For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4
The voice of John the Baptist and the Gospel of Jesus sound the same basic message for the second Sunday of Advent. John‘s message is simple: we must reform our lives because the Kingdom of God is at hand! With a true sense of urgency, we should prepare ourselves to meet the Lord. And reforming our lives is the only salvific preparation for His judgment which is surely coming, for “He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.”
John himself, pure and holy as he is, adopted a severely ascetical way of life, living in the desert, wearing a camel hair garment and feeding on whatever this wild environment offered him. This greatest of the prophets is an imposing figure leading a severe way of life, and he does so to prepare himself and to encourage others to be ready to meet the Lord. And the people are drawn to him to receive his baptism of repentance.
Jesus likewise preaches this basic message of repentance, as we see at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, where, after fasting and being tempted in the desert, Jesus cries out, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” So both messages demand our repentance, John’s message to prepare for the coming of Christ, and Christ’s message to purify ourselves because the promise is now fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is upon us.
The message is the same in essence. We cannot be ready to meet the Lord, to enter His Kingdom, to be judged by Him, without reform and repentance. However, John proclaims this message within the context of the awful day of God’s wrath, God’s searing justice, while Jesus issues this same call to repentance withing the context of the arrival of the Kingdom in Jesus Himself and His offer of mercy while there is still time. The day of God’s wrath, His justice, will certainly arrive one day. But now is the time of God’s mercy. Nevertheless, God’s mercy does not eliminate God’s justice, and thus repentance and reform remain the only way to escape God’s wrath at the end of time, by taking advantage of His mercy now.
John the Baptist cannot be truly understood unless we see him as the herald of the coming of the Messiah and, in a particular way, the herald of the final judgement when God’s wrath toward all evil will separate good and evil forever. John definitely heralds the Messiah’s coming, but he does so precisely within the context of God’s awful final judgement, when John’s prophetic words will most certainly come true: His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This prophecy has its destined time of fulfillment, and its dreadful imagery reflects what will take place at the last judgement when men are separated forever: the repentant being gathered into God’s presence, and the unrepentant thrown into the unquenchable agony of hell. John was not mistaken. All this will surely happen, but not just yet.
This prophecy, when taken seriously, is certainly frightening, a true foretelling of the future. And it’s urgency explains not only why people were coming out to the desert to repent and be baptized by John, but also why John was in the desert in the first place and why he seems like such a wild figure of a man, a man who is consumed by his mission.
Most people today don’t care for intensely religious persons like John, or Jesus for that matter. A little religion is fine, many say, but one should not get fanatical about it. And John would most certainly appear as a fanatic to most people today, given his wild appearance and life style, not to mention the urgency of his message. But the same might also be said of Jesus at many points in his Gospel, that he and his message is somewhat extreme and too demanding.
For instance, there is his insistence about loving Him more than even one’s own family! And there is His fanatical teaching about forgiving and loving even one’s worst enemies. And then there is His condemnation of divorce and remarriage, insisting that those who do so are living in adultery plain and simple. Indeed Jesus several times preaches even about the reality of hell, and makes it clear that in the end some will be condemned forever to hell for their sins, because there the fire never dies; and that is just too much for many people today, including many Christians who write this off as mere hyperbole.
Nonetheless, there is a very important difference between the preaching of the herald and One he heralded. John had focused his message narrowly on the Messiah’s function, his coming as the final judge. This is to be taken seriously, but it is not the whole picture. Jesus’ Gospel was much broader, focusing much more on God’s mercy and the gracious reason for the delay in the time of final judgement. In no way is this to be understood as a denial of God’s justice or a reversal of John’s preaching denying its validity. This delay is rather to be understood as an act of God’s loving patience and generosity, a delay to give us ample time to repent, so as not to have to face that final separation from God. But whether the message was mainly justice (John) or mainly mercy (Christ) both of them ended up rejected and were branded as fanatics and out of touch, as we say today. Indeed, their common witness is proved by their common destiny in this world – both were put to death.
The truth is that we can hope to understand the herald and the One heralded only if we realize how absolutely linked their messages are. John was fasting and living this austere life in the desert because he knew that what is at stake in Christ’s coming is nothing less than eternal life or eternal damnation. It is going to be one or the other for each of us, and since that’s true, it is abundantly clear why John was so severe on himself and so unflinching in his preaching to others.
Nothing less than our eternal salvation is at stake, and there is really so little time for each of us to make the decisions that will determine where we shall stand for all eternity. So John of the Baptist is not trying simply to scare us. He is rather desperately trying to awaken everyone, to waken us all out of our indifference and casualness toward our eternal destiny. That is why he can appear so “fanatical” to those who do not take their own salvation as seriously as John, who deeply cares for their salvation.
The same is true of Jesus. He too is indeed driven by his determination that we should wake up and understand the eternal stakes involved in our life in this world. The world and the devil try endlessly to lull us to sleep precisely regarding this vital matter of our personal salvation, either by convincing us to think it really doesn’t matter because God’s mercy won’t allow anyone to perish, or by convincing us that there is no final judgment, heaven, or hell anyway. And the world lulls us to sleep by making us think we always have tomorrow to take care of such matters, but today should be devoted to things the world thinks are important. And thus we never get around to tomorrow.
But both Jesus and John know how short our time really is, and how little time there really is to convince us of this truth. If a man is in risk of sleeping through a fire, it will take a loud shout or alarm to wake him up and save his life. And so John’s voice is heard shouting out in the desert: Wake up! Prepare the way for the Lord who has come to rescue you from the wrath of God’s justice! And Jesus too cries out: Wake up! Recognize how God’s mercy has given you a gracious time for reform, and do it now while there is still time! Neither message is meant to discourage us, but rather to encourage us. Neither message is meant to frighten us, but rather to enlighten us
Now, now, is the time of salvation! This is the good news of Jesus Christ, and John as well. Hopefully, we will all respond to it with joy and with confidence, and with a sense of urgency to bring forth the good fruits which flow from genuine repentance, the fruits that prove that we have indeed become God’s true children.