Today is the second Sunday of Advent, a day that traditionally focuses on John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. In this role he is understood to have fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah (40:3-8) and Malachi (3:1, 4:5, 6) regarding the coming of an Elijah figure who would prepare the way of the Lord by making His paths straight, raising the valleys, lowering the hills, affirming the imperishable Word of God, clearing the way for the “Messenger of the Covenant,” and promoting domestic harmony. Promoting domestic harmony! Where does that come from? Interestingly, it comes both from Malachi and from Luke. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Today’s Gospel is from Matthew. Advent places us in a new year, Year A for the lectionary, and Matthew will be the primary source for our Gospel readings. But I would like us to peer into all 4 Gospels this morning as we consider the person and roles of John the Baptist, a person of primary importance to the Advent story and the coming of the incarnate God. Jesus Himself makes the astonishing claim that among all those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11)! We could add that no one outside of Shakespeare’s plays has caused as much identity confusion as John the Baptist, since some thought he was the Christ or Elijah or “The Prophet” (John 1:19-23) and, later, some thought that Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets (Matt. 16:14). Once John was imprisoned, he even entertained his own question as to Who Jesus was and sent his disciples to ask, “Are You the One Who is to come, or do we look for someone else?” (Matt. 11:3). His confusion centered not on the Person of Jesus, Whom he already had declared to be “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), but on the nature of Jesus’ ministry, which was not at all what John, along with many others, was expecting.
Now here’s one of the most interesting things about the placement of John the Baptist in Scripture from a Christian perspective. The very last words of the Old Testament, the prophecy of Malachi, predict the coming of a Messianic Elijah figure and his actual message (Mal. 4:5, 6). These same words are paraphrased by the angel of the Lord, identified by Luke as Gabriel, when he appears to the priest Zacharias, informing him that he would have a son who would fulfill this prophecy. Listen to the angel’s words:
“The angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17 It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’” (Luke 1:13-17).
There’s our Advent message in a nutshell: make ready a people prepared for the Lord!
Malachi had written that the Lord of Hosts would ”send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse” (Mal. 4:5, 6). There’s the domestic harmony piece of John the Baptist’s ministry to which Gabriel referred. And the message is clear: when both parents and children live out the fruit of repentance, there will be authentic domestic harmony. It’s a formula that could revolutionize many American homes in our time, including Christian homes.
Now we know that despite the order of the 4 Gospels in our Bibles, scholars are unanimous in believing that the first Gospel to have been written was Mark. When we consider that Malachi, indisputably the final book of the Tanakh or the Old Testament, closes with the prophecy of an Elijah figure as the forerunner of Messiah, it’s more than a little interesting that Mark abruptly begins his Gospel, the very first words of the New Testament, by applying the prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah to John the Baptist. Here is a piece of continuity in special revelation that often is missed altogether. Mark picks up precisely where Malachi leaves off as though he were finishing the paragraph in one ongoing revelation.
It’s not the least bit surprising that from the earliest times the followers of Jesus saw in John the Baptist the fulfillment of the prophecies regarding the return of Elijah. Messianic expectations seem to have run very high in first-century Israel, and the rabbis wrote extensively about the coming of Elijah as the forerunner of Messiah. In fact, Jewish tradition represents Elijah’s ministry and appearances as almost continuous: not only before the coming of Messiah, but at all times and for the most diverse purposes. In this sense it’s said of him that he always lives, which is part of why for over 2,000 years a place is reserved for Elijah at every Passover Seder meal. Elijah was expected to appear personally, and not just “in spirit and power” as the angel said to Zacharias about John (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, v. I, p. 142).
In many ways Elijah parallels Moses; yet he actually exceeds him, for whereas Moses was instrumental in delivering the people from Egypt, Elijah is expected to deliver Israel once and for all from any foreign domination. When he finally appears to herald the coming of Messiah, he will come 3 days ahead, successively proclaiming on those three days, “Peace comes to the world, good comes to the world, and salvation (Yeshua) comes to the world.” “Yeshua,” the name of Jesus! Then Elijah will anoint Messiah with the long-lost oil that he will restore to the Ark of the Covenant, along with the golden pot of manna, the waters of purification and Aaron’s budding rod (Edersheim, v. II, Appendix VIII).
While these rabbinic expectations are extremely interesting and pique our interest in conjunction with the statement of Jesus Himself that John the Baptist was the Elijah figure who was to herald Messiah’s coming, there are numerous strong contrasts between the anticipated Messianic role of Elijah and that of John the Baptist. And even purely from the perspective of Biblical prophecy, much of what Elijah was to achieve remains to be fulfilled in the end times, a clear example of what has been called the “generic” or “successive” fulfillment of prophecy (Walter C. Kaiser).
So what do we know more specifically about John the Baptist from the record of the 4 Gospels? His ministry was relatively brief, cut short by his imprisonment and beheading. He dressed rather like Elijah, in an outer garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt or girdle, ate a rather odd diet of locusts and unrefined honey, abstained from alcohol in the manner of a Nazarite and, also like Elijah, spent time in the desert wilderness.
