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, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (NRSV).
John the Baptist enters the gospel narrative as, among other things, a figure of hope.
Our story has centered, so far, around the birth of Jesus and the events and fears this caused in Jerusalem. Herod, the man of power, has acted out his terror at this rival royal birth. He has lied, and killed.
But now he too is dead. The one who looked immortal, lies cold in his grave. His power is little more than memory.
Our text, however, steers us to consider God’s action outside the royal palace. Perhaps this is no surprise to the careful reader. After all, God has been acting in an unknown virgin, a stable, and through ancient prophecies and mysterious star gazers. God, it would seem, likes to work at the margins.
John the Baptist is no exception this preferred method of God. There were few places more marginal that the wilderness from which our old-time prophet emerges. He dresses and eats like an ancient seer. He reminds our author of Isaiah’s promise. Here is the ‘voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John is a forerunner. His life joins the ancient world of desert prophecy with his contemporary world. God is depicted here as one who is working across time. God’s message: hope.
One like John has been expected for centuries. His appearance renews hope in God’s plan.
But the hope John ushers in will not cease with self promotion. His life will not be content to look back. In fact, the fulfilling of his destiny will be found in looking forward: ‘…one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’
Hope looking back and hope looking forward.
But there is, also, another hope-filled theme embedded in this passage: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ The invitation to turn from sin runs through both the mission of John and of Jesus. Rather than being primarily a message of judgment, here is an invitation to change.
The gospel of Jesus opens with the insistence that we are not stuck in our self-destructive and God-independent ways.
Yes, John’s appearance is laden with a faith-instilling hope.