Advent 2: John the Baptist and Elijah

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

788px-mathis_gothart_grc3bcnewald_019Dear saints, through the righteousness of God and of our Savior Jesus Christ you have received a precious faith; Grace and peace to you in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord (adapted from 2 Peter 1:1 ,2).

It was prophesied through Malachi that Elijah would return (Mal. 4:5-6). That’s the empty seat still today at the Passover Seder, awaiting Elijah to come to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. Just like that he appeared! He came to stir things up – especially human hearts! He came on the scene in the Jordan wilderness where God had taken Elijah off the scene. Elijah was known as the hairy prophet, thus He wore camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt after the fashion of Elijah (II Kings 1:8). He inherited the power and the poverty and the prophetic ministry of Elijah (Mark 9:9-13/Matt 11:7-15). The waiting was over! The Christ was at hand!

His call into the wilderness was like a reverse Exodus. Long-ago Israel passed through the Red Sea into a new life of dependence on God in the wilderness (Ex. 14). Upon entering the Promised Land they crossed through separated waters of the Jordan River (Josh. 3). Now, John’s voice first called people into the wilderness there to pass through the river of baptism to a new life of dependence on God.

Just like that John appeared, shattering nearly four hundred years of silence from heaven, since the end of the Old Testament with the prophet Malachi. In the centuries after Malachi, the Persians and the Greeks and the Hasmoneans came and went as earthly governments come and go. Then the Romans swept in and killed the priest serving at the temple and defiled the Most Holy Place. Rome now ruled the land, with puppets like Herod having local control.

In these centuries of waiting, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek, the common voice of the world (It is called the Septuagint). The Jews had been dispersed throughout the world and nearly every known place could be reached by Roman transportation and communication. The promises of the Old Testament were ripe for fulfillment! Just like that John appeared with one foot in the Old Testament and one foot in the New Testament.

“Behold…the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He was only one man, but He was God’s man! And what a voice! The voice cries “…all flesh is grass and all its beauty is like the flower of the field…surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever

Dear Christian, you and I are so grass-like – are we not? Grass that is grown wildly  over takes an area, grows in a way that in sways with the changing winds. To be healthy it must be pruned, cut down, repeatedly, watered, and nourished. It easily becomes diseased if not properly cared for, it easily dies if its roots are not deep enough. Our flesh is like grass – so frail and temporary on this passing earth. How quickly the flower of youth wears the mantle of age. How suddenly life can be snuffed out here by accident, by infection, by health crisis at any age. The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.  Left to ourselves we would die in this wilderness of wanting to be our own gods. Left to ourselves we would pursue our own way all the way to the grave.

As we are here in the midst of another Advent season, it is vital to once again hear John’s voice in the wilderness. In the wilderness John proclaims baptism. Baptism which inherently brings repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Baptism was not so new. Old Testament washings done with water and were effective but still with an anticipation of greater things to come. Ritual washings done in Old Testament to prepare and make clean as acts of repentance and for entering into the Lord’s presence, likewise their garments washed, the priests washed. But these were washings, baptism, with water and not with the Spirit.

John was so stubbornly narrow in his focus – today we would call him a religious fanatic. John was out of touch with society – in dress, in diet, in desert surroundings. He didn’t mingle or socialize. John was intolerant of the politically correct as well as those within the church. He was not a synodical executive. He called those within the church of Jerusalem a bunch of snakes. He was not against big business so much as he was after the little man and the evil in each person. He came to stir things up – especially hearts. He made people downright uneasy.

You could rightly call John strange – in almost every way. You could rightly call John strident – shouting at people to straighten out their lives. You could rightly call John snubbed – rejected by the religious and imprisoned by the politicians in power. You could rightly call John silenced – first by the walls of Herod’s fortress and then brutally by the severing of his head.

