John the Baptist
By Linda Rex
JOY—Who is Jesus to you? At this time of year, we often focus on an infant, born in Bethlehem, who was placed in a manger. The Christmas story can seem like a sentimental fairy tale which really has no application to real life. How is does any of this apply to those of us who are struggling to find the strength to go through another day, to keep from drowning in sorrow and grief?
This sweet child in reality came into a world under Roman rule which was plagued by unrest and discontent. Jesus Christ was born in a Jewish culture which over the years had mixed with Greek Hellenism, and had substituted a historical religious faith with one based on political expediency, money and power, and faithfulness to a human standard and the seeking approval and applause of others.
The circumstances of this infant’s birth illustrate the difficulties which arise when a couple struggles to obey God’s call upon their lives while living in the midst of an often violent and officially pagan culture. It seems that often their obedience to God was intertwined with their necessary obedience to the government. Joseph found he had to go to Bethlehem, to the region of his forefathers, because of a Roman census. But in doing so, he fulfilled the prophetic word about the Messiah. The family was told they needed to flee the wrath of the king and go to Egypt, and it turns out this was prophetically exactly where they needed to be to fulfill Scripture.
We are often so immersed in our culture, our circumstances, and our experiences, that we can easily believe God is uninterested, uninvolved, and indifferent to our struggles and suffering. We feel as though we ourselves cannot change anything, or that we must bring about change.
In reality, God is the one who must bring about real, lasting change. We forget that whatever we do if it is not founded in God himself, has no enduring value. What this means is that all which God created from nothing was going to return to nothing apart from the entrance of God himself into creation to redeem, restore, and renew it.
God worked even from before the beginning of this cosmos to ensure that what he made would endure and fulfill the purposes for which it was created. This meant orchestrating different events, working with and through different people and patiently enduring their failures, stubborn willfulness, and disobedience. And then, when the time was exactly right, when all was prepared, when the world and the Jewish people were prepared to give birth to the Messiah, the Word took on our human flesh.
The human story is one filled with struggle, pain, suffering, and death. But it is also filled with joy—joy in the midst of sorrow, grief, and dark nights. There is great joy expressed in the Scriptures by those who experience God intervening in their difficult circumstances and saving them in impossible situations. It seems that in reality, our Lord is a victorious warrior who loves to rejoice over us as we experience his love and grace in the midst of our darkness, hopelessness, and despair.
On that dark night when Jesus was born, the shepherds saw and heard the angels share the wonder and joy of God over his Son’s birth. Our heavenly Father had waited and prepared for a long time for this special event—it was a wonderful, joyous occasion which he knew would change things forever. He knew that in giving his one unique Son, he would in time have many other adopted sons and daughters as his beloved children. And this would bring him even greater joy.
Advent is a great opportunity to reflect on our need to wait on God—to learn to wait as God waits. We wait, not apathetically, but intentionally, working to prepare the ground for the planting of the Word of God. John the Baptist came to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah. He had a significant role, for he was to testify that this person who he baptized and who received the Holy Spirit in a special way was indeed the Messiah.
His words seem harsh to us—he was critical of the religious and civic leaders, and called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. But he never pointed to himself—he always pointed away—to the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus would transform our humanity in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and would send the Spirit so that each and every person could participate in that true renewal and transformation he had forged for them.
Today we wait for the return of Christ, the second Advent, in the same way. We prepare our hearts and our lives by removing the weeds of sin, self, and Satan through repentance and allow the seed of God’s Word to penetrate into the core of our being. We receive the gift of God’s indwelling Christ, the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, and we walk in the Spirit day by day. We daily testify to the truth of who Jesus Christ is—our Savior and Messiah, the Redeemer, the One who baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire.
We testify to the reality that Jesus Christ, beyond his entrance into this world as a tiny infant, is our divine warrior who went into battle on our behalf. He left behind all the glories and privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity. And he fought in hand-to-hand combat against sin, evil, Satan, and even death. His weapons of warfare involved submission, humility, and simplicity, and the ultimate weapon—death and resurrection. And he won. He rose victorious, ascending to his Father, carrying all of humanity into his Abