I have often found John the Baptist to be a difficult figure in the history of our faith. He is a critical piece of the puzzle, being the Forerunner of Christ, the cousin of Jesus, and such a powerful, prophetic voice throughout scripture. Because of his relationship as the one who comes before Christ, we often associate John with Advent and those wonderful stories about the impending Nativity of our Lord.
In recent years, the themes of Advent have been unofficially marked as Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. These are certainly important themes upon which we should reflect when we think of what Christmas and the Nativity mean for us. But, in previous generations—and not so very long ago—the principal themes of Advent were Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgement. These are much less cozy-feeling themes, but still worth some of our time and reflection.
The reason I have found John the Baptist a difficult person to contemplate is because his preaching, teaching, and example present all four of those themes at the same time. John speaks to us of the hope, peace, joy, and love of the kingdom and coming Messiah. He does so right alongside prophecy and teaching that we all will, one day, die and that we will all stand before the judgement of God. A judgement which is good and just but which demands a possibly uncomfortable and shocking accounting of our own lives. And then back to the hope, peace, joy, and love of God even in the moment of judgement. It is a roller-coaster ride from the redeeming love of God one moment to shouts about a pit of vipers the next.
When Christ sets about his earthly ministry, we see that the difficult and sometimes confusing statements of his older cousin were entirely accurate and true. The portion of the Gospel according to Mark assigned to this Sunday coming shows Jesus doing powerful miracles of healing. Restoring people to life and wholeness not because of any merit or earning of their own, but entirely because of their faith that he can and that he will.
In the same moments that people are being healed, onlookers are questioning why Jesus would do this and the worthiness of those being healed, as though they, the onlooking crowd, are the arbiters of who is worthy of God’s blessing. In those moments, even as Jesus is revealing the healing miracles, we also hear and see him pronouncing judgement. He judges that those with faith should be healed and that those who question God’s abundant blessings should be reminded that their calling is to be faithful. Judgement is God’s work, not the work of humanity.
I have always believed that the canticle of Zechariah, sung for centuries in morning prayer liturgies, is both a prophecy about Zechariah’s newborn son, John the Baptist, and a reminder of the call to us who follow in Christ’s footsteps:
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. - Luke 1.76-79
Our call today is not to follow our own desires, not to build walls and bulwarks to keep others out, not to take God's role as judge, but to be known in the world as those who bring forth the treasures from our storerooms, who speak of God’s judgements of mercy and healing, and whose feet walk the ways of peace.
Have we the courage to take those steps?
Written for Holy Trinity Church on the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist 2021.