“Who are you?” they asked. “Who are you? The Messiah? Elijah? Tell us. We must know.” In the Greek text of our gospel lesson today, the urgency in the priests’ and levites’ voices is unmistakable. A man has come, from the wilderness, from who knows where, and he is preaching, proclaiming a message that sounds different than anything the Jewish people in those days could remember hearing. This man in his hair shirt and his leather belt, beard unkempt and voice blasting, sounded like a prophet — but a prophet from another time and another place. He spoke like Moses. He spoke like Elijah. “Who are you?” they asked him. “We must know. Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
And John said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, knew who he was. And who he wasn’t. He knew it was his role, his purpose to step out in front of the Messiah, proclaiming that his advent was at hand. And then he would fade away, his job done. Which is what happened. Imprisoned by an angry king, John was killed. Beheaded. John once said that “I must decrease, so that he, so that Christ, can increase.” And that happened. Literally.
John the Baptist has always been a formidable figure, defying easy categorization, offending just about everyone. Like the season of Advent, in which he features so prominently, this last prophet of the Old Covenant straddles two worlds and two times at once. It’s really no wonder he’s grouchy.
All jokes aside, his intensity, though off-putting, is right on the mark. St. John the Baptist understands like no one else did or does what was about to happen not simply in Judea during the 1st century AD but in all places and for all times. God himself was coming, coming to save his people, to save his creation. “Make straight the way of the LORD.”
On this third Sunday in Advent, we cannot forget that imperative. The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness won’t let us. His words echo throughout our music and in our liturgy. Even the collect for today is on John’s side: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; for we are sorely hindered by our sins.”
But what does that mean? As we’ve heard this week and last, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And hundreds, thousands of people from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem came running and were baptized, confessing their sins — a scene that never seems to make it onto any Advent calendars. Perhaps because such a spectacle can’t really be called festive.
If there’s anything more discomfiting than talking about John the Baptist, it’s that s-word, “sin,” which if we were to poll most people would be one of the topics that is strictly off-the-table for holiday gatherings. Sin is not the stuff of polite conversation. And yet we keep hearing about it. John the Baptist keeps talking about it — for a reason. He knows what is at stake. He knows that it is for our good, for the well-being of our souls, to reckon with the fact we still need rescuing, because Sin — with a capital “S” — is still among us.
And by that I don’t mean that we’re all terrible people who should do more to feel bad about how bad we are. Sin isn’t just about the misdeed, the white lie, the one-too-many drinks. Sin is a power. An adversary we’ve all met, whether in the tragedy of a loved one’s death or in the never-ending medical bills that accompany chronic illness or in the sudden rush of irrational anger or the surge of irrepressible fear that plague us when we’re driving to work or failing to sleep at night. That is Sin. It is alienation from God. It is a negating force that works its way through families, cities, and nations, breaking and brawling until we’re afraid that everything will go to ruin.
We shouldn’t be surprised that our culture’s Christmas season has become so long and so extravagant — because Sin and all that accompanies it is so clearly visible: on TV, online, on our phones. We never seem to get a break from bad news. And we are all desperate for relief. We are all hungry for love. We are all longing for good news. And we don’t want those things to be a nostalgia-fueled dream we live for a few months out of the year. We want to possess the reality. Which we already do. The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.
In the paradox of our life in Christ, which is the paradox Advent puts on full display, we are reminded in no uncertain terms that happiness is not found under a Christmas tree. Happiness, true happiness, is found at the foot of the cross. And that, contradictory as it sounds, is the Gospel, the good news, the cry of victory, that still applies to us. For we are sorely hindered by the sorrow and the sickness in our world and in our hearts; and yet there is One who is not. There is One who has triumphed over all the forces of darkness, who willingly, actively accepted the worst the world could give so that he might deliver his beloved from Sin and Death and clothe her with the garlands and the jewels of holiness. From slavery to salvation. Christ would do, he does do the same for us, coming daily, hourly, moment-by-moment to strengthen and transform his bride.
And that is not just a hope. Not just a figment of our imagination. That’s real. It’s our reality. Someone who loves us, who knows us, who promised not to leave us, is working for our good at all times. He is there, even now knocking on the door of our hearts, saying “The LORD has sent me to bring good news to you.”
Christ has come. His Advent is at hand, and he has been sent by the Father to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, to comfort all who mourn — and not just that, but to build us up and send us out, so that the ruined might raise up the ruins and the devastated build back the former devastations, until paradise begins to take hold now.
But how? And where? And why? Those are Advent questions, the questions that characterize a Christian life, which is one of learning to see Christ and then walking straight toward him. That posture, that watchfulness and wakefulness, will change us, will make us the kind of people who look for the light in every eye, for the good in everything, who thereby find Jesus and follow him wherever he might take us.
As St. John the Baptist prays, so do we: That we might become less and less and Christ become more and more. For He alone is our Hope. He alone is our Love. He alone is our Joy.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” AMEN.