Prepare ye the way of the Lord
Today is the Sunday of Advent when we think about St. John the Baptist. The purpose of John the Baptist's ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus. Luke the Evangelist tells us that John and Jesus were cousins, but it is apparent that John began to preach and minister some time before his cousin. John went down into the area near where the Jordan River meets the Dead Sea. He told people to repent, which is a twofold action: to turn away from sin and turn to God. When they repented, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. The purpose of all those prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, Moses--was to point forward to the coming messiah Jesus, and for this reason, we do not have prophets any more in this Old Testament sense because the messiah has come. When Jesus did finally enter the scene as a grown man, his preaching largely consisted of the message of the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God, you might ask? The kingdom of God is God's rule and reign over every human disorder, chaos and sin, and even over death. Jesus showed that he was the ambassador of this kingdom by giving freedom to the burdened and oppressed, healing those who were sick and afflicted, and telling people that their sins were forgiven. We too can have our share in this invisible kingdom, with a king who has ascended in tothe heavenly places. As we are redeemed, we have new life in this kingdom. Burdens are lifted, afflictions of soul and body are healed; assurance of forgiveness is given in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and in the proclamation of the truth that Jesus has made the one true and eternal sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
John's message was that of repentance: he said, repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. What we need to be reminded of today is that John's message was not just for his time and place. It is easy for us to talk about God's love and grace and how he invites us into his kingdom, but we forget that he also calls us to repentance and new life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to talk about cheap grace by which he meant when we sooth the conscience by pious but ineffectual platitudes or when we tell ourselves that it is acceptable to God if we continue in our self-destructive, sinful behavior. You see, the message of John about repentance and the message of Jesus about the kingdom and new life go together.
The way I like to think of this is that grace and judgment are two sides of the same coin. God gives us new life, but he also tells us that the way we are living now needs to change. That is the best type of love because it seeks for our good. Put another way, the Gospel is truly good news for us and for all, but if the Gospel is rightly to be proclaimed, it also comes with the bad news that we have to change, we need to repent. Even this, with a bit of perspective, is good news because sin and selfishness enslaves us. The Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt, you recall, were told that God was going to be their God and they would be his people. They did have to leave Egypt, however, and that meant leaving the supposed comforts of slavery. This was the bad news of the Gospel and why some of the Hebrews complained that they wanted to go back to Egypt.
We know that sin is self-destructive to us and harmful to others. We need to be told that. God calls us away from these things in repentance, and at the same time, he invites us to new life in him. You see, there will always be the need for the proclamation of John the Baptist to turn away from sin and the serving of self so that we can find new life and abiding love in God's everlasting kingdom.