In our household, our children participate in the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. To help them learn about Advent, we use a simple song (to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”) in our weekly litanies. It begins: “Advent is a time to wait….” My three-year-old daughter, whenever we bring up this theme, has developed the habit of responding, “But I don’t like to wait.” She is right (about herself and all of us). Waiting is hard, which is why our journey through Advent is so important.
The anticipation that is characteristic of Advent continues this week as we are introduced, not to the Lord, but to one who precedes him – John the Baptist. We will even have to wait to say everything about him because next week, the lectionary will focus on his activity by the banks of the Jordan. Here, though, we are confronted with John and his prophetic mission.
In language that is at once familiar and strange, we meet the one that Malachi calls “my messenger” who will “prepare the way” for the Lord’s coming (Malachi 3:1). The Lukan song that replaces the psalm this week (known as the “Benedictus”) echoes this declaration, though it is directed specifically toward John by his father Zechariah: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76). Our epistle reading is from the thanksgiving of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, looking forward to being pure and blameless at the coming “day of Christ” (Philippians 1:6, 10). And Luke 3 begins that gospel’s description of the Baptizer in the wilderness.
When read together, these texts underscore the nature of the third gospel. Luke is often described as a gospel that is aimed at the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s purposes. This is certainly true, but the evangelist does not accomplish this task by breaking from the covenant with Israel. In fact, Luke does this by going deeper into that covenant. Zechariah, who speaks as a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:67), declares God’s faithfulness to Abraham (1:73) and to David (1:69).
Moreover, we find John the Baptist out in the wilderness proclaiming the way of the Lord. Luke, more than Matthew and Mark, link this mission to Isaiah 40, a post-exilic text that Richard Hays notes for “its visionary hope for a new exodus that will ultimately restore and bless Israel while also drawing all nations to acknowledge the universal sovereignty of Israel’s God” (Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 273). Clearly, Jesus’ mission, which John precedes and announces, emerges from the soil of God’s covenant with Israel. The Gentiles are caught up in a story of what God has been doing all the way back with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David.
Even before we actually hear John’s words to the crowds in the wilderness, we are told that his task is not simply that of a herald of good news. His message – no doubt one of grace – will disturb before it consoles; it will offend before it redeems. Indeed, Malachi describes the messenger’s coming as marking a time of refinement and purification, removing the imperfections until only righteousness remains (Malachi 3:3).
Consequently, when we meet Christ’s forerunner, he is preaching about repentance and forgiveness, baptizing people to cleanse them of their sins in preparation for the Lord’s coming (Luke 3:3). Once relieved of the burdens of their transgressions, their new-found freedom is directed toward a new end: serving God “without fear, in holiness and righteousness” (Luke 1:74-75). The interplay between the freedom from sin and the freedom for service to God is often lost in our contemporary rhetoric concerning freedom, where liberty only ever means uninhibited choice.
Oftentimes, our journey through Advent is in stark contrast with the world around us. We await the birth of a baby in humble circumstances, yet all we see in the news and current events is anger, animosity, violence, and exploitation. These Advent texts speak to that reality as well, revealing that John’s arrival was not a purely spiritual matter detached from his own setting. Luke’s opening description reminds us that John’s work is happening in the shadow of the powers that claim authority: Rome, the Herods (3:1), and the Temple class (3:2). The Benedictus proclaims that God will rescue Israel from their enemies (Luke 1:71, 74). John, then, as Malachi’s “messenger of the covenant,” heralds the downfall of these regimes (and ours) and a return to a distinct form of life marked by holiness and righteousness.
Similarly, the theme of this week of Advent is peace, which seems appropriate in light of this background. We see that the announcement of the Baptizer’s entrance into Luke’s story extends the salvation of God to “all flesh.” While it is true that this highlights the fact that salvation is for Gentiles and Jews, it might also signal that the reconciliation found in the life of Christ (or what Philippians 1:5 calls a “sharing in the gospel”) has to do with more than human beings. Instead, it encompasses all of God’s good creation, covering it all with the hope of peace.
This peace, though, is not secured by superior might. Instead, God’s provision to “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79) comes through forgiveness rather than power (Luke 1:77). John’s message challenges the powers that threaten peace, precisely by proclaiming it in the wilderness and not within a significant hall of power. Therefore, as we wait for Christ’s coming, may we hear John’s voice anew, calling us to go to the wilderness and eagerly anticipate the completion of the good work that has begun within the people of God (Philippians 1:6). In this manner, we can prepare for the return of Christ and truly share the gospel with all flesh.