Fleming Rutledge: John the Baptist Points to the Real Hope of Advent

It would be hard to say which is more alien to our contemporary ideas of getting ready for Christmas, the season of Advent or the figure of John the Baptist—the man who greeted the Pharisees and Sadducees by calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7, ESV throughout). How would you like to get that on a Christmas card?

This unlovable figure is very much out of sync with our times, yet he is one of the foremost figures of Advent, at least in the preaching calendar followed in my own Episcopal Church tradition. Like John the Baptist, Advent is out of phase with its time, with our time. It encroaches upon us in an uncomfortable way, making us feel somewhat uneasy with its stubborn resistance to Christmas cheer. To be sure, we have done a pretty good job of domesticating Advent, and I am by no means above this sort of thing myself. Every year, I used to buy Advent calendars for my children with cute little doors that open and show cute little pictures. I have yet to find an Advent calendar that has a picture of John the Baptist. We really don’t know exactly what to do with him; he doesn’t fit into anything.

But here he is by the river, dressed in the fashion of the wilderness and assaulting the crowds that come out to hear him: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?. . . Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:7, 10).

Jesus the Judge

In all four gospels, John the Baptist sets the tone for the proclamation of Jesus Christ. His language is apocalyptic; it signifies the arrival of God. Even if we thought we could fit the baby Jesus into our scheme of things at Christmastime, there is no way to get rid of the recalcitrant figure of John the Baptist announcing “the wrath to come.”

I have an Advent wreath in my dining room, but it does occur to me from time to time that the soft, romantic glow of candlelight fails to do justice to the conflagration announced by John the Baptist. The extremely odd thing about Advent, in spite of its reputation as a season of preparation for Christmas, is that its emphasis really does not fall on the coming of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem, but rather on the coming of Jesus as the Judge of all things at the end of time.

John does not proclaim Jesus as a captivating infant smiling benevolently at groups of assorted rustics, potentates, and farm animals. Instead, he cries out, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I. . . . His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11–12).

A characteristic liturgical petition of Advent is Maranatha—come, Lord Jesus! It is certainly not a prayer for Jesus to come again as a helpless baby; it is the longing cry of God’s people for him to return in power and glory, when “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10–11).

Why do all four Evangelists introduce their gospels with John the Baptist? What is the purpose of making everyone’s hair stand on end during Advent? It has occurred to me that the image of Jesus as the cosmic Judge who will ultimately come again to put an end to all sin and wickedness forever is not so frightening to the poor and oppressed of the earth as it is to those who have a lot to lose.

If your loved one is in the habit of buying you expensive Christmas gifts, you might not be so crazy about the idea of Jesus coming back before Santa Claus gets here. But suppose you had been a Christian in prison in the Soviet Union. Or suppose you had been a black person in Apartheid-era South Africa directed to pack up your meager belongings and take them to a so-called homeland that wasn’t your home and that wouldn’t offer you dignified employment. Suppose you were elderly and handicapped in the South Bronx and had just been robbed and terrorized for the third time. In circumstances like those, you might say Maranatha and really mean it.

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Source: Christianity Today