The proclamation of John the Baptist
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Today’s familiar account of the proclamation of John the Baptist presents us with a profound challenge as we continue our journey towards the time when we celebrate The Nativity. We hear the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth stepping forward as the forerunner of the Messiah, the one foretold in the Hebrew scriptures. As John steps forward he does not appear to do so as a royal herald, but as one crying out in the wilderness of Judea; as one dressed, not in impressive robes, but in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist; not as one who networks through an endless round of dinner parties and feasts, but as one whose food was locusts and wild honey. In addition to these unexpected physical characteristics, John’s message was also challenging and unexpected. John’s message was one of repentance.
The word ‘repent’ is familiar to Christians because it is embedded in the language of our liturgies. As we hear John’s proclamation today, we would do well to pause and reflect upon that word: ‘repent’.
Repentance is not something that should be approached superficially. Repentance is not merely a matter of saying: ‘I have changed my mind.’ Repentance is about committing ourselves to radical change … change that involves forsaking sin and turning, or returning, to God.
Like the word ‘repent’, we also struggle with the concept of ‘sin’. As human beings we often turn ourselves into apologists for sin. Too often we try to justify our sin, rather than simply owning up to it, and repenting. We talk about different grades of sin, from minor (implying inconsequential) to deadly. But … sin is sin … it is that which separates us from God.
Our casual attitude to sin is that which makes our journey through Advent so important. Our prayers, our engagement with scripture, and our self-denial will help us if we remain resolute and faithful. Let us pray that we might hear John’s voice crying out in the wilderness, and let us pray that we might truly heed his call to repentance. Let us pray that as we, in so few days, approach the Holy Child in praise and worship, might be truly ready to play our part as disciples and apostles of Christ.