Cornelis Cort, 1533-1578, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Second and Third Sundays of the Christian season of Advent are confrontational. For each of these Sundays presents us with the prophet having what prophets require, a backbone of steel and an iron will to stand for who called upon them. St. John the Baptist was not only such a man, but the greatest among the prophets yet on this earth and contending against this world.

What follows are my own addresses to congregations concerning St. John who baptized in the Jordan. The first confronts us with his presence and his mission. The second instructs us that we may pay dearly to the point of doubting the mission that we imagined, and how to address that doubt.


Prophet (Le Prophete), Wikimedia Commons

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.”

St. Matthew 3:1-3

“No doubt those of you who live in [locale], or [locale], or [locale], or [locale], walked to church this morning.  And you did not walk to church over the paved roads.  Rather you hiked over the rocks and stumps and lumps as you clambered through the fields, and crossed the gullies, and ate dust on the gravel roads.  It was not too far for you to walk this morning, those twenty or so miles. And it certainly wasn’t too far for those of you who walked from [locale], or [locale[, or rural northern [locale], or [locale], over the same terrain, except for somewhat shorter distances. I doubt that it was enjoyable, nor was it very convenient for any of you.  It took way too much out of your busy schedules.  And just think, now that you’re all here, you must now negotiate the return route to your homes so far away.  But you did it anyway. For you all had heard that when you arrived at [name of congregation] Church this morning that you would hear the Word of the Lord as you had not heard it in some time. For God had sent His messenger to proclaim it to you, and to call you to prepare the way of the Lord before Him… [heh, heh, heh…]

They came…”in those days”, it says.  St. Matthew writing some decades later could actually say to his cluster of churches, to those to whom he addressed this gospel, “…in those days.”  He was able to assume that they would know what he meant.  He was also able to assume that his hearers would understand why the people came so far and under such difficult conditions to be baptized of John in the Jordan River.

Now the people all knew full well that the banks of the Jordan lie some twenty or so miles from Jerusalem.  And these knew that there was one road out of town that would get them near the place where John was baptizing. That road was likely the same one that went to Jericho, of which we read in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  It was infested with thieves lying in wait for passersby, it was strewn with rocks and dust and dirt, and it wound sharply downhill from Jerusalem, dropping over 3,000 feet in elevation. If they had donkeys, the journey might be a little easier on the women and children.  It was no doubt hard enough on the men.  I gather that most walked.  Try around twenty miles downgrade over such a road in the sandals of the time, or of anytime, with the pebbles and the grit constantly under your feet, cut, bleeding, swollen feet.  As we do not know the precise time of year, neither do we know the weather conditions. But then imagine that they would need to make the return trip, sharply uphill.

‘They’ came that far, under such conditions.  Who did?  John’s disciples came, those who would follow him and propagate his teaching of the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

And the faithful and responsive penitents came, from Jerusalem and from all Judea, and from the region along the Jordan.  They came, confessing their sins after hearing of John and his preaching, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” 

Then the religious leaders came.  I doubt very much that they walked.  I also doubt that they came confessing their sins.  More than likely, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to spy out John’s new teaching. 

But no matter the reasons why the disciples, or the penitents, or the leaders came, nor why any of them came, they came because John was there, in the wilderness. 

But then do we need to ask, “Why did John come there?” Why… to such a demanding location, “the wilderness”, so remote, and so difficult to reach…? Only to make discipleship the more difficult?

John was the son of Zachariah, a priest.  John was probably destined to become a priest himself, following in his father’s footsteps.  Instead, he may have said, “No!”… No, to the structured Temple life, and the power politics.  He may have seen the wilderness as a place of withdrawal from the maddening clutter of everyday life.  But John was not in that desert wilderness to escape from his responsibility to YHWH.  Rather, he came there in order to prepare for that responsibility.

