John the Baptist, Rejecting Society and Honest Preaching

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him… (Read the whole passage)

As we journey deeper into the Advent season we hear from John the Baptist. John gets to make his appearance each year on the second Sunday in Advent, preaching to us from the wilderness about the coming to the Messiah.

John’s place in the arc of Advent comes after we started with the end of time last week, as Jesus implored the disciples to Keep Awake, as the Son of Man was near. While John the Baptist appears at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we tell his story as the prelude to the story of Jesus’ birth. And that John always comes after warnings about the end of time isn’t coincidence. John’s preaching serves to re-orient us from the end times talk to the new thing about to happen with Messiah’s coming.

John is framing the beginning of the story. John is setting the stage for us. John helps us to see the world as it is and our need for Messiah to come.

The figure that John strikes is definitely that of a unique character. John is a hermit living in wilderness, living and eating off the land. The details of his clothing and food might sound funny or interesting, but they tell us something deeper about John and what he is about. John is a hermit certainly, but why? Probably because he has walked from society and the problems he sees with it. John was not always a hermit preaching in the desert, rather he was born into the priestly cast, his father Zechariah being a priest in the temple. If John had followed the plan as he was born into, he would have served in the temple making sacrifice and administrating God’s righteousness to the masses. The temple was the centre of Israel’s power and influence, the priests who served were people in positions of power. John was born into power.

But instead John walks away from all of that. And John doesn’t reject the power he inherited in birth. John could have chosen a route like his cousin Jesus who choose to hang out with the poor, sinners and tax collectors over the rich and powerful. But John walks away from it all, from rich and poor, from righteous and sinner.

John chooses the great empty wilderness instead.

And yet in a twist of irony, as John tries to leave the centres of power and privilege behind, he goes into the wilderness and finds the very people he is trying to avoid. John finds himself preaching to the masses looking for salvation, and to the religious authorities watching his every move. Despite walking away from his priestly duties in the temple, John finds himself filling the same role in the wilderness. He is leading rituals that help make people righteous – baptisms. And he is preaching from the law the prophets.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’

Despite John’s best efforts to avoid the world of his day, the structures of power, the inequality and unfairness around him, the powerless and powerful… John finds himself addressing and naming the realities of his world. The crowds have come to him hoping for change, hoping for fixes to their difficult and suffering lives. The religious authorities have come to watch him and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble or threaten their power.

Instead, John preaches what no one wants to hear. He names the dark places of the world. He points to the brokenness and struggles of the world. He preaches that a Messiah is coming to straighten things out… which means that things are crooked. He preaches the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins… which means that people are broken. He preaches that it is not enough to rely on being Children of Abraham or Lutherans, or members of a church… which means that who we think we are will not save us.

And yet John does something unusual for someone in his position. He admits that he is not  the solution. In a turn to honest and authentic preaching and prophetic words, John says that someone else, a Messiah, is coming to straighten the world out… which means that John himself is not the one the crowds are waiting for. What an unusual thing for a popular person to admit in front of a crowd of eager people wanting to throw their devotion to a possible saviour.

John might be preaching to the problems of his day, but he could be just as well be speaking today. Much like John’s world, our world is full of desperate people who are suffering and need a change. People who are looking for the next strong man to show up and smash all the problems and make things the way they are supposed to be. Or like the religious authorities, there are those in the world who are very invested in keeping things as they are, because they are benefitting greatly at the expense of most others.

But John is naming the reality that none of us really wants to admit. And that is that the world is dark and broken and suffering. That there is so much crookedness and self-centredness and injustice that there is no way that we can fix it on our own. And John’s assessment is not a judgmental one, but a realistic one. A statement about how things just aren’t right in the world, that no matter how hard we try, something is off. We know this is not the way the world should be… but we don’t know how to do anything about it.

We can look around and see that the world isn’t as it should be. We see people we know and love being diagnosed with unfair illnesses and disease. We see our children or grandchildren being bullied at school. We see our neighbours getting laid off, or families torn apart in relationship breakups. We see that we just cannot help fighting and misunderstanding and judging and fearing each other. We turn on the news and hear about violence, corruption and tragedy.

We see all of this, and we know that this is not how the world is supposed to be. This isn’t right.  And so we get why John has just left everything behind to go live in the wilderness, a place of emptiness that might be missing the comforts of life, but hopefully is also devoid of the tragedies and suffering and conflict.
But there is something else that John tells us without words or preaching. Something about what God is up to in the dark and empty places.

John, with all his flaws and contradictions and weirdness, is doing God’s work of announcing the Good News. God is using John of all people, to tell crowds who are looking for someone else, and religious authorities who don’t want to listen, that the Messiah is on the way. God is bringing Messiah’s light to the world through John, one of the most unexpected people imaginable.

The fact that God is working in surprising and unexpected ways cannot be understated.

That God chooses flawed and contradiction filled and weird people to announce that the good news is something that we need to be reminded of.

That God is heralding the Messiah’s coming with someone like John the Baptist shows us that God is willing to use people that we might never consider for God’s mission.

That God is sending Messiah to straighten out our crooked places, to Baptize us with the Holy Spirit, to transform us and our world… and that this is happening now is the Good News.

And with this news, that the Messiah is coming to make straight paths, all the dark things that we see in our world, the sick loved ones, the struggle neighbours, the vulnerable children, the conflict and fear…. all these dark things start to have a little less weight. They are pushed back in favour of a new world, in favour of Messiah’s world. A world that we practice bringing about here, just like John in the wilderness. Look around and you will see fellow strange, weird and unique preachers and prophets to the good news. People who confess and forgiven sins. Who sing and praise God, pray and speak the word. People who baptize and are baptized, people who share in the bread and wine of life. People who bring about the Kingdom of Heaven simply by being together. Unlikely people who are God’s hands and feet in the world.

On the second Sunday in Advent, the arc of the advent story takes us from the end of time to the beginning of God’s making all things new. And Messiah cannot come sooner into our dark world. Yet, the way that God draws our eyes and our attention to this new light coming alive in world, is through John the Baptist. John the Baptist who is at one time one of the most important figures of faith and also the least likely prophet and preacher of the good news. In so many ways John the Baptist is very much like us, or we like him. Because we too are the flawed and unlikely preachers and prophets that God is using to announce the coming of the light.

God is using John and using us to speak from the wilderness, from unlikely places, to unlikely listeners, about the light that is coming into the darkness, the Messiah that is to come.

It is no wonder that we began worship today by praying:

Stir up our hearts, Lord, to prepare the way.


One thought on “John the Baptist, Rejecting Society and Honest Preaching”

  1. To be like John the Baptist is challenging…he stayed in deserts…wore camel cloak..leather belt and fed on wild honey and locusts…only the person with thirst for GOD can do it…and it takes a lot of time to reach that maturity…this is clear that he not only stayed away from society..but he also forsook his inherited temple duties for the new call to prepare the way for Messiah…in other words we can say he forsook the world for GODly life


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