A Necessary Preparation
One thing which all of the gospel writers are agreed on is that Jesus’ ministry is preceded by that of John the Baptist. Whilst only Matthew and Luke find it necessary to tell us about the birth and childhood of Jesus, all four of them are clear that Jesus’ ministry follows on from what John was doing. What John did is an essential preparation for what Jesus is going to do. And in many ways John is a more typically “religious” figure than Jesus. In the sense that he looks like we might expect a prophet or holy man to look. His clothing is simple to the point of being crude:
John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist.
In my own my own mind I picture him as looking a little wild, with unkempt matted hair and a fierce gleam in his eye. He is dressed, but only just enough to be decent, with his skin showing the signs of being exposed to too much sun. John’s lifestyle is modest to the point of being austere:
And his food was locusts and wild honey.
He ate the foods of last resort. This is food you would not choose to eat unless there was nothing else. The contrast between John and Jesus was there from the start. John lives out in the wilderness, no one could or would ever accuse him of eating or drinking too much or of consorting with the wrong sort of people. John is exactly our idea of a “religious” figure, a holy man. And there is something fascinating about someone whose commitment to God leads them to such visible extremes:
The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him.
John prompted at least the curiosity of the whole country. They left the comfort of their homes to trail into the middle of nowhere to see what all the fuss was about. Before there was Jesus, great crowds gathered around John the Baptist.
Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near
If it was curiosity that brings them, when the people got there John’s message is startlingly effective:
Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
John’s preaching is simple and direct. He proclaims that God’s rule, the Kingdom of Heaven, is at hand. Such a proclamation offers a choice; Either, continue to accept the world as it is, remain under the rule, the domination, of the powers of this world, continue to be good and acquiescent citizens of the oppressive Empire; Or, switch your loyalty to the true and living God! John’s mission is to re-establish the relationship between God and God’s people by reminding them of the nearness of God’s rule, and calling on them to respond appropriately. And the crowds were baptised as sign that they had heard and were ready to respond.
John’s Challenge to the Religious
In amongst the crowds John notices that even members of the religious establishment were coming and listening and even responding. John’s challenge to them is quite specific:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
John’s target among the Pharisees and the Sadducees is what he perceives has both their hypocrisy and their complacency. These are both temptations which it is easy for religious people to fall into. As far as John is concerned the words and deeds of the Pharisees and Sadducees don’t match. For all their talk of loyalty to God, they were loyal either to their own power and prestige in society, or in reality, loyal to the power of this world because they had accommodated themselves with the Empire. And yet there they were coming with all the other people of Jerusalem and Judea to receive the sign which John was offering, baptism in the river Jordan as they confessed their sins. For those who already claimed to be religious John’s warning was clear. The sign isn’t enough. It has to be backed up with concrete evidence of their sincerity. Their lives have to change and bring forth the fruit which God intends for all of life. They must give God the glory, which in reality can only be accomplished by loving their neighbours, by genuinely seeking the wellbeing of those around them. John’s words should ring in the ears of all Methodist. That perhaps they don’t, is because we are forgetful of our origins and history. As Wesley was setting up the societies that would eventually become the Methodist Church he composed a set of rules (the method of Methodism). And they begin by alluding to John the Baptist’s words: Wesley asks: Who may be a member of the society? And answers: All those who desire to flee the wrath to come. And then he asks: Who may remain a member of the society? And answers: Only those who show fruit worthy of repentance. This in fact is what made Methodism controversial in Wesley’s day. He demanded that Christian confession, a claim to Christian faith had to be backed up by a transformed lifestyle. That is if people wanted to re-establish a real and lively relationship with God, these were the necessary first steps: Repentance and conversion, that is turning around and then bearing the fruit, leading the life that is evidence of the sincerity of that repentance. In a society that was both hypocritical and complacent about its religion, John Wesley was controversial because he saw that the demand which John the Baptist made, and Jesus continues to make, is genuine and must be acted upon in deed as well as in word.
We have. . . cheap grace
John the Baptist demands of the Pharisees and the Sadducees:
Who warned you. . . ?
It is a good question, because on the face of it, they should have felt no need to go to John. In their different ways; The Pharisees by their fastidious following of the letter of the Law, the Sadducees through the temple and their wielding of secular power, both of them had reason to believe they had no need to repent. Was it just curiosity that brought them out to the wilderness? Had they just caught up in the excitement? John anticipates that in the end the religious folk will try to excuse themselves from the demand for change that he made:
Do not presume to say to yourselves. “We have Abraham as our ancestor.”
The risk for religious people, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but hardly less for us. is to reassure ourselves that we’re all right with God. We can give ourselves spurious reasons to reassure ourselves that we don’t have to heed the demand for conversion, the demand that our lives should be transformed. The Christian equivalent of “We have Abraham as our ancestor” is to say, “We have Jesus as our saviour.” To which John the Baptist’s persistent nagging replies, “Yes, but what are you doing about it?” It is easy to presume upon God and our relationship with him as individuals and as a people. It is not hard to reassure ourselves that we are no worse than our neighbours, indeed a little better than many of them. We are not barbarians, and we do at least turn out for church. We reassure ourselves with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. That is we comfort ourselves with a salvation without any cost to us, which is not how God works at all!
Who will warn us
Advent and John the Baptist’s prominence in it are important. Just at the point before we celebrate God’s gracious action toward us, remember and celebrate that God makes peace with us in the birth of his Son, John offers us the necessary preparation. John reminds that with grace comes also judgement. And judgement, in our desire to avoid being “judgemental” and in our acceptance of cheap grace, judgement is an aspect we have almost completely eliminated from our faith. John asks the Pharisees and Sadducees who warned them. The question is; who is going to warn us unless we listen to and heed the words of John the Baptist? There is a demand, a choice to be made, and it must play out in the kind of lives we are living. And that choice makes an everlasting difference because judgement does hang over us
Another thing which all the gospel writers are agreed on is that Jesus message is the same as John’s. After his return from his time in the wilderness Jesus effectively picks up where John has been forced to leave off.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum. . . From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
Jesus offers the same challenge as John; God’s rule is upon you, you have to make a choice; Either accept the continued domination and oppression of the powers of this world; Or, switch you loyalty to the true and living God. But there is another thing which all the writers are agreed on. Whilst John is the necessary forerunner. And he provides an essential preparation. John by himself is not sufficient. John’s own preaching point this out, he says:
I baptise you with water for repentance but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. . . he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire
What John could do only symbolically with water. Jesus does in reality. John baptised with water, like cleansing in the form of washing the dirt off the surface of something. Jesus baptises with fire, like purification in the form of refining or smelting metal to remove the unwanted elements. John is necessary but not sufficient. John makes the necessary preparation by introducing us to the demand to repent and be converted. Jesus is the one who affects the transformation in reality. The difference with Jesus is that in him judgement and salvation become the same thing. He calls us to repent and enables us to live lives worthy of it.
A Necessary but not Sufficient Preparation by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0