With the season of Advent the church begins a new year. And we begin Advent in Year C with Luke chapter 3, which recounts the entirely unique ministry of John the Baptist. And we begin with this passage because Luke’s Gospel narrative in a way begins right here. The wonderful stories of Jesus’s miraculous birth, infancy, and childhood, the ones we ponder at Christmas, are a prelude really to Luke’s main story. The main story that Luke wants to tell is the story of universal salvation; it is the story of the forgiveness of sins made possible though the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that story begins right here with John the Baptist, who I believe for Luke stands at the culmination of a very long tradition of prophets, a tradition that our collect reminds us of this day.
We can see this first in all these seemingly irrelevant details at the beginning of our passage today about who is ruling over what: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate is governor, Herod the ruler, Annas and Caiaphas the high priests and so on and so forth. What is all this name-checking about?
First of all, I think this is Luke’s way of connecting John the Baptist to the great heritage of the Old Testament prophets, who are frequently introduced in terms of who was king over Israel or Judea when the prophet in question began to prophesy. We see the same sort of thing when we are told that John the Baptist was Zechariah’s son, because again it was commonplace for a prophet to be introduced in terms of their parentage. And we see the same thing in verse 2 when Luke tells us that “The word of God came to John” in the wilderness. This phrase, “the word of God came to so and so,” is a typical locution used to introduce readers of Scripture to a prophet.
But I think there is also something deeper going on here in this seemingly formulaic introduction. Because one of Luke’s great interests, one of the things he constantly goes back to in his Gospel from start to finish, is the way in which the message of Jesus Christ is one that completely disrupts, disturbs, and overturns the world and its values. The Gospel message is one that for Luke enters into this world in order to completely turn it upside down.
Notice that the word of God comes to John the Baptist in the midst of a world of power: emperors, governors, rulers, even religious authorities. But the word of God comes to none of these powers: not to the emperor, not to the governor, not even to the chief priest. No, the word of God comes to an outsider, a strange and solitary outsider, out in the desert, who will preach against these authorities and powers and hold them to account so ferociously that eventually they will kill him for it.
So who is this man to whom the word of the Lord came? Who is John the Baptist?
We know from Luke’s Gospel already that he is the son of Zechariah, who was a priest. He is a miracle child, who is born to his mother Elizabeth in her old age by the promise of God, much like his relative Jesus is born miraculously to his mother Mary.
In chapter 1 we are told by Luke, “indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.” So God’s hand is upon John the Baptist from birth and even from before his birth and this is so evident that everyone around his family expresses wonder and anticipation at him, and they ask themselves “What then will this child become?”
What indeed. His father, Zechariah, is gifted with a prophecy of his own, and he seems to have some idea what this child of his will become. In words that we Episcopalians still use at every Morning Prayer Zechariah prophesies about his own infant son: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people, by the forgiveness of their sins.”
What then will this child become? He will become the last and greatest of the prophets, the one to personally prepare the way of the Lord, just as Isaiah said so many centuries before.
So while Luke positions John the Baptist at the culmination point of a long history of prophets, he also portrays him as unique among the prophets. Because John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord Jesus Christ in a way that no prophet before him has. Many men and women prophesied to Israel before: They warned against coming judgment; they called the people to repentance; they pointed the way toward a future Messiah who would deliver Israel from her enemies.
John the Baptist though does not warn against a coming judgment from within history, like military defeat at the hands of old enemies like the Assyrians or the Babylonians or natural disaster like fire or flood. John the Baptist warns the people that a new epoch in history itself is opening up. What he sees looming on the horizon is not an event waiting to happen within the future; it is God’s intervention within history that is about to happen, it is the eternal God about to break into the horizon of time itself in the form of God’s only Son Jesus Christ.
