John the Baptist’s later preaching and anticipation of the coming of Messiah is the subject of the Gospel reading for this third Sunday in Advent, 2012. John the Baptist features as the forerunner in all four Gospel accounts (John 1:23-27, Mat. 3:1-3, Mark 1:1-8, Luke 3:1-6): the prophet who plays the role of Elijah and announces the coming of the Lord with the proclamation make straight a path for the Lord.
Jesus, Isaiah and Malachi speak of the forerunners: Elijah and John the Baptist
The role of John the Baptist is anticipated in the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah, whose preaching is often times messianic, has this to say about the coming of the Lord in Isaiah 40: 3-5:
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
And it is Malachi the minor prophet who attributes to Elijah to role of anticipating the coming of the Lord. To quote Malachi 4:5, Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. Matthew’s Gospel (17:10-13) completes the circle, telling us that “John the Baptist is Elijah,”
The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
Luke’s account of the ministry and preaching of John the Baptist varies slightly from the other Synoptic accounts. The Baptist’s choice of phraseology – prepare the way of the lord (Mt 3:3, Mk 1:3), and one mightier than I is coming (Mt 3:11, Mk 1:7) – is common to the Synoptics. However, in Luke’s Gospel, the Baptist takes it upon himself to give advice as to how to make a highway for the Lord. He tells the prosperous to share what they have, the tax collectors not to over-charge, and the soldiers not to grumble about their wages.
John the Baptist Heralds the Good News
When Christians speak of the Good News we can speak either of the Resurrection of Jesus, or more generally, the Gospels (which speak of the death and Resurrection of Jesus). The Gospels of Mark and Luke use the term Good News in the more general sense. Mark (verse 1:1) uses the Good News to describe his own Gospel account of the story of Jesus Christ – the great victory of Christ over death. In doing so, Mark borrows from an Imperial Roman usage of the Greek term eu-aggelion (Good News).
In Luke’s Gospel, it is John the Baptist who announces the Good News – the coming of the Messiah. John the Baptist preaches salvation and judgment. The Baptist tells us, in his own inimitable style, that the coming Messiah has taken the winnowing fan into his hand, and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Luke’s passage about John the Baptist is not the most obvious Advent reading, since the tone is somewhat eschatological. However, two factors argue in support of this reading as an Advent reading. First, it is currently year C, which obliges the editors of the Lectionary to select a passage about John the Baptist from a Lucan source. In choosing this passage for an Advent reading, the editors of the Lectionary emphasize the symmetry of the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the return of Jesus Christ. Without the Incarnation, the subsequent events are not possible. As John of Nazianzus writes of Jesus Christ and our own salvation, What has not been assumed cannot be restored; it is what is united with God that is saved.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, John the Baptist is the key Gospel figure who links together or establishes continuity between Old Testament prophecy on the one hand, and the Incarnation and the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the other.
The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.