“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John the Baptist was not the kind of person we would normally invite to dinner. He would have made us, and all our guests, rather uncomfortable. Imagine him arriving straight out of the desert, not dressed for polite company, and wanting in small talk. Imagine his opening words to us and our guests “Repent!” I am not sure how our dinner party would survive let alone proceed. He is called a saint, but I doubt many people pray to St. John the Baptist as they might to St. Mary or St. Christopher. He was more like one of those African prophets we often see preaching to their flocks gathered under trees, or on unoccupied plots of land, as we drive past on the way to our well-maintained and comfortable churches on a Sunday. Not quite our scene. But at least once a year John the Baptist breaks into our lives on the first Sunday in Advent with his message of repentance sounding, I would imagine, a little gruff like Leonard Cohen whose song “The Future” has the refrain “Repent, Repent.” Rather terrifying we might say. “Prepare for the wrath to come!”
Yet people flocked to hear John preach. Why? The atmosphere was tense in those days. There was talk of insurrection in the air. A revolt against both the Roman authorities and the Temple establishment seemed imminent. There were rumours of messiahs waiting for their opportunity to lead the common people and triumphantly enter Jerusalem to establish God’s kingdom of justice, by force if necessary. Then suddenly, almost out of nowhere it seemed, John appears on the scene. No prophet had been heard in Israel for generations. But there was a longstanding conviction that someone like Elijah would one day appear to prepare the way for the promised Messiah who would set the people free. Was this strange man dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, Elijah? So the people hurried to the river Jordan to hear him preach, to repent of their sins, and be baptised, so that they were ready for the Messiah.
Even many of the religious establishment arrived to check him out, coming, as Matthew recounts, to be baptised as well. But that did not fool John the Baptist. He could read their minds, he could see into their hearts. They were playing games. They were hedging their bets. “What if this strange prophet is Elijah? We had better go along with the crowd just in case!” But they were not prepared for what John the Baptist said: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Repent!” If you want to be ready for the Messiah you, of all people, will have to undergo a fundamental change of heart and mind. Simply obeying the rules of religion as you design and interpret them is not good enough. Repentance means conversion, it requires a fundamental re-orientation of our lives which “bears fruit worthy of repentance”, as John himself puts it. It is a rebirth which gives us a new heart, and a new pair of eyes with which to see God’s kingdom and become part of the Jesus movement.
John the Baptist confronts us at the beginning of Advent with his stern message of repentance in order to prepare us again for the coming of Jesus; preparing us as he sought to prepare the people back then to recognise Jesus and follow him. That remains as true today as it was then. Not just to prepare us to celebrate Christmas, but to enable us to respond to Christ at this moment in history when the world is in crisis, looking for messiahs who can save us from disaster. But the world will never understand who Christ is, neither will we, unless we change direction. To recognise the Christ as the messiah come to set us free from false hopes based on fear, prejudice, hatred and violence, requires repentance, a reorientation of life, an ongoing conversion. That is why John’s message remains pertinent. We cannot follow Christ in the world today without conversion to his way in the world.
It is important to remember that in calling the people to repentance and baptising them, John does not call them to follow him, but to follow the One who is the way. His role was to prepare the way of the Lord, not stand in the way, but standing back in the shadows when the time came. Jesus would become the way, not John. And as such John also becomes for us the model of what it means to be a witness to Jesus as the way. The task of the church is to prepare the way for others to see who Jesus truly is, and therefore what it means to “enter God’s kingdom.” Sadly, too often, we do not prepare the way, we stand in the way! How many people you and I know don’t go to church any longer because somehow the church has become a stumbling block to real faith, getting in the way of those who are genuinely seeking to find Jesus, genuinely wanting to be part of his kingdom.
This not only apply to the church, but to our lives more generally. This week we said our sad yet joyful farewells to John Robertson at the venerable age of 98. I don’t have the power to officially declare anyone a saint, but if I had, I would here and now declare John the patron saint of Volmoed. St. John of Volmoed! John was a great teacher because he knew that his role was to prepare the way for others to become the best possible learners they could and then stand back and let them get on with it. That is why he was also a great witness to Christ. He prepared the way for others to follow Jesus; he did not get in their way. That is why he was also a good parent, He prepared the way for his children, but then stood back and let them get on with living their own lives. They know when it is time to stand aside and let others take their place. Not stand in the way. And all great politicians should know this. The time comes when they have done their job, they have made it possible for others to go forward, not stand in the way. John the Baptist was the greatest witness to Christ, as Jesus himself acknowledged, because he did not point to himself but away from himself. “He must increase, I must decrease.” That is what Christian witness is about.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 1 December 2016