The dominant theme of the Advent season is waiting, as we await (symbolically) the coming of Jesus Christ which we celebrate on Christmas while we await (for real) the promised return of Christ at the end of the age. One of the major sub-themes of Advent is repentance, and we come face-to-face with this in the character of John the Baptist, who figures large in the traditional readings for the second Sunday of Advent.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene–during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’ ”
Those of you who attended the University of Georgia are probably familiar with Brother Jed. Brother Jed would show up from time to time, set up shop in the busy courtyard area at the center of campus, and just start preaching. He would hurl epithets like “fornicator” or “whoremonger”, apparently randomly, at the passers-by, mixed with harsh warnings about how such people can never inherit the kingdom of God. It was always great sport to hear him go off. He frequently drew a crowd, some of whom egged him on while others just stood back and watched the show. Every major college campus has its own Brother Jed, who probably goes by a different name but looks and sounds remarkably similar.
John the Baptist was a lot like Brother Jed. Except that he didn’t look nearly as nice. His hair was strange. His clothes were strange. His diet was strange. His smell was probably very strange.
John the Baptist was a prophet. Almost every Old Testament prophetic writing begins with “The word of the Lord came to _____ son of _____” or something similar. Luke makes this connection clear: in verse 2, after going to great lengths to provide historical context for John the Baptist’s ministry, he says “…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” This places John the Baptist squarely in the line of Old Testament prophets.
John the Baptist was the last of these prophets. The prophets were men and women who put themselves outside the world of Jewish religion and culture in order to speak the words of God directly to Israel. They often said and did strange, provocative things in order to get the people’s attention and get their message across. They called Israel to repentance, to rededicate themselves to the law and the covenant they entered into with Moses at Sinai.
Like the prophets before him, John the Baptist called upon Israel to repent for the kingdom of God was at hand. People came out into the desert to see him and be baptized by him in the Jordan River. Many centuries ago, Israel had passed through the desert and crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land after receiving the law at Sinai. Now here they were again, going into the desert again and crossing the Jordan again. The Old Covenant had come full circle.
In Advent we heed the message of John the Baptist to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. Historically Advent has been a season of fasting. Churches do things differently with respect to the liturgy during the Advent season. The colors of Advent are deep purple and dark blue, in keeping with the darker and more somber tone that is appropriate for a season of repentance.
In Advent we take stock of all the ways that we have fallen short of God’s law. We honestly face up to the fact that our lives are a mess, our families are a mess, our churches are a mess, our communities are a mess, our nation is a mess, and our world is a mess. We recognize that unless Jesus saves us we will not be saved.