I don’t imagine John the Baptist will make it on any holiday greeting cards this year. It’s unlikely that he will join the ranks of Frosty and Rudolf with his own Christmas special. And while he may never near the popularity of Jack Frost or Buddy the Elf, here he stands on the second week of Advent playing the pivotal role of announcing the coming of the King.
The timing of the passage is critical. The opening phrase “In those days” prepares the reader for the possibility that the present reality is about to get a whole new makeover. For a people who had grown weary under the oppression of a long line of empires, the possibility of newness was a welcome prospect. For a people who believed that their God was sovereign, their present circumstances created a sense of religious uncertainty of their own position in God’s favor. So when John arrives with his message of an eminent visitation they realized they had quite a task of preparation to make a “straight path” for the King, and if it meant entering into the uncertainty of the desert to the desert they would go. The people who were in need of a new Exodus were about to meet their long awaited liberator, and they urgently entered the waters of purification to ready themselves.
So in droves they came to the desert. The wilderness was not an unfamiliar place to the Israelites. In the past it had been a place of testing and trials but also revelation and calling. In the Exodus the wilderness served as the place where the Israelites learned to depend on Yahweh and to reimagine what it would be to be his special people. In Joshua’s day the Jordan was a place where God invited them to step into the rushing waters, promising that he would safely bring them across. In the Exile the desert was a place of moving to and from home, security and the promise that God had a vision for their future. Now the wilderness and the Jordan would become a place where God would prepare them for another visitation, another re-imaging of what it was to be God’s set apart people.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism the stage is set by naming the all the political and religious powers of the day. Luke 3 recounts the people and places of influence in the world. The people and places that Luke mentions were the locations where the important words of the day were being spoken and heard, but then Luke declares that the “word of God” was not delivered to any of those who might seem worthy of the communication but instead was delivered to a prophet. In the same way Luke’s account can be show the contrast between not only the person to whom the message was delivered but the location as well. As can be inferred the message of the “word of God” was not delivered to a powerful politician in a palace or a pious priest in a Temple but to John in the wilderness.
In Malachi 3 we see the prophetic message that God will send “messenger who will prepare the way before me.” This messenger’s job will be to purify like “a refiner’s fire.” John the Baptist dressed like a present day Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) was here to give credence to the idea that God was about to deliver the “great and dreadful day” (Malachi 4:5) and his job was to “turn hearts” in order to avoid the coming of “total destruction” (Malachi 4:6). John’s outfit and identification with Elijah displays his connection with the prophets of the past. His message of “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” was heeded by those who knew their present projection was not bringing towards God’s preferred future. These people are described as those who came to humble themselves in water purification and the confession of sins. But the presence of the Pharisees was a cause of concern for John. For the Pharisees he saved the special warning that their ancestral lineage and their fruitless religious actions were not enough for them to avoid judgment. John is clear that the one who is coming is not pulling punches. John declares that while his baptism is one of water expressing their desire to be transformed, but that the one who was coming after him had the power to bring complete purging and total transformation.
John makes clear that his message of announcement is not a call to passively waiting, instead it is one of urgent preparation. John’s one sense of his vocation is not that of an insider or beneficiary but simple as one of a messenger servant. John knew his place. John even declares that his status is less than that of servant, for the one coming after him. As we move into the advent season John becomes for us the model of actively making room in our lives, our families and schedules for what and who is about to arrive.