Life to John was God-given for a God-ordained task.  To that end, he chose discipline and solitude, dwelling alone where he could best prepare to announce the Word of the Lord.  The desert dwellers…  “piercing infinity with unlittered minds”, as John Steinbeck once wrote. Rid the self of the clutter that goes with life in this world, and encounter the Word of the Lord.  That is why John was in the desert wilderness in the region along the Jordan, for there he found the Word of God, and only the Word of God.  There was the Word, the fire in the wilderness…

Imagine the awe-inspiring spectacle, people coming in droves to be baptized by John in the Jordan wilderness. My old friend and former seminary colleague Pastor Fidon Mwombeki told me of his visitation circuits in Tanzania, East Africa, where he would baptize or confirm as many as 60 or 70 at a stop.  He told me of people who walked for miles on the Lord’s Day in ankle-deep mud carrying a bunch of bananas or other produce.  They would sell that produce at auction in the streets prior to the service, so that they would not enter the house of the Lord with nothing to offer.  Nowadays in comfy-cozy America, we cannot persuade moderns to drive a few blocks in the city, or a few miles in the country. These people came to John in the wilderness, as many as twenty or more difficult miles away. Why?  Because that is where the Word of the Lord might be found. There was fire in the wilderness…

As some hold, there was a time in the history of Israel when there was no Word of the Lord, a famine of the Word for nearly four hundred years.  Then St. John the Baptist announced it.  It was fresh, it was powerful, and undistorted by customs and cultures and all the undesirable effects of establishment. That Word did not announce the one who brought it. Instead it announced the One who would come after, baptizing with fire and the Holy Spirit. John would only prepare the people for the One to come.  Jesus of Nazareth was that One and brought the message of the coming Kingdom.

When the Word of the Lord appears after a long absence, it is indeed fresh and powerful and attractive.  But when it has been around for a while, established for some time, people become comfortable with it, to the point of disregard.  Then assumptions follow concerning the Word of the Lord that are more in step with the times and with the culture than with the Word proper. And Christ’s entrance into our lives is made the more difficult through overlays of clutter that prevent us from approaching His Word with unlittered minds, minds and hearts and souls and bodies shackled with the things of this world.

How do we prepare the way of the Lord?  By changing the conditions that make Christ’s entrance into our lives difficult, by eliminating that in our lives which prevents the establishment of His Word among us, in us.  The valleys of doubt and despondency, of self-depreciation and of self-pity, must be filled in, raised to level ground, to prepare the way of the Lord!  Every hill that is our pride and self-centeredness, every mountain of self-reliance and of independence from His will, must be laid low, to prepare the way of the Lord!  The rough roads and the crooked and rocky paths, the difficulties of life’s way that make us and others so embittered that hearing the Word of the Lord becomes difficult, these roads must be straightened and paved, to prepare the way of the Lord!  Does Christ come apart from such preparation, from such repentance and desire for amendment? Is the kingdom made present apart from our viewing the past with remorse and honesty, and the future with renewal and resolve, does Christ come apart from such a turning from the things that weigh us down, and keep us from His service? If not, then we have our work cut out for us. The gospel of the kingdom according to John?  That One is coming who is greater than all, and our preparation for Him is never in vain. For once there was fire in the wilderness.


Juan Fernández Navarrete, 1526-1579, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples, and said to him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 

And Jesus answered them,  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”
 - St. Matthew 11:2-6 

For dramatic quality and beauty of expression there can be few equals of the Prophet Isaiah (35-1-10), especially his prophecies which look forward to a future time beyond the turmoil of political events through which he lived. Isaiah envisions Israel under a just and righteous ruler in a world at peace, with tyranny and oppression in permanent exile. He foresees nothing less than a renewed and joyful creation, where God’s purpose is at last fulfilled and where “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice…” with joy and singing.

Did Isaiah have in mind some future human king? Surely his thoughts aimed towards a hope that no human monarch could fulfill. He points to a Messiah. His was a joyous prophecy which brought hope to the children of Israel. It also taught the first Christians to see in Jesus the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, and to recognize in the life of the “communion of the called” the foretaste of the new order that Isaiah so confidently proclaimed.

John, that one, who baptized, had in mind such a Messianic age, and such a Messiah. When his own ministry of preparation had begun, he had become increasingly conscious of the message of the Hebrew prophets. After all, these had foretold his own preparatory ministry. But did John have in mind an end, or a new beginning? And how did that vision affect his own estimate of life, of the world around him?

St. John the Baptist found himself in a prison, in a first-century prison, the fortress of Machaerus, in a prison awaiting his beheading. Did he do something wrong? Only in that he proclaimed a baptism for the remission of sins, and the coming of One more powerful than the kings of this world to follow. Of course, there was that nasty business about Herodias and Herod having married her, his brother’s wife while the brother was still alive. Via daughter Salome, Herodias wanted his head on a platter…

Mattias Stom, Beheading of St. John the Baptist (1640-1645), public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But John had announced the Messiah, the One greater than himself who would come after him. If the prophecies did not refer to Jesus, then who did they refer to? And if they did refer to Jesus as the Messiah, then why did John find himself locked away in a dark, dank dungeon, awaiting execution??

Doubt, despondency, these were his lot, in addition to the misery of the prison. Where was this “axe to be laid to the root of the trees that did not bear good fruit”? Where was this “consuming fire” of whom John was compelled to speak? Whence the coming judgment, the conflagration?  Had it come, and had it fallen on John only? So John sent his disciples to Jesus and asked Him, “Are you he who should come, or do we look for another?”

Have we ourselves had an experience of these times that try our faith to the limit? Then we also know what doubt is, and how it opposes faith, and the struggle within us as we know that it must be overcome, but how to overcome it fails us…

There is a legitimate doubt among the baptized people of God, concerning the God, angry as hell with the God, when the grief is so overpowering, or the coffin is very small, or the famine is very great, or the flood waters are very high. “One Son God hath without sin, but none without sorrow”.

“Are you the one who was to come, or do we look for another?”

There is doubt, severe doubt, among those who inquire about Christianity, for they know about doubt and despondency already. No one needs to inform them. The inquirers have had past disappointments with life and with “religion” added to our plight as humans in this world, religion or not. They want to know the truth, but they do not know where to look. And where they have looked has brought them disappointment rather than God. So they continue on their path, ‘nibbling themselves lost’ as grazing sheep without a shepherd, and inadvertently admitting, “Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?”

There is also critical doubt among those who know nothing of Christianity, and among those who reject or persecute it. Such doubt knows no resolution, for the hope of Jesus’ kingdom cannot find fertile soil in which to take root.. .The works of the God are seen through other lenses, as so-many social programs in operation, or so-many natural occurrences, as if there was ever a natural occurrence apart from God, or some other earth-bound explanation. That the blind receive their sight, that the lame walk, that the lepers are cleansed, that the deaf hear, that the poor hear the gospel of the kingdom, none of these mean a thing to unbelief. And they reject the mighty works of God because in their appearance these works do not appear so mighty. They are performed by feeble, sinful, rebellious human beings as well. But the secularists say, ”You are not the one who was to come, and we will not look for another!” Too much injustice, too many wars, too many miseries in our society, too much grief and sorrow, too much for us to trust in you, who went to a Cross, and expect us to call that a victory over something??

Jesus sent His word to John. Go tell John what you have seen and heard. The works of which the prophets foretold are indeed being done, in this world, in this time, and not after it makes no more difference to the blind, the lame, the deaf and the poor. I came to preach, to teach, and to heal, and I do all these things to glorify my Father in heaven in the here and now. For His kingdom I have inaugurated, it has begun, for that kingdom knows no end, but rather a new beginning never to end. The form of this world will one day be no more, and then a new heaven and a new earth shall know no end. But until then the kingdom has come, right in the midst of human suffering.

Yes, John, and all who have doubts, reconsider what the kingdom means, and your sorrow shall be turned to joy.

The works of the God are already in progress, as they can see. And the works testify of the coming kingdom that is already present. The axe was laid to the root, the judgment against this world has been made, the time for decision is the eternal present, the evermore now, “Behold now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation,” Doubts have more to do with the doubters than with the God who appeals to all everywhere, “I am he who should come, and you need look for no other!” So your sorrow shall be turned into joy!

The test of a bona fide faith is never whether we can worship the God during the good times, but during the awful and the horrid.  Some worship Christ when they please, or not at all. The test is whether we can worship and serve when the going is tough, and the path difficult to discern. During such times we ask for, long for, a revelation from God refulgent with glory and fraught with power. But God’s response to us is veiled in flesh and blood, mediated through suffering so that we may comprehend the incomprehensible. The joy that God sends to us is not the end itself, but the testimony of the reality of a new beginning in the here and now, the assurance of the kingdom that will one day be, for that kingdom already is begun. One day Isaiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled, but not yet. We prepare for that day by watching for it, and by rejoicing as we see it approaching, and by doing the works of the kingdom in the here and now. By this our sorrow shall be turned into joy!

Father David+

[The thoughts above are taken from two sermons I published for Advent, 2019, in “What to Hope In When There Is No Hope”, copyright V. Rev. David L. Rogers, ISBN 9781692580575, all rights reserved.

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