kristina Nairn

Public Health Nurse, HKPR Health Unit

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