Have you lately given thanks for the forerunners in your life? You know, the ones who came before you and built lives of faith, struggle and wisdom upon which we have built our lives? Who were they in your life? I often think of a couple of people in my own life who truly and literally went before me to show me what and sometimes what not to do.
- My aunt Norma – a saint to me… I came home from Elementary School with head lice after the infamous Hat Day I hope they stopped having in school. I was kept home from school for treatment and I had to wear some cutoff panty hose on my head! My aunt Norma came over and I hid in the backyard because I was so embarrassed. She came out and found me and sat with me to love away my shame. She taught me, in example, an early and memorable posture of grace and love.
- And then I have an older brother… thankfully I saw enough of the rough life in his early decisions to help me avoid quite a bit of trouble as a teenager. Today he’s in a totally different place in life, walking with Christ… but wow did I benefit from his getting there! I had straighter paths and an easy way learning from his mistakes, and now get to enjoy watching his faith in action and family.
For a moment, I invite you to think of those who helped chart your course in life, who opened doors for you and pointed the way.
We have mentioned that the readings for our Advent Season this year, the fours Sundays leading up to Christmas, focus a lot on Jesus and his cousin John, whom we know as John the Baptizer. John appears ahead of Jesus as the one foretold to announce the arrival of the Savior, the awaited King. Here in today’s Gospel reading of Matthew 3:1-12, and in Mark’s Gospel as well, we’re simply presented with John’s arrival and the content of his ministry:
- He’s the fulfillment of Isaiah’s foretelling of a voice in the wilderness saying “prepare the way,” and
- He’s preaching and immersing people at the Jordan River for repentance.
I’m personally so glad we also have Luke’s Gospel to give us more on John’s parentage and preaching. It’s from Luke we learn of the angelic foretelling of John’s birth, his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, and through that Gospel we know that he and Jesus are kin, some manner of cousin through Mary and Elizabeth’s family connection.
Is it crucial to know their family connection? I’m not sure it’s something we couldn’t live without, but it helps me to understand the person of John the Baptizer a little more, especially as he arrives to do his job and in his own words from John’s Gospel, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease.”
John and Jesus have so many compelling similarities and connections:
- John and Jesus are both prophets, understood by the crowds of their day to be sent by God and worthy of attention.
- They are related by blood, though honestly we have no record of them growing up together or spending formative years together; and in truth, they don’t seem to really know each other in a familiar way when they cross paths.
- They both are going to speak truth to power, especially to religious leaders of their day, and they both will be put to death by the pollical powers of the day in very gruesome and unjust ways. John will be beheaded for publicly shaming King Herod, at the request of his dancing niece-turned-step-daughter. Jesus will be sentenced to death by Pilate, at the request of the religious leaders, for sedition against Rome.
The content of their teaching is sometimes contrasted with John being seen as this fire-and-brimstone style of preacher while Jesus is presented a with different kind of Good News proclamation, and maybe you felt some of that in our reading today when John calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers and starts talking about axes chopping roots and unquenchable fires. But I actually don’t seen a huge difference in much of their preaching, with the exception that in the records of John’s ministry we don’t have near as much of his teaching or have things like the parables, healings and face to face conversations Jesus had with people as he travelled about.
Again I’m grateful to Luke’s Gospel for filling in more of what little we know of John’s preaching. When others came to them they would find both John and Jesus with applicable, doable preaching, lots of opportunites to change for the better… and we hear it especially in Luke’s chapter 3: if you more than you need share your food and clothes with those in need, if your job is being a tax collector or a soldier, treat people justly and fairly. Both those positions, tax collector and soldier, were easily abused. We can clearly see the justness, fairness and mercy of John’s preaching amplified in the ministry and preaching of Jesus. And when John got mad and called out the hypocrites, we see that in the ministry of Jesus as well, especially when dealing with the religious leadership of the day.
What about a personal cheerleader in your life? Who in your life has believed in you and pumped you? Who has always been in your corner and pushed you to achievement? I think that we see John doing this for Jesus. In today’s reading it is the clear message that I am not worthy even to be a butler for the One who is arriving, I’m not even worthy to fasten his sandals. You think my preaching is good, hehe, wait until he gets warmed up! I’m immersing you in water, but the One to come will set things on fire! And in John’s Gospel he’s pointing to Jesus and crying out “Behold, the Lamb of God!” After the second time John does this a couple of his disciples start following Jesus, and one of them is Andrew who goes and gets his brother, Simon Peter, and they follow Jesus. Yeah, that Peter.
Oh, John is coming into focus! He’s so much more than just a voice in the wilderness. He’s laying the foundation for the ministry and message of Jesus in his own preaching, he’s witnessing to the crowds, and he’s connecting Jesus to people we know are going to be pretty important down the line. John was many things it turns out, doing a lot, and always pointing to Jesus.
Always pointing to Jesus.
I believe that understanding John the Baptizer is key to understanding Advent. I believe that understanding John the Baptizer is key to understanding my preparing for Jesus to arrive… it’s not just about preparing me. Sometimes it’s also doing all I can to be a voice, to witness to the One who is Light and Life, and to always be ready and able to point to Jesus.
I’ve heard a variation on a good exercise done several times in different ways, and I’d like to offer it this morning as something we can take with us into this week of Advent as an exercise of preparing to ourselves to point to Jesus. It’s a fill-in-the-blank:
“When I got to know Jesus, _____________ changed in my life.”
Are we prepared to talk about the change Jesus has made in our lives? How would you fill in that blank? In John’s day, calling Jesus the Lamb of God made sense and got people listening, but we need to be able to point to Jesus in our lives in ways that make sense to people today. John talked about the way the sky opened and the Spirit descended to Jesus at his baptism. What is it today for us? What can we express clearly about knowing Jesus and experiencing Jesus in our own lives?
The more we think in this way, making straight and clear paths not in the wilderness but in our own thoughts and language, then the better prepared we are to point to Jesus. We’ll be better prepared to join John in that great work of calling out to the would-be and soon-to-be disciples of Jesus around us and helping them know the Way, the One worth chasing.