“Hear ye, hear ye.” Those are familiar words in times of the medieval courts when the herald would announce the arrival of royalty. The herald had no other job than to announce when certain individuals would enter a place, making it known to all that the highly esteemed individual is here. In today’s Gospel reading, we see the same thing taking place. John the Baptist comes onto the scene as the herald of all heralds. His announcement trumps any announcement that has ever been made or that will ever be made, for he comes as the herald of Jesus Christ.
When we last see John, Luke reports, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” Now, John makes his public appearance. It is not initiated by John but by the Word of God that came to him. God called on John to prepare the way for Jesus.
John had a mission: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Zechariah, John’s father realized that John was destined for something special. He says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins….” John did exactly what his father said that he would do. He did exactly what God had called him to do.
John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. As an Old Testament prophet, he pointed forward to the coming Messiah, the Christ. John himself fulfills some of the prophecies of the Old Testament, as we see in today’s Old Testament reading from Malachi. John himself was a sign that the Savior was about to appear on the scene in a very public way.
John did what prophets do. He spoke the truth concerning the coming of Christ. He didn’t try to win friends. He wasn’t interested in popularity contests. He knew that his calling was to proclaim Christ, not himself. What John preached was not always popular, not always nice. He was the perfect forerunner to Christ because not everything He preached was always popular or nice either.
While many thought that John might be the Christ, he is only the herald of the new covenant established by Jesus. He directs the people’s attention to one “more powerful” than him who is come. John enables us to prepare and be prepared for the way of the Lord. He does that by the message that he preaches.
John’s message is one of repentance and forgiveness. Those listening to John’s message believed that their status with God was secured because they were Abraham’s offspring. That meant that their salvation was forever set in stone. Who needs repentance if they already have salvation? If salvation were already secured for the descendants of Abraham, there would be no need for John to be a herald because there would be no Christ to herald about.
Repentance was necessary then and it necessary today. As he says, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The need for repentance is now. The need to turn from our sinful ways is now. That is the message that John the Baptist comes preaching. His proclamation of repentance begins by making the people aware that they are sinners. What does John say about those who believe that they are already righteous? He calls them a brood of vipers. This is not without significance. It echoes back to the Garden of Eden and man’s fall into sin brought about the serpent. Instead of being righteous, they are instead offspring of Satan.
It is harsh to hear that we are not righteous. It is even more harsh to hear that we are sinners. But that is exactly who we are: sinners in need of repentance. That is why John’s message is so important: it begs repentance. It begs for forgiveness. We hear all about our sinful nature and what that means for us. It means death and damnation. It means eternal separation from God. John’s message is one of sweet Gospel to our ears. There is One who is coming to save us from our sins. There is One who is coming to give to us everlasting life. There is One coming who is forever bridging the gap between God and man, One who will trade His life so that we can have life. That forgiveness comes in the form of Jesus, of whom John is preparing the way for.
John’s warning was indeed sharp. The purpose of the message was to strike fear in man’s conscience so that he might stop realize his lost condition. The only one who is capable of repairing that lost condition of man is Christ.
The reason why the season of Advent is so important is because it shows us the need of a Savior. Hearing John’s message can cause great fear in us, knowing that we might be a tree that does not bear good fruit. Those to whom John is preaching to begin to ask the simple question, “What then shall we do?” The answer is simple: we look to Christ. We look to the cross where Jesus took judgment upon Himself in our place so that we might be forgiven. In our Baptism, we receive the benefits of Christ’s atonement for us, the forgiveness of our sins.
All of this, as John says, leads to fruits in keeping with repentance. It leads to actions of love towards our neighbor. This is mercy; mercy that we show to one another as God has shown His mercy towards us through Christ.
The message of John seemed much like the coming message of Christ, the message foretold in prophecies of old. It was only logical for them to ask if John was the Christ. He preached with such great power that many people thought that he might be the Christ. He points to one more powerful than he who is coming soon, Jesus Himself.
For as great as he was, John the Baptist was nothing more than a prophet. He points to Jesus, the One who took our sins to the cross and exchanged them for righteousness. He baptizes with water and the Word for the forgiveness of our sins. He is the One who comes to us still today through His body and blood, making you new, clean by the blood of the Lamb, freeing you from your sin by His death and resurrection. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.