Preaching of John the Baptist, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved December 5, 2021].

RCL Year C, Advent 2
Baruch 5:1-9, Canticle 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Saint Luke 3:1-6

In past seasons of Advent, when John the Baptist has emerged from the wilderness and stridden around the Jordan River, I have seen him as an intrepid firebrand proclaiming in full voice uncomfortable truths to defensive yet powerful people. He has seemed empty of subtlety and diplomacy, as if he carried a big stick and used it without restraint.

That John the Baptist has a home in the Gospels, particularly in Mark, when John rebukes Herod Antipas for taking his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, and finds a firebrand’s reward, imprisonment by Herod’s order.

But another John may be glimpsed in the Gospel today. John proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”[1] No firebrand yells here; no sins shouted at their perpetrators here. John simply knows something about all human beings: we all think in our heart of hearts that we have done something wrong at some time or another. And he offers a remedy. He offers a washing away, a purification, of the wrongdoing. He offers the hope of a second or a third chance. And people flock to him in droves. He knows the people he preaches to better than they know themselves. He offers a wiping away of the worst things they think about themselves.

John offers a second chance not just to make people feel better about themselves. Today, making people feel better about themselves would be enough; a skillful demagogue could monetize this ability into millions of dollars. But John has another purpose. He wants his followers to “prepare the way of the Lord.”[2] He knows a second important thing about all human beings. A sense of having done wrong will take up space. It will tie a person up. The sense of having done wrong will prevent something better from taking its place. So, John, very perceptive, gives people a way to get rid of the things that will prevent them from accepting Jesus. Wash away your wrongdoing, he seems to say, and make some room for the Lord Jesus.

The first lesson, from Baruch, anticipates John’s particular preparation to meet the Lord: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”[3] John’s ministry is to wash away the garment of sorrow and affliction, so his followers can put on the beauty of the glory from God, the Lord Jesus himself.

John has it right. Each of us harbors and nourishes things in our heart and our memory that take up room. This is the season to take the time to wash them away, to possess our heart and memory with the good things of God. This is not an act of blindness or denial. It’s an act of putting our better foot forward. In the older words of the Canticle, it’s an act of accepting the “light” while we “sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”[4]

[1] Saint Luke 3:3.

[2] Saint Luke 3:4.

[3] Baruch 5:1.

[4] Canticle 4.