Summary: John the Baptist appears as it were from thin air to prepare an unprepared people.
The Appearance of John the Baptist
We have new come to the second Sunday in Advent which is the first season of the Christian year. It is tie for soul searching and preparation. But instead of preparing for Christmas as many think, it is a time we prepare for the return of Christ. It is more comfortable to hold a little baby Jesus than have to face the returning Judge of the living and the dead. For all the importance of the Son of God becoming incarnate in the womb of Jesus is, this is not what Advent is. It is at Christmas we properly remember this. But Jesus is no longer a little babe in the arms of Mary. He is the one appointed King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Therefore, we must prepare for this reality.
The Gospel text we read this morning is from the Gospel of Matthew. He and John give the most extensive accounts of John the Baptist’s ministry. Mark and Luke give shorter summaries of John’s significance. How John the Baptist is introduced varies. Luke gives extensive detail of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, and the first witness of John to Jesus, leaping while he was still in the womb.
In Matthew’s account, John the Baptist just appears on the scene. There is no preparation of the reader for his appearance and ministry. He just suddenly appears. The Greek verb for “arrive” is in the present tense. What this is meant to do is to draw you into the story as if you where there when it happened. Poof! There he is. Matthew will use the same verb and tense in verse 13 to describe the appearance of Jesus.
Matthew describes this John as being in the wilderness, clothed in an animal skin and a leather belt. This immediately conjures up the image of Elijah’s clothing. Elijah had spent extensive time in the wilderness, hiding out from Ahab and Jezebel. But unlike the food which Elijah ate, which was flesh from unclean ravens, John, being a Nazarite could not eat this. Instead it says that he ate wild honey and locusts (perhaps honeycomb). The prophet Malachi prophesied the coming of Elijah who would prepare for the sudden appearance of the LORD. Jesus explicitly would make the connection between John and Elijah.
What is more important than his appearance is his message. He fulfills Isaiah 40 by preaching in the wilderness to tell Israel to make their paths straight. His message was simple: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” It was time to prepare for this reality. It was in this sense preparing for the first advent of the Messiah. Those who were not prepared would miss it. This was more than being in the right place at the right time. It was a matter of having one’s heart right before God. This message of repentance was the same that Jesus Himself would preach. It is also Peter’s response at Pentecost when the audience shaken to the heart by his sermon asks the disciples: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Of the six ABC’s of the Christian faith in Hebrews 6, repentance from dead works is the first. Preaching repentance comes first. And this should be true of our witness to Christ.
In the Hebrew sense, to repent means to turn. Hebrew theology is walled “two way” theology. Think of it as being a road with two destinations. One way goes to God and the other to hell. To repent is to acknowledge that one is going the wrong way on that road and to turn the other way. In Greek thought, repentance involves listening to the facts at hand and making the right choice. Choose the best alternative. Both of these ideas are in play here. Preaching repentance is to lay out the facts and the consequences involved and then turning to the right way.
Even though John was in the wilderness, the word got out about his preaching. The pundit would think that if one wants to be heard, they should go to Jerusalem to preach this message, In fact, in John 7, Jesus’s earthly half-brothers said as much to Jesus. They thought if He would put on his miracle show in Jerusalem rather than in the back woods of Galilee, that he would have better results. In their eyes, the Galilean ministry was a failure as his hard preaching in John 6 had alienated the crowds there. “Make a new start in Jerusalem!” But this is not how God works. He is able to draw the crowd to the prophet.
The crowds came. They came from Jerusalem proper. They came from the surrounding area of Judaea. They came from areas beyond the Jordan to hear John. The use of the Greek imperfect “were being baptized” gives us the impression of a constant stream of people coming to be baptized over a period of time. While they were being baptized, they were confessing their sins. This was the baptism of John who baptized at the Jordan River. There is a lot of symbolism here. Those who were baptized came out from Israel and passed through the Jordan back into the Promised Land. The Children of Israel had passed through the water more than 1000 years earlier, but they passed through dry. Here they were baptized in the water. They were now truly Israelites. They were physical descendants of Israel, this was true. But they were not children of the promise. God’s true Israelites are those who are specially prepared. They are transformed. This transformation begins with repentance. They confessed their sins.