Prepare a way for the Lord
John the Baptist calls us to a change of heart, with no exceptions, writes Brian Purfield. How can we hear this gospel as a call to each of us?
John the Baptist is a somewhat eccentric figure. Consider for a moment his wardrobe and his diet: he wears a garment of camel-hair with a leather belt, and his food is locusts and wild honey. We hear of many occasions in the Gospels when Jesus is invited to dinner and he eats with a wide variety of people. There is no such story for John the Baptist – people flock to John to listen to him but they bring their own sandwiches! The portrayal of John puts him within the prophetic tradition.
Moreover, John has an unusual address: "c/o The Wilderness". But that is the traditional place associated with the growth of Israel’s religion. It was in the desert that Israel first met God, and the story of the people’s wanderings through the wilderness became the story of their growth from crisis to settlement in the promised land. In the desert the people were tested, and later, when they failed God, they were told that they would be taken back into the desert where God would speak again to their heart (Hosea 2:16).
So it is apt that the word of God should come again to the people in the wilderness. Matthew tells us that John preaches in the wilderness and that all the people in Judaea and Jerusalem make their way to him. It’s a mark of John’s charismatic power that he can stay in the wilderness and attract people to the place they would normally avoid. It is a portrait of Israel again hearing the word of God in the desert. John is the voice speaking in the wilderness.
John is conscious of his mission to call Israel to repentance and to baptise those who do repent. The people come and listen to him because they believe he speaks the authentic word of the Lord. Those who are moved confess their sins and are baptised by John. The baptisms in the Jordan are public affairs. In their baptism the people make a public profession to begin to change their lives. And John calls everyone to change.
John is also perfectly willing to say the hard thing. The question is: how do you hold truth and love together? How do you say the truth lovingly? How do you love truthfully? How do you say to someone “you’re wrong and you’d better change” without that being heard as “and I really don’t like you!”? How do you say to someone “I love you. I support you” without that being heard as “and therefore whatever you do is OK with me”? How do we say to people the truth when the truth may be painful for people to hear? And do it in a way that is genuinely loving? How do we love people in a way that takes account of the truth that they may need to hear. How do you hold truth and love together?
This is a challenge that faces spouses and friends and is eminently one between parents and children. How does the parent tell a child “You’re wrong. It’s destructive. You must stop that.” Without that being heard as “I don’t love you. I don’t want you. I don’t like you!”? How do you hold truth and love together?
John does it powerfully well. A number of Pharisees and Sadducees come from Jerusalem seeking to hear John’s preaching and to be baptised by him. How does John greets them? It’s scarcely a leaf out of the manual “How to win friends and influence people”! John says to them “Brood of vipers who told you to repent?” (Mt 3:7)
That’s not quite the warm and gracious, the generous and embracing response that we might expect, but John is convinced that’s what the Pharisees and Sadducees need to hear. They can’t simply waltz down to the Jordan, be baptised and say “well that’s repentance taken care of” and go back to being what they were. They need to be challenged.
But at the same time when you challenge them – and calling them a “brood of vipers” is a pretty strong challenge! - when you challenge them it cannot be heard as “Go away! You’re not supposed to be here! God isn’t interested in you!” You have to tell the truth and at the same time love the people you are telling the hard truth to. It’s a very tricky business and John does it extraordinarily well.
John is a remarkable figure who plays a huge role in this season of Advent as the forerunner of Jesus’ message. John calls the whole of Israel without exception to a change of heart. That call is addressed to us too. We hear it especially during the season of Advent when as a community and as individuals we are called to a change of heart. There are no exceptions. We are probably all aware of areas in our own lives that need to be changed and to be touched by the power of God’s forgiveness. We all need to be recalled into the fidelity of our own baptism; we all need to be challenged again by the word of the Lord. We don’t have to make a trek into the wilderness to hear the word of the Lord. We hear it now, where we are. Hearing it and acting on it – this is the best preparation for the one who is to come.