Imagine if you will, a mountain shrouded with clouds, and on that mountain a lone watchman stands. He has been given a prophetic word for the people and he is determined to do that regardless of what might happen to him. Moses was such a prophet, climbing Mt Sinai to hear from the Lord his God. He was given a word from God for his people – a word of both blessing and caution. Elijah was another such prophet- standing on Mount Carmel, taking on the priests of Baal – his word brought deliverance as he proved that there was no power in idols. Isaiah was the bearer of good news as he spoke of the Messiah to come and deliver Israel from his enemies.
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.Malachi 3:1
In that way, all prophets spend much of their time in isolated places, whether a tower or mountain or metaphorical high hill. After the exile ended and Jews returned from Babylon, the era of the Prophets ended. There was silence in the land for 400 years. But the last prophet of the Jews, Malachi, prophesized about one more prophet to come: This messenger was John, son of Zechariah – a man born of a miracle. He came out of the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance. Isaiah spoke of this prophet, who would be known as John the Baptizer, when he said, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare the way, the voice of one calling in the wilderness. (Mark 1:1-3).
I think about how John would be received today, and I’m pretty sure he would have been considered an outcast, a homeless beggar even. He was wild looking, with an odd diet and a passion for God like no other. He wore a coat made of camel hair like Elijah and ate honey and bugs! He was asked if indeed he was Elijah, to which he said no! Asked again if he was the Prophet, and this too he denied. The priests and Levites pressured him to tell them who he was, and his final response was this: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:24).
All four gospels have an account of John the Baptizer, and his message is the same in all four accounts. “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 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, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:4-6)
Christ’s baptism is a sign of the identification Christians have in Christ, and it embodies the sacrifice of Christ’s death and resurrection.
John’s clarion call was this and this only: Prepare. Make way, ready your heart, repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. He was fierce in this message, passionate about one thing – the Messiah, the Lord Christ. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. When John says his baptism was for repentance and forgiveness of sin, he is drawing a distinction between his baptism and the one believers will have through Jesus. One author has said that John’s baptism was a bridge between the cleansing ritual you would have seen in the Old Testament and the baptism initiated by Christ for his followers. John’s baptism went further than the cleansing ritual known by Jews but did not go so far as to be the baptism for Christ followers. Christ’s baptism is a sign of the identification Christians have in Christ, and it embodies the sacrifice of Christ’s death and resurrection. And it confirms that the Holy Spirit now dwells in those who put their faith in Christ. Paul in the book of Romans wrote: 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:3-5 ESV).
Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?Romans 2:4
John’s voice is one of the Advent voices we need to listen to. His charge to repentance and preparation should help us to both be ready to receive Christ in His incarnation and to be ready to receive him when He comes in the final day of judgment. We must make our paths straight, and we must bring to Him our crooked ways. John’s voice, his prophetic words make clear that Advent, like Lent, is a season of repentance. We don’t typically think of Advent like this. Even setting aside the marketing attempts of advent calendars – candy, jewelry, whisky, Christians have lost sight of the penitential call of Advent. We need to heed John’s call. Yet we find comfort and strength in this once we come to understand the joy of repentance that John preaches. Romans 2:4 –Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? John’s words and his call to repentance, just like Jesus’ (Mat. 4:17) are ways for us to enter into deeper joy and hope.
In that sense, we live in perpetual Advent – the place between two apocalyptic events – the birth of a baby, and the return of a King. How are your paths crooked? Where do your ways need to be made straight? “I am prone to leave the God I love”. For me, my anger, my need to control, my impatience, my frustration are always signs that I need the grace of God to turn back. I love what Fleming Rutledge says about this:
The grace of God prepares the way for the confession of sin, is present in the confession, and even before the confession has been made, has already worked the restoration.Fleming Rutledge
We’ll revisit this idea as we move through this week. Let’s listen to John the Baptizer this week. Let’s pray for hearts eager to repent as we look to Christ’s first Advent and his final one.
Merciful God, who sent your messengers, the prophets, to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Book of common prayer.
Songs to listen to for this theme of Prepare: