After repentance come love and inclusion

Liz Stuart, 4 December 2022

Isaiah 11: 1–10; Matthew 3: 1–12

It must be hard to be close to but not be ‘the one’, like Prince Harry to Prince William. It must be particularly difficult when other people think you should be ‘the one’, like Gordon Brown when Tony Blair was prime minister. You must see life in a particular and not necessarily realistic or balanced way.

John the Baptist comes across as a bit eccentric, and I wonder if knowing that he was the forerunner but not ‘the one’ had an impact on him. He appears literally out of nowhere in Matthew’s gospel with no introduction, dressed like an ancient prophet, living in the wilderness off unprocessed food– locusts and wild honey – and baptising in the River Jordan.

Now, as I think I have mentioned before, I have baptised someone in the River Jordan, and it was not a pleasant experience. It was cold, dirty and something was nibbling my toes throughout. Apparently, in John’s day it was much worse than that. The river was basically silt. You would not have come up from a baptism in that river all clean and fresh as from a bath; you would have looked more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the 1954 film, in need of a shower. So, John’s baptism could not have been about purification, and he never claims it is. It is about repentance. So, what was he doing?

The River Jordan was the boundary of what we call the Holy Land. In the book of Joshua, the crossing of the river marked the moment at which Israel took possession of the land that God had promised them. As the Ark of the Covenant was taken across the river, it parted so the people could cross.

John may have been calling the people of Jerusalem and Judea out to the River Jordan to mark a symbolic exodus, a symbolic crossing of the river to meet their God again in the person of him who is ‘the one’, Jesus. John can’t part the waters, but he can plunge people in. He can call them out to meet their God in the one he has sent.

John may have been calling the people of Jerusalem and Judea out to the River Jordan to mark a symbolic exodus to meet their God again in the person of him who is ‘the one’, Jesus.

What John expected from that person was judgement and wrath. His language is fiery. It is easy in the wilderness, cut off from other people and the nuance that comes from being close to people, to see things in black and white, to go to extremes, to think that you can see clearly what God is up to.

If John understood himself as a prophet, even perhaps as Elijah, who Malachi said God would send before the ‘great and dreadful day of the Lord’, he may well have concluded that his job was to preach repentance against coming judgement and destruction, because that is what a lot of the ancient prophets did. In our first reading today, Isaiah foretells that before the time comes when the wolf will lie with the lamb, the shoot of Jesse will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and the slay the wicked with his breath.

So John must have been perplexed by what arrived: a man very much like himself, who rather than bringing judgement, embraces the exodus of repentance and asks to be baptised himself. And when he is, it is not the Jordan that parts but heaven itself, and what descends is not fire but a dove.

What does all this mean for us? Well, first, repentance can involve going out in order to come back in again in a different frame of mind. We sometimes need to leave where we are and go somewhere else to meet our God again afresh. This is why lots of people go on retreats or pilgrimages; but I find that going for a walk in the countryside or reading something that challenges me or being part of a discussion group works just as well. The key thing is to leave the familiar and comfortable for a bit. Advent is a good time to do this, to prepare for the coming of our Lord, by going out and coming back in again.

Second, John was so like Jesus in so many ways, he even ended up sacrificing his life for his mission. But his preaching of the kingdom was very different. You can’t imagine John the Baptist having dinner with those he has just addressed as ‘viper’s brood’, even if the main course was locusts! For John, the kingdom is about repentance, wrath and judgement; for Jesus it is about repentance, love and inclusion. John comes storming in; Jesus gets baptised standing in solidarity with all sinners.

We are called to follow Jesus not John the Baptist, and yet we Christians often give off more of a John than a Jesus vibe. In Advent we remind ourselves of who we are called to follow. In the wilderness we meet two figures and we are asked to follow the one whose ways are ways of gentleness and whose paths are always peace.