The first thing to say about John is that he was a great prophet—maybe the greatest. Jesus himself tells us that John was the fulfillment of a promise by the Old Testament prophet Malachi—a prophet prophesied by another prophet! Jesus goes on to say that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:10-11). That’s pretty good!
We can glimpse John’s greatness in our gospel reading. John was totally fearless. Pharisees and Sadducees had power and influence. But when they come to John, he denounces them as a “brood of vipers.” John was even willing to criticize King Herod. John lost his life for that indiscretion, the first person in the New Testament to die for his faith.
All that is to say, there is much to admire about the Baptizer.
And yet John is not a particularly attractive person. John says he baptizes with water, and the one to come after him—that is, Jesus—will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But John is pretty fiery himself, a little too fiery for me. John’s very first word is “Repent!” John insults the people who come to him for baptism. John threatens divine judgment. “Even now,” he says, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!” In case we are unclear, the Baptizer adds that he means the “unquenchable fire.” Fierce stuff!
John is like those people who stand on street corners with a sign about divine judgment and yelling at people as they pass by. The last time one of them accosted me, I felt like telling him to stop giving Christian preachers a bad name. But I can’t say that to the Baptizer!
So, every year I struggle with what to do with the Baptizer and his message of the kingdom. And this week, I finally figured out both what makes me uncomfortable and what about John’s message is so important for Advent and the approach of Christmas.
For a minute, let’s forget everything we know about Jesus and his message. Let’s pretend we were there at the Jordan River when John said the things he says in our gospel reading. Let’s pretend that all we know about the kingdom of God is what John says in our reading.
How would you describe the kingdom John proclaims?
It sounds a lot like John is talking about the final judgment, the end of the world as we know it. And, even though it is the kingdom of God, and God is good, divine judgment is scary stuff, especially when John is describing it!
Now, that picture of the kingdom is part of our faith. Each week in the Nicene Creed, we say that we believe in Jesus Christ, who, among other things, “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
And it is really good to know how our story ends, especially since the story ends with God’s victory. I take great comfort in the promise that God’s kingdom of peace and justice will come someday.
But there is more to the Gospel than the Second Coming. There is the first coming, the coming that was happening in John’s day when final judgment was at least two thousand years away.
John’s prophetic task was to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. John’s task, like that of every Christian preacher ever since, was to point to Jesus Christ.
One day, the Christ to whom John points will come in power and glory to judge heaven and earth, the living and the dead. On that day, it will not be hard to recognize Jesus. Jesus will be the one in charge.
The hard thing is to recognize the Christ of the first coming, to recognize Christ in the man standing in the midst of the crowd there with John.
That crowd mostly did not recognize Jesus for who he is. And one of the reasons they failed to recognize Jesus was their expectation that Christ would come with fireworks and drama as a mighty king who would make all things right. To the degree that John reinforced their incorrect assumption that the kingdom in their day was all about power and glory, John’s fire, John’s drama, may have actually made things harder for them. That is what makes me uncomfortable with preachers who focus entirely on the Second Coming.
Thankfully, John does more than proclaim God’s final victory over sin and suffering and death. John also points to Jesus, standing there right in front of him, and proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Jesus Christ comes to us as Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ comes as the Word of God become flesh to dwell among us. Jesus Christ comes as God incarnate.
And—this is the point of Christmas—God incarnate comes to us as a helpless baby.
When Jesus came to John, he was no longer a baby. But Jesus had not yet begun his public ministry. Jesus had not worked any miracles. Jesus had not taught any parables. Jesus had not gathered any followers. All of that would come. But on the day that John said the things in our gospel reading, Jesus had done none of the things that make Jesus so impressive.
On that day at the Jordan River, John’s task was to help his people recognize Christ for who he was, even though he came without fanfare, without drama, without fireworks, as an apparently ordinary human being.
Today, here at Saint David’s, our task is the same: to recognize Jesus Christ for who he is and for what he is doing in our midst, even though it is mostly without fanfare or drama or fireworks.
And so, when John proclaims the kingdom of God come near, we need to hear him at two levels. We need to hear John’s message about final judgment. And we need to hear John’s proclamation about the Christ among us right now.
With that in mind, listen again to John’s words. “The kingdom of God has come near.” That is not something that will happen in two thousand years or more. John is talking about something that is happening even as he speaks. The kingdom of God was near, was in their very midst, because Jesus Christ was right there among them.
And Jesus Christ is among us too, as we gather in his name and celebrate the sacrament of his body and blood and are ourselves Christ’s hands and hearts in the world.
This Advent, I invite you to hear John’s message about the kingdom of God come near. The kingdom came near in first-century Israel. The kingdom of God is coming near in 21st century Agawam. The question for us, the great Advent question, is, are we ready? Are we ready and able to recognize the Christ in our midst, the Christ who comes as a baby, or as a stranger, or in the million little details of our lives where God is at work?
The kingdom of God has come near. My prayer is that we share in it. In the name of the Christ who came and is to come. Amen.