Hearing the Voice
Last time we noted that Advent launches a new church year. But Advent is no mere placeholder on a calendar. It’s a season of new beginnings, for which we wait expectantly. During Advent we are expectant and searching. But in a certain sense, that really should characterize our whole lives as Christians—to hope and believe that the new is coming. That stance is implied in the word “Advent,” which means “to come to.” Advent points us to the radically new that comes to meet us out of a future that has not yet arrived. It stands on the far side, ready to enter into our world and change it in ways beyond what we can even ask or imagine.
In our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Isaiah comforts the exiles with this very prospect. They are returning from Babylon to Judah. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3). With these words, the prophet alludes to the pagan processional highways in Babylon, in which the Babylonian king displayed his pomp and splendor for all to see, especially after his military victories. The prophet assures the exiles that they need not envy these impressive spectacles; for their own God is coming, and the whole world will see his glory revealed. They need only prepare the way for the arrival of their God. What else can this mean but to hear and obey the voice of the prophet, and set out in faith for their homeland, thereby showing the world that the God of Israel is Lord of the nations and the Lord of history?
This is what the prophet proclaimed to the exiles. But the world will not plumb the depths of his words until a later time, when another prophet, greater than the first, appears on the scene. “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” Only here the words are addressed first to this greater prophet, appointed for this very task. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel to send her a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. But he executes this task precisely in redirecting those words to the people who go out to hear his voice, which cries out to them in the wilderness.
We are talking about John the Baptist. Let’s consider this man. We should not underestimate his stature! He is a man who stands between two ages. He is a watershed figure. He is the hinge on which the history of God with God’s people turns. Of course, he is not this in himself, but in virtue of the special task to which God appointed him. He, this one, is appointed to go before Jesus, the Son of God, to prepare the way for him.
Because the words of the prophet are the very oracles of God, because they communicate the Word of the Lord that stands forever, they echo through the corridors of time, reaching even our ears as we stand here today. The verses invite us to accompany the people who are streaming from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside to the desert. Let’s imagine then that we are going out with them to see John. When we finally arrive, there he stands, clothed in camel’s hair, wearing a belt of leather, emaciated from a diet of whatever comes from the crevasses between the rocks. He proclaims the one message that God gave to him. All around us we see people responding to this message by confessing their sins and going forward to be baptized. We stand among them and watch. How are we going to respond?
Before we do anything, we first pause a few moments to look around us and survey our surroundings. We are in the desert. We wonder why we’ve had to make this long trek to such an inhospitable place. Couldn’t this event have been staged at a more convenient location?
But we have to realize that the desert is no arbitrary place. What we are witnessing can happen only here. The desert bears significance. The desert symbolizes the forces of chaos and danger and all that frustrates human flourishing. The Psalmist tells us about those who wandered in trackless desert wastes, lost and homeless (Psalm 107). The desert also symbolizes trial and testing. Moses instructed the people to remember how their God had led them in the desert forty years, to humble and test them in order to know what was in their hearts, whether or not they would obey him (Deuteronomy 8:2). But in disobeying God, the people failed this test. And so, the desert finally becomes a symbol of futility and death.
Let us reflect on this for a moment. The good news announced in the first verse of our gospel lesson begins in the desert—could it be that this fact tells us something important about God, about the gospel? At the very place of our lostness and homelessness, our disobedience and failure, God chooses to meet us, not to annihilate us, but to restore us. It’s as if he is telling his people here in the desert: “Let’s begin again. And this time instead of defeat, there will be victory.” Psychologists tell us that for healing from trauma to happen we have to revisit the places where we suffered the trauma. Why does God’s salvation begin in the desert? Because if there’s going to be peace on earth, if there’s going to peace in our hearts, it will have to start in those places of chaos where peace was lacking the most.
John’s voice rouses us from our reverie. Can we hear now what he is proclaiming? Does he have a word to address to us? John’s message is concentrated in the word “repent.” Our gospel lesson tells us that John preaches a baptism of “repentance” as a means to prepare the way of Jesus. But what does it mean to “repent”?
