John the Eschatological Torchbearer
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Sermon #210 St. James the Less #117 12/6/20
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This morning we heard a familiar Advent passage from the prophet Isaiah. Fans of Handel’s Messiah will know that the three-hour-long oratorio begins with a tenor singing, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”
One part of the season of Advent I look forward to every year, and maybe you do too, are these beautiful passages from Isaiah that we hear every week. If you’ve journeyed through Advent for a number of years, then these classic readings begin to take root deep in your bones. It becomes evident that we really can’t celebrate Advent without Isaiah.
The prophet, speaking for God, gives words of comfort to the people of Judah, and he tells them of preparing a way for the Lord. He tells of a wilderness-voice that will cry out; valleys lifted, mountains flattened, a highway leveled and made straight for the Lord’s arrival.
Isaiah was speaking to a people in exile—refugees and prisoners of war who had been forced out of their homeland, but only after they had watched their captors' destroy the Temple in Jerusalem.
The prophets had for years warned the Kingdom of Judah that if they didn’t shape up something like this would happen—God would allow another nation to come and plunder their home and take them into a strange land.
Though the situation looked grim for those in exile, Isaiah wanted to remind the people that God’s ultimate purpose for them was not destruction but redemption, life and not death. Ironically, Isaiah who had preached judgment and doom for years was now preaching promise and hope in the wake of judgment and destruction.
He reminded the people though they had sinned and fallen short of God’s covenant expectations, God still loved them. Even now, He speaks tenderly to them; it is God himself who is comforting his people, and at the end of the day, his mercy and grace will have the last word.
Isaiah prophesies of a voice, a singular voice in the wilderness that will inaugurate the great and glorious day when God will arrive. The vision is one of a royal procession, or better yet, a heavenly invasion.
That wilderness voice was John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the Baptizer. He was the forerunner of this cosmic invasion; he was at the frontier of a new age, ushering in God’s arrival.
Now, there are two stories that come to mind when I think about John as the forerunner to this new age.
The first is a story from my childhood. I was a young kid when the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996. Like many folks in the area, my parents were determined to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity and see the games with their own eyes.
I remember being in a crowd in downtown Atlanta with my parents, waiting for the Olympic torch to run by us. We got there an hour before it was scheduled to come through our area, but even so, there were already three or four rows of people in front of us.
I was very small and couldn’t see over the crowd, and I kept pestering my dad who is 6 foot 5 to put me on his shoulders. For an hour we went back and forth, up for five minutes, down for five minutes to give his shoulders a break. Both of my parents reassured me that they would tell me when the torch was coming, but I wanted to keep watch myself, I wanted to be one of the first to see the flame coming down the street.
What little I knew about the tradition of the Olympic torch as a child, I did understand that that flame would go down the street and light a bigger flame and the games would begin. That small flame signified something much bigger, much grander, and the runner carrying the torch was had a special role to play. The games couldn’t start without the runner and the flame they carried.
The second story of a forerunner is one we all learned in American history class, it’s the story of Paul Revere.
It was actually Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetic retelling of the story a hundred years later that made Revere an American folk hero. It begins with the now-famous lines, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”
On the night of April 18, 1775, Revere and a few close friends were tasked with tipping off the revolutionary leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British were coming to arrest them.
He first used his signal system and had two lanterns placed on the Old North Church steeple in Boston (which is an Episcopal Church) to alert those on the harbor that the troops had left Boston and were crossing the Charles River.
Then, at about 10 p.m., Revere set out in the dark from his North Boston home by horse with two others to reach Adams and Hancock. The riders met the pair in Lexington and enabled the revolutionaries to avoid arrest.
The line we all associate with him is, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”
From his unique location in the city where he could see both the harbor and the city, he was the perfect watchmen, who could tell ahead of time what was about to happen.
Paul Revere lives on in the American imagination as a voice crying out in the darkness, warning what is to come, and in so doing, he ushers in the revolution.
John the Baptist
But neither of these examples fully do justice to the special role that John the Baptist played in the story of salvation.
In the ancient world, it was typical when a head of government wished to visit a certain place, they would send a messenger ahead of them to prepare for their arrival. We still do this today, a diplomat or the Secretary of State will usually go to a foreign country and have some initial talks with their leaders before the president ever arrives.
Even with that in mind, John seems to be an eccentric messenger of God’s coming kingdom.
John is not fully understood in our time, but he was not fully understood in his own time either. He stands there in his camel hair jacket eating locust “gaunt and unruly, utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age,” as one writer said (288).
John was sent to announce the conditions of God’s imminent arrival and reign. Rather than riding on a horse through the streets of Jerusalem yelling, “The Lord is coming! The Lord is coming!” John positions himself miles away from the Temple and the religious elite. God is doing a new thing and the Temple and the priesthood will not be at the center of it. In fact, both will come under judgment as the kingdom comes to fruition.
John fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy and announces the beginning of the end—THE VOICE that the nation had longed to hear had finally appeared in the wilderness. It was a clear sign to all who knew the prophecy that the end of the age was not yet but it had begun.
We must be clear, there is no good news, no Gospel without John the Baptist. All four of the gospels talk specifically about his essential role in preparing the way for Jesus.
John lives out his role as the Messiah’s forerunner, torchbearer, and highway-leveler by giving the people of the nation a specific message: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. The people needed to do some honest soul searching, they needed to look introspectively as individuals and as a nation before the Lord was to begin his work.
And so, John’s primary message is the call to repent and be ritually washed as a sign that they were ready for God’s arrival. But repentance in this sense means reorienting one’s values away from the world—away from sin and darkness and towards the approaching light of the Kingdom of God. The people could only be ready for the Lord’s imminent arrival if they had done the hard work of preparation.
John is an eschatological figure—meaning an End Time figure—(a key Advent theme as we said last week) and he is standing at the edge of a new age that is about to dawn, but he is not THE figure, rather he points to the true End Time figure—the one who is stronger than he, the One whose way he prepares.
John is a remarkable figure, there’s only one like him in all of history and he is an essential Advent figure: calling us to repentance, to reorient ourselves towards the coming Kingdom of God.
He shows us through his brutally honest preaching and yet remarkably humble nature that the work of preparation means repenting of our faults and failures and reorienting ourselves toward One who is greater than all of us.
In all of the ancient icons depicting John the Baptist, one thing is common in all of them—he is always pointing to Jesus. Everything he does in his life is to help people get ready to meet Jesus.
In a culture like ours that puts the individual above everything else which manifests itself in obsessions like selfies and how many followers or likes we have. We desperately need to see John the Baptist for who he is, the way he lived his life, and to hear his words afresh, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
2nd Sunday of Advent. Year B. Isaiah 40:1-11. Mk 1:1-8. Advent by Fleming Rutledge. Picture here.