Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Third Sunday in Advent, Part I

Of all the praiseworthy characters of the Bible, the one whose company we would enjoy least is St John Baptist. He is not the sort of person we would wish to have as a dinner guest or as a fellow traveler on a cruise. But he is the saint who features prominently in the liturgy of the last two Sundays of Advent. And if the Baptist does not appeal to us, our Lord paid him the highest of all possible compliments: “Truly I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11).

John was great because he was the last in the long succession of Old Testament prophets “which have been since the world began.” But John was the only one to see Jesus Himself. The Son of God was seen by Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and all the rest in a visionary way. John was privileged to see Him in the flesh.

John's prophetic ministry was threefold, as it related to (1) Jesus Himself, (2) Herod Antipas, and (3) the chosen people Israel living in A.D. 27—30. As far as Jesus is concerned, it was John's privilege to baptize Him and to announce Him publicly. “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world .... He must increase and I must decrease.”

As for Herod Antipas (son of the Herod who tried to murder the Christ Child), John's preaching was distinctly controversial and provocative. John publicly denounced this Herod for his immoral life—casting aside one wife to marry another who was the wife of his brother. For that sermon, John lost his life, and probably most Christians today would be in firm agreement with the Herod family that preachers should not meddle into such things. And if we and Herod are in agreement, we must be in disagreement with Jesus.

But John's sternest words were directed to the huge multitude which went out to hear him preaching on the banks of the Jordan. “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?......Now is the axe laid to the root of the trees.” The expression “generation of vipers” is probably an allusion to the “seed of the serpent” in Genesis 3:15, the reprobate race perpetually at enmity with the “Seed of the Woman.” So the last great voice of Old Testament prophecy echoes the earliest expression of the Gospel, the Protevangelium.

In addition to pointing out the actual presence of the Messiah, John preached the necessity for repentance, the moral house-cleaning which is imperative as the Lord approaches. As we contemplate John in the Advent liturgy, we face the question: What would John have to say to us?

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