No doubt for many of us the word suggests the act of dredging up all those things in our past for which we feel guilt and shame and regret. Soul-searching, self-examination, taking personal inventory—these activities are not pleasant but painful. But, as author Meda Stamper reminds us, the biblical word “repent” means literally a change of mind. That means to make a break with the past, which did not lead to a future, so as to open oneself up to the new, which is the future that God has in store for us. The Apostle Paul spells out the meaning of repentance in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not any longer be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Then you will be able to test and discern what God has in store for you” (12:1).
With all the people, then, we too stand next to the River Jordan to confess our sins, so that we can be truly honest, totally transparent, to the one who searches our hearts and minds, to the one who wants to give us a future and a hope. Stamper tells us that because confessing our sins is at the same time to experience God’s claim on us, the act of repentance is humbling and painful at the same as it is joyous and profound.
At the River Jordan, we learn that it is a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. The biblical word “forgive” means literally “release.” It is the word found in Jesus’ inaugural address in Luke 4, in which he announces he has been sent to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free. Let’s be sure we have a good grasp of this. In forgiving us, God releases us from what binds us and sets us free. In forgiving one another, we release each other from what binds us, so that we may relate in freedom to each other.
John the Baptist takes all this very seriously. That is why he combines this message with the ritual of baptism. Today when a child is born to Christian parents, they bring it to the church to be baptized. The minister together with the members of the congregation affirm that all the promises God has made to his covenant people apply to this one too. The act of baptism is a sign and seal of these promises. Then the minister and the congregation pledge to raise the child together in this covenant community, so that the child can grow in the knowledge of these promises and embrace them for itself when it reaches an age at which it can understand them.
But as we stand here next to the River Jordan, we do not see babies presented to John for baptism. Instead there are adults who are going forward of their own volition, confessing their sins. What does baptism mean when it is received voluntarily by an adult? Does it not express at the very least a desire for a new beginning, a fresh start? In this connection, author Eugen Drewermann invites us to ask ourselves the question: “Do we have the courage to imagine how our life would look if we could begin once again from the beginning? Looking back, with the knowledge we have today, how would we live, if we could start anew?”
When I was a younger man, I had a close friend. We last saw one another 10 or 12 years ago, and then our paths diverged. Recently we reconnected on the phone. I was curious about how his life had been going since I last saw him and asked him whether he was satisfied with his career choice. He said: “Well, I bought the ticket and now I have to take the ride.” Now I’m sure most of us can relate to this feeling, at least from time to time. But if this is how things really are all the time, then John the Baptist has nothing to say to us. If this really is our settled attitude, then for us in place of the new beginning that John is proclaiming, there stands the power of resignation, the inertia of established routine, and the spirit of fear.
But there must have been something about John, about his message, that compelled the people to come out from all Judea and Jerusalem to the River Jordan. We’ve already mentioned that they came to undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But we’ve also noted that these are not ends in themselves. They make us ready and able to open up the way of Jesus into our lives, so that we can follow him into a new beginning.
John points to Jesus. It’s about him that he is speaking when he confesses that the one who comes after him is more powerful than he is. And that is saying something. Jesus himself later said that until his time no one greater than John had been born to women. But if John is not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal, how much greater is Jesus than John!
This difference between John and Jesus is expressed by John’s baptism. John baptizes with water, but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the power of God, or rather, the Spirit is the creative and generative power that is God. Only in connection with the Spirit is it really possible to talk meaningfully about new beginnings.
Is this not what Nicodemus had to learn on another occasion? When Jesus told him about a new beginning, he was incredulous. Considering his age, he faced the fact that with him this was impossible. But for Jesus neither age nor anything else is an obstacle for the Spirit, the creative power of God. “You must be born anew of water and the Spirit.”
By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus still does God’s work in us, with us, and for us. Let us hear this anew during this season of Advent. Let us move deeper into this season with this expectancy and hope. Amen.