Preaching of John the Baptist, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved December 3, 2022]. Original source: image donated by Jim Womack and Anne Richardson.

RCL Year A, Advent 2
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7 and 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Saint Matthew 3:1-12

Saint John the Baptist takes center stage on the Second and Third Sundays in Advent. No one upstages him. No one subordinates him on those two Sundays though in taking center stage, he subordinates himself to Jesus. He prepares first-century Judeans and us to meet Jesus. His message is essential to an understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. We could hardly prepare for Jesus’ birth or his Apocalypse without his guidance.

The first words out of his mouth in today’s Gospel are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1] They may be his most important words.

Those words make it clear that we need to repent to approach the kingdom of heaven or Jesus himself. I am not sure we would know this if he did not tell us. But he does tell us. He is saying that the kingdom of heaven is within reach; it is not remote or far away. We can become part of the kingdom, we can touch heaven if we repent, if we change our heart and our conduct. We can belong to heaven if we exchange our rebellion from God for obedience to God. He lays all this out directly. He is not mysterious. He does not speak in riddles. He is crystal clear that belonging to the kingdom of heaven is a choice we make. It is up to us to make the first move toward God.

And John gives Judeans a concrete and specific way to make a first move toward God. He offers baptism in the river Jordan to repent by confessing their sins. And the people respond to him. They come out to him in droves. He is wildly popular. People seem to know they need to repent. People seem to know they need a Savior, someone to save them, someone who can do for them what they cannot do for themselves.

I hope that all of this is familiar territory to you. If it is not, a conversation surely is in order.

John so compellingly makes the case that human beings need a Savior, a Redeemer, that many Pharisees and Sadducees come to him for his baptism of repentance. When the Person comes who is not merely a messenger, the Person who is indeed the Savior and Redeemer of the world, the Pharisees and Sadducees will oppose him. They will execute him, thinking that execution will put a stop to him. But they will be wrong. They will be sadly mistaken.

Advent, the entire Church Year, indeed, all our lives, all these things are given to us so that we may not make the same sad mistake. John strikingly and stridently clarifies what the choice is. The time we have, the time of this present moment, is time we have been given to choose. We can choose to be part of the kingdom of heaven. Why ever would anyone fail to make that choice? Choosing wisely opens to us an unseen world of glory, delight, and love, a world surpassing human thought, a world proclaimed by John and delivered by Jesus.

[1] Saint Matthew 3:2.