In our visit to Israel, specifically when we were at the Garden Tomb, we discovered that John’s eating locusts may not have meant that he was crunching bugs at all, but that he was eating the nuts from the pea-pod-like things that grow on locust trees in the area, something more like nuts than like insects. Combining those with honey, his diet was not nearly as bizarre as we have tended to think and, in fact, it was probably quite nutritious!
The wilderness was an important place in the lives of many Biblical figures, including Elijah, several other prophets, David, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul, to name a few. It was a place to do Advent sorts of things: self-examination, spiritual preparation, testing one’s spiritual stamina, opening oneself up to more intimate, distraction-free conversation with God, and hearing and acting on the word of God (Luke 3:2). It sounds like we all could use a lot more wilderness in our lives! When John emerged from his wilderness time, “he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). His role was similar to that of persons clearing a highway for the passage of a king or an emperor, preparing the way and making the paths straight, smoothing out the rough roads.
But he was not always a smooth talker. Matthew tells us that on one occasion when John was baptizing in the Jordan where people were coming and confessing their sins, he addressed the Pharisees and Sadducees among them saying, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance, and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:7-10).
This is the basis for what Paul wrote to the Romans in today’s Epistle reading. Paul cites verses from two Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah that affirm the extension to the Gentiles of the promises God made to our Jewish forefathers; and he says that on this basis the Gentile believers are to be filled “with all joy and peace in believing, so that (they) will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Our “joy and peace” lie in the message of Paul in Romans 11, when he writes to his Gentile converts that “some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree.” But he adds this warning: 18 “Do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.”
There’s something else very important in what John the Baptist is saying here that we generally miss altogether. John exhorts his hearers to “bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance.” Luke adds that John then went on to warn everyone of ways that they needed to change their lives, not just to do a one-time repentance and undergo his baptism. There’s a story of a Jewish man who was an atheist, but decided that he wanted to become a rabbi. He went first to a Reformed Jewish congregation and declared his desire to be a rabbi. He was asked, “Do you believe in God?” And when he answered that he did not, they said, “Then there’s no way you can be a rabbi.” Undeterred he then went to an Orthodox congregation, where again he denied a belief in God. They asked him, “Do you keep the Sabbath?” He answered, “Yes, always.” And they replied, “Then you can be a rabbi.”
This story is told as a joke in Jewish circles, but it does have its point of contact with what John is saying in today’s Gospel: we are to be bringing forth fruit in keeping with our repentance. Obviously what we believe is of very great importance. But if we repent of our sins and profess an orthodox faith yet do not live lives of obedience to our profession, our faith is of limited value and in fact may be called into question. Read James! John even adds that such persons will be thrown into the fire.
The narrative in Matthew’s Gospel now takes an interesting turn when John resumes his message as the forerunner of Messiah, his Elijah-like function of preparing the way. He makes a statement that is reported by all 4 Gospel writers, saying that One was coming after him Whose sandals he was not worthy to loosen, Whose baptism would be not with water but with Holy Spirit fire. Clearly John understood his role as a forerunner.
Perhaps John’s own mother Elizabeth had told him the story of how he had leapt in her womb when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, had come to visit her. Perhaps during his wilderness time when he was hearing God’s word, there was a direct message about his coming encounters with his cousin Jesus. Whatever inside information he may have had, it was enough to make him feel unworthy when Jesus came to be baptized by him in the Jordan. But once he acceded to Jesus’ request, he experienced the compelling witness of the Holy Spirit descending in bodily form like a dove and the voice of God from above saying to Jesus, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22), a dramatic moment involving all three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
In our personal encounters with Jesus nothing quite as dramatic as that has ever happened. Imagine the indelible impression such an experience would have left. Yes, the inevitably heightened expectations that this Messiah would overthrow Rome and set up His Kingdom at once led to confusion, disappointment and rejection on the part of some. But for others, then and in the 2,000 succeeding years, personal encounters with Jesus the Christ have changed lives again and again, turning people’s confusion into personal faith and an experience of Yeshua, the Salvation that the rabbis predicted would come whenever Messiah might appear.
And the story is not over. Another Elijah figure, perhaps two of them according to Revelation, will come to announce the return of Jesus. Then He will indeed accomplish all that is left to be realized; and in Part II of the successive fulfillment of prophecy, His Kingdom will be established forever and ever, world without end. We may not know just what that kingdom will look like, but the imagery used to describe it in Revelation 21 makes it sound more amazing than anything we can imagine, more extraordinary than any travel destination you might find on Expedia. Read Revelation 21 this afternoon and see what a glorious place God’s Kingdom will be!
For now, as we pass through another season of Advent, it’s our responsibility to be preparing the way of the Lord. This was not a ministry limited to John the Baptist or other Elijah figures. It was at the core of John’s proclamation: “YOU prepare the way of the Lord!” To that end we are to live lives of repentance, to bear fruit in keeping with our repentance, to do our spiritual exercises of preparation, to be eagerly watching and waiting (the code words for Advent), to be engaged in self-examination, to be testing our spiritual stamina, to be opening ourselves up to more intimate, distraction-free conversations with God and, above all else, to be hearing and acting on the word of God that will stand forever when all else fades and withers away (Isaiah 40:6-8).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen