This Sunday we remember the Prophets, and the thing about John the Baptist is that there hasn’t been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. The passage is full of symbolism, a lot of which we won’t naturally understand
He (mis)quotes Isaiah: A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
In pre Roman times most roads were not made up – the only roads that were made up were for the King to use – so the passage is equating the Lord with the King – the Messiah.
At the heart of the passage is a call to repentance, and a call to trusting in God’s grace. Jewish faith believed in repentance as the way (back) to God. There were nine norms of repentance:
- Make yourself clean
- remove evil doings from God’s sight
- Cease to do evil
- Do good
- Seek justice
- Rescue the oppressed
- Defend the orphan
- Plead for the widow
The latter three of these being a constant refrain – to care for the alien, the orphan and the widow – perhaps something to contemplate in the forthcoming election!
The condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees comes because they believe that keeping the law is what is required, and that being children of Abraham guarantees that they will be right with God – not repentance. In Aramaic the words for children and stones are similar, and so John is using word play to attack them.
Finally we come to the axe at the foot of the tree and the winnowing fork. Those of us who lean towards a loving God struggle with these images – but they only apply to those who do not repent, and repentance can happen at any time. However, I would want to argue that the sooner we repent the better – life is better lived in the light of repentance than it is otherwise and life lived without repentance is already a form of hell!
Where are you on the journey of repentance?