One of the most prominent figures in the religious drama that plays out during the run- up to the birth of Christ is John the Baptist. The Advent liturgy is replete with accounts of the sayings and actions of this prophet, the most powerful preacher of his day. He was a colorful figure who looked like someone who lived mostly outdoors and survived on a limited diet. He held no regular job in the synagogue, but conducted an open-air church on the banks of the Jordan River that drew crowds of people from all walks of life. They came away feeling inspired and challenged, and if we listen to him the same thing could happen to us.
John’s message was simple: “The Messiah is coming, and we have to get ready for him.” John proclaimed the coming of Christ in the words of Isaiah the prophet: “Make ready the way of the Lord” (Is 40:1); “all mankind shall see the salvation of God!” (52:10). The religious leaders in the synagogue were supposed to help prepare the Jewish people for God’s anointed, but the people who came down to the river had long since given up on them. The word had gotten around: Listen to this man John. He knows what he is talking about. He does not settle for pious platitudes or legalistic scolding. He is tuned in to God, and he has a program that is going somewhere.
Unlike some charismatic preachers of our own day, John did not settle for an hour of preaching that charged up the congregation for a while but never got down to the nitty-gritty. John told them that a lot had to be done; they had to get their lives in order. He did not settle for generalities, either. When the people asked him what they should do, he said, “If you have two shirts, give one to the man who has none.” To those social outcasts, the tax collectors, he said, “Don’t collect more than your fixed rate.” When even soldiers came looking for advice, he told them to stop bullying people, not make false charges, be content with their pay and not fatten up their paycheck.
Not everyone who came down to the riverbank was looking for help. Some members of the religious establishment stayed in silent hostility on the fringe of the crowd, checking out this religious maverick. John really let them have it: he called them a “brood of vipers.” (That must have cut down on the collection when they passed the hat around.) He was not out to make friends or soothe his hearers; he had come to tell it like it was and call them to account. The coming of Jesus Christ would be good news if you were good; if you were bad, you had better shape up because time was running out.
And he did not settle for words. John’s ritual was dramatic: confess your sins, walk into the river, be submerged and come back up ready for a whole new life. It was not supposed to be just a harmless bit of religious formalism. It was the beginning of a journey, and they had a long way to go. In the words of Isaiah, “Make straight a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Is 40:3-4).
We all have valleys and hills in our lives. On the road to Christmas, Jesus wants us to prepare for his coming by filling those valleys and clearing those hills. Some of the valleys are called laziness, selfishness and irresponsibility. Some of the hills are called addictions, cheating, dishonesty and taking advantage of others. And those are just samples. (For further research, check out the Ten Commandments.) We have to face up to our faults and failings, admit them to ourselves and to God, and try to do something about them. That’s being honest. It can be very difficult sometimes, but we are not alone. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is on the way to help us.
John was a great preacher, not because he had a new doctrine or a new approach, but because he told people what they knew deep down in their hearts. Some were so moved by him that they thought John might be the Messiah. But he told them it was not about him but about someone far greater than they could imagine. John’s ritual of immersing in water was powerful, but it was nothing compared to what was to come—baptism in the Holy Spirit.
As the kids say in the back seat, “Are we there yet?” No, but the end of the highway is coming up soon. Advent, the time for preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, is passing swiftly. If you want to move beyond shopping lists in getting ready for the great event, listen to John the Baptist.