Sometimes, in self pity, we ask and complain, “Why do I have to carry this cross?” or “Why do my values have to be different?” or “Why should I miss out or be made fun of?” It can be difficult to see the immense treasures Jesus gives in trying times. Yet, that’s what John did and proclaimed. Preparation for the coming Christ.

Repent. Repentance is not trying a little harder to tidy up a bit. Repentance is not saying – yes, I still have a few problems to work on. Repentance is knowledge that I am the problem before God’s holiness. Repentance is being called back to God in total dismay of ourselves and yet in trusting confidence that He provides all we need. The Lord…is patient toward us not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 

Dear Advent hearers of the Word; John’s voice still reaches into your wilderness today – those dry places of doubt – those canyons lacking contentment – the rocky places of bad habits – the uneven places of fear and uncertainty. He is a road crew of one to make straight a royal highway in your heart.

What an amazing thing your heart is – so grand and spacious – capable of such deep emotion; such strong hope; such compassion for others; yet also capable of such bitter disappointment, such constant worry and self focus, such misspent energy.

The heart and mind must be prepared for the Lord who comes in mercy. Hills of pride must be scraped down. Curves of impurity must be made straight. Pot holes of error must be filled in. Our grand and spacious hearts are easily captivated with passing things and filled with rebellious desires. They become heavy and dull aimlessly excited with paths leading in every direction.

The voice of John still cries out to you “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” We cry out in response, Restore us, O God! Stir up our hearts… to serve you with pure minds! Everything John does though is not towards himself, but towards Him who comes, whose Advent is here, Jesus the Christ. He is Elijah to come as Jesus said (Matt. 11), who proclaims the Messiah’s presence.

There is a Reformation Altarpiece in Isenheim, Germany (above) that illustrates what John said here and with his whole life. John is pictured standing with an open Bible in one hand. His other hand is magnified all out of proportion by the artist and points to Jesus hanging on the cross. His long bony finger directs every eye to Jesus. That is the purpose of John. It is not enough for you to know who John was historically. You must hear his voice, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”

That’s why the prophet’s voice also cries out Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 

The word “comfort” means to cause someone to breathe deeply and easily. The phrase “speak tenderly” means to speak to her heart. In Christ Jesus, God speaks such tender mercies to your hearts that you can breathe deeply and easily before Him.

Recall how John said He would do that – baptize with the Holy Spirit. The Messiah is here, for He comes bearing the Spirit of God. They awaited this One as prophecies through Isaiah who carried the Spirit. That’s exactly who Jesus is and what He has done. Who do you think gave you faith in the one John pointed to? The Holy Spirit! Who do you think has kept you in the faith through the years? The Holy Spirit! Who do you think brings you the Gospel today and enlightens you with His gifts? The Holy Spirit!

He brings Jesus to you again today and Jesus gives you a wardrobe not of camel’s hair, but of His own righteousness. In baptism you have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). The Holy Spirit brings Jesus to you again today who gives you a diet not of locusts and wild honey, but of the bread of life – His very body and very blood for your forgiveness.

Whatever rough places cling to you, whatever crooked places stubbornly resist your repentant efforts, however close your earthly beauty may be to fading or the grass of your flesh withering away in death – breathe deeply and easily. That’s what the Hebrew means when Isaiah wrote “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem (Literally cause her to breathe deeply and easily – speak to her heart).

Why should you be comforted? Why should you breathe deeply and easily? Because your iniquity is pardoned! You have received from the Lord’s hand double for all your sins! 

Satan says it isn’t so, that God really can’t view it that way. The world would say some sins are worse than others and have us believe we are not pardoned. But Satan is the father of lies. There is nothing left to pay as the One who comes, Jesus the Christ is as John proclaimed, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and the One who declared of sin and death upon the cross, it is finished. Beloved in Christ, Comfort, comfort be to you! Breathe deeply and easily! 

For you see it is only the purity of Christ’s service to us that gives us boldness to pray as we do every year in the Collect prayer and once again this Advent, Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only begotten Son that we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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