And John the Baptist preaches repentance all right, but again he preaches repentance not just because repentance is the right thing to do but because a decisive and radical event requiring repentance is at hand. Luke thinks of the salvation offered through Christ as also entailing the judgment of the world and all its fallen and corrupt and bogus values and priorities. This is why he connects John the Baptist to Isaiah, who says that to make ready the way of the Lord is to make his paths straight, to flatten the mountains and to raise up the valleys and to straighten everything that is crooked because everything the world values and holds up high is about to be brought low, and everything the world disdains and holds in low regard is about to be raised up and exalted, because the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ means that he is about to turn the world and what it deems worthwhile right on its head.
Finally, John the Baptist does not just point the way to the Messiah; he will see the Messiah with his own two eyes, a privilege not afforded any of the many men and women who prophesied before him; he alone of the prophets will be able to literally point to the salvation of God in the living, breathing person of Jesus Christ.
And in fact John the Baptist, the whole meaning of his ministry, his very being consists in this pointing to Jesus Christ, as you’ve seen him depicted in countless works of art. Because if there is one thing that John knows it is that Jesus Christ is God’s salvation of the whole world. And this is why Luke says that John the Baptist does not just prophesy but he fulfills prophecy: Because of him we can see it becoming true that all flesh—all humanity, not just God’s chosen people but all people—will see God’s salvation because John the Baptist stands there alone and ragged pointing the way to him.
And that’s why John the Baptist is the perfect person for Advent. Even though, as our guest preacher last week, Fleming Rutledge, likes to say, you’ll never see John the Baptist in an Advent calendar. Can you imagine? A sort of Currier-and-Ives Advent calendar with candy canes and sleigh bells on the doors, and then you open it up and there’s a picture of a guy in a hair shirt with a half-chewn locust sticking out of his mouth. Maybe the inside could say: “Seasons greetings, you brood of vipers!” That would not sell at all.
But it would preach. Because John the Baptist’s message is one that is still important for us today. John the Baptist, by pointing the way to Jesus Christ, gives us a perfect role model. Because every priest’s job, every preacher’s job, indeed, every Christian’s job, is John the Baptist’s job.
Our job, like his, is to point to Christ, by our words and deeds to point to him who saves us all, to point to the one by whose grace and power all flesh shall see God’s salvation.
John the Baptist’s call to repentance is also still timely, because repentance is always timely. My favorite philosopher Søren Kierkegaard says that repentance always comes at what he calls “the eleventh hour,” because repentance is never too late. God is merciful and patient and affords us plenty of opportunity to repent of those things within us that are still in need of correction, and there are crooked things within us that need straightening.
But repentance is also at the eleventh hour because while it is never too late to repent, repentance is always in the nick of time. The time of Advent is the eleventh hour: It is not yet midnight, time is not run out, but there is an urgency to the Advent season that presses upon us.
Even the very word “Ad-vent” in Latin means “to come at” or “come toward,” because we do not move into the future in Advent. In Advent a radical, disruptive future comes at us, and that radical, disruptive future, foretold by John the Baptist, comes at us in the form of a surprising and unpredictable person—the Son of God born as an infant. It is he who comes at us from outside history and time and the warped and fallen world—to judge that world and set it straight. It is he who comes at us with an urgent demand to straighten what is crooked in our own lives in order to be ready to receive the forgiveness of sins at his hand.
So a new year calls for a new beginning. Is there an opportunity this year for you can point the way to Christ for your friends or neighbors or co-workers? This time of year is a good one to invite someone close to you to church to see for themselves the one to whom all this beauty and symbolism and liturgy points. It’s a good time of year to extend the gift of hospitality to someone lonely or far from home or unloved, someone the world doesn’t pay much attention to. Is there something crooked in your life that needs straightening out? It’s no mark of spiritual maturity for us to imagine ourselves as in no need of repentance. Quite the opposite. The more schooled we are in the Christian life the more keenly conscious we should be of our need for repentance. With the season of Advent, the eleventh hour has struck. For all these things, now is the time.