Of all the characters of the Bible, the one whose company we would enjoy least is St John Baptist. He is not the sort of person we would wish to have as a dinner guest or as a fellow traveler on a cruise. But he is the saint who features prominently in the liturgy of the last two Sundays of Advent. And if the Baptist does not appeal to us, our Lord paid him the highest of all possible compliments: “Truly I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11).
John was great because he was the last in the long succession of Old Testament prophets “which have been since the world began.” But John was the only one to see Jesus Himself. The Son of God was seen by Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and all the rest in a visionary way. John was privileged to see Him in the flesh.
John's prophetic ministry was threefold, as it related to (1) Jesus Himself, (2) Herod Antipas, and (3) the chosen people Israel living in A.D. 27—30. As far as Jesus is concerned, it was John's privilege to baptize Him and to announce Him publicly. “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world .... He must increase and I must decrease.”
As for Herod Antipas (son of the Herod who tried to murder the Christ Child), John's preaching was distinctly controversial and provocative. John publicly denounced this Herod for his immoral life—casting aside one wife to marry another who was the wife of his brother. For that sermon, John lost his life, and probably most Christians today would be in firm agreement with the Herod family that preachers should not meddle into such things. And if we and Herod are in agreement, we must be in disagreement with Jesus.
But John's sternest words were directed to the huge multitude which went out to hear him preaching on the banks of the Jordan. “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?......Now is the axe laid to the root of the trees.” The expression “generation of vipers” is probably an allusion to the “seed of the serpent” in Genesis 3:15, the reprobate race perpetually at enmity with the “Seed of the Woman.” So the last great voice of Old Testament prophecy echoes the earliest expression of the Gospel, the Protevangelium.
In addition to pointing out the actual presence of the Messiah, John preached the necessity for repentance, the moral house-cleaning which is imperative as the Lord approaches. As we contemplate John in the Advent liturgy, we face the question: What would John have to say to us? LKW
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The Kingdom of God
During these final two Sundays of Advent the liturgy features the odd and unfriendly person known as St. John Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, who was born just six months before him. Although he is narrated in the New Testament Gospel, this man was the last of the Old Testament prophets. In this “goodly fellowship of the prophets,” he was the only prophet actually to see Jesus face to face. The One Whom Isaiah and all the other Old Testament figures saw only by faith, John was permitted to see right in front of him.
The message of John is summed up in the words, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The expression “kingdom of heaven” means the active reign of God. The word “kingdom” sounds like a political institution or territorial entity; the phrase is better translated “kingship of God.” John's message was simply that God, who rightly claims rule in His creation, can no longer be defied or challenged, since He is about to re-assert His royal authority in the world He made.
Almost at the beginning of history, our earliest ancestors set out to overthrow God and remove Him from His throne. That was the original sin; that is still the essence of all sin. But John announced that in Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God,” God was about to gain the upper hand and resume control of His world. That was to be His “kingdom.”
John says this kingdom “is at hand.” That expression puzzles us. Did he mean the kingdom has already arrived, was shortly to arrive, or would arrive sometime in the future?
All three of these answers are correct. Because Jesus was physically standing in the middle of the crowd listening to John, the reign of God had already commenced. His perfect obedience and sinlessness showed that the victory over evil was already underway. But very soon, in just three years, that perfect obedience would bring Jesus to His cross and to His empty tomb. That was the decisive victory which proved and made sure that the old kingdom of sin and Satan was overthrown forever.
But the final victory, when Jesus will hand over the kingdom to His Father, will not come until the end of history. This good news of God's reign is summed up in the words, “Already, but Not Yet.” We live between two points of time, the coming of the kingdom in the life of Jesus on earth, and its perfection when He shall come again. And as we look forward to that arrival, John's message to us is simply to “repent,” to change our minds and and to change our lives so that we may be ready for Him when He comes in His glory. LKW