St. John the Baptist prepares our way for Christmas

December 1, 2010

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St. John the Baptist is depicted with an ax at the root of the tree in St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in Duluth.

The Baptist’s featured role in Advent. St. John the Baptist plays a prominent role in the Scripture readings during the Advent season as the church prepares for the celebration of Christmas. He is not mentioned on the first and fourth Sundays of Advent, but he is a major figure on the second and third. While Jesus is always the main focus of the Gospel, during the middle of Advent, St. John the Baptist serves as the main supporting character.

Christ has come, Christ is here, Christ will come again. During Advent, the church reflects on the triple comings of Jesus: his original coming on the first Christmas, his coming today and his final coming either at the end of our lives or at the second coming. John the Baptist is the one who announced his coming. God said, “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me. Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 3:1, 23). Jesus explained that Elijah had come in the form of John the Baptist (Matthew 17:12-13). The Baptist is the precursor, the forerunner, the one who goes ahead, the herald’s voice.

A prophet like no other. John the Baptist is the intertestamental prophet, the prophet who bridges the Old and New Testaments. There are many great prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, prophets like Elijah and Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but Jesus said, “There has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). The Baptist is the greatest of the prophets for a reason. The prophets of long ago did remote preparation; the Baptist did immediate preparation. The earlier prophets announced that the Messiah was coming; the Baptist announced that the Messiah was here. When Jesus did appear, the Baptist pointed to him and identified him as such, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36).

A prophetic appearance. John the Baptist had a striking appearance. He wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist (Matthew 3:4). His unusual garb links him directly to Elijah, the only Old Testament prophet to dress in this way (2 Kings 1:8).

A prophetic message. The theme of the Baptist’s preaching was, “Reform your lives!” He challenged his  listeners to straighten out the crooked parts of their  lives, to tear down the mountains of their evil doing, and to fill in the valleys of their shortcomings. He warned them: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10), a powerful metaphor in which the tree represents the unproductive sinner and the ax represents impending judgment. Now is the time to produce good works. Act swiftly to avoid being cut down and thrown into the fire. The Baptist urged the people to confess their sins and receive a baptism of repentance. The way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is to stop sinning and live a more virtuous life.

A prophetic attitude. The Baptist avoided a great temptation. The voice of prophecy in Israel had been silent for hundreds of years, and the people went in droves out to the desert to hear him. With such a surge in popularity, he could have reveled in all of the attention, but he resisted the natural inclination to let the focus be on him. The Baptist humbly redirected the peoples’ attention from himself to Jesus:  “The one who is coming after me is mightier than I” (Matthew 3:11); “I am not fit to loosen his sandal strap” (Luke 3:16); “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20); and “He [Jesus] must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

A message ever-old and ever-new. The Baptist’s prophetic message is applicable to our spiritual preparation for Christmas. Advent is a time to prepare the way of the Lord, to clear away every obstacle that would prevent Jesus from coming to us, so that when Jesus comes to us today and on Christmas, he will have unimpeded access to our hearts. The Baptist wanted his listeners to renounce sin, be washed of their past impurities, and be in the state of grace when Jesus appeared. Likewise, if we wish to be well-prepared for the solemn feast of Christmas, we would be wise to renounce our own sins, to confess them in the sacrament of reconciliation, to be washed of our impurities through sacramental absolution, to do good works, and to be in the state of grace when Jesus comes today, on Christmas and our last day. Let us humbly keep Jesus as the main focus of Advent, Christmas and every day of our lives.

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

View all posts by Father Michael Van Sloun