To download a podcast of my sermon, click here. It is based primarily on the Gospel passage for this week, Matthew 3:1-12.
John the Baptist was the kind of guy you would have warned your kids not to talk to.
By today's standard, he would have been deemed a raving lunatic. For all we know, many of his contemporaries probably did.
John was a ascetic hermit who had eschewed society, all its luxuries and distractions in favor of a rigorous lifestyle in the desert. His purpose was not to punish himself, but to shed the many distractions that he experienced in his like. He preferred to spend concerted time in prayer and meditation.
We know little else about John. We are told that he was actually a distant blood relative of Jesus, but otherwise, very little is known about his life. Particularly, how he came by the message of repentance he was preaching, what compelled him to retreat into the wilderness or what motivated him to baptize people.
What we do know is that he was preaching a baptism of repentance. Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of repentance is NOT to feel guilt. Guilt is essentially a wasted emotion if it does not move you to personal growth and change. THAT is actually the purpose of repentance. Repentance is the act of rigorous self-reflection which ideally leads to a commitment to change.
That he was baptizing an entirely or at least predominantly Jewish crowd would have been seen as very odd. In ancient Judaism, being part of the chosen people was seen as a birthright, a racial question. Judaism practiced baptism only when someone converted to Judaism from another lifestyle. Anyone looking at the scene of John baptizing Jewish people would have thought this was very odd indeed, and entirely superfluous.
John was calling people to a baptism of repentance. He was calling people to move beyond the many laws and rules of Judaism, to move beyond the idea that God's love was bound to race. He was calling them to the virtue that should have been motivating people's adherence to the law: love for God and neighbour.
But John rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees who approach him for baptism. He sees their hypocrisy, in that they had no intention of actually changing their lives.
This is a particularly timely message for us as we work our way through the season of Advent. Advent is a season of preparation, of reflection and anticipation.
What are we waiting for? We are anticipating and remembering the entry into the world of the greatest light the world has ever known: Christ. Christ was the greatest example of compassion and generosity the world has ever know, and these are virtues that the world would do well to emulate.
These are virtues that God represents, and when John calls the crowd to repent, he is calling them to be free of all of the emotional and spiritual detritus that is preventing them from exercising those virtues. He is calling them to prepare a way into their hearts for these virtues to penetrate and to be exercised in the world.
This Advent season, we are called to to do the same. My hope is that amid the busy-ness of this season, we are all able to make the time to prepare the way into our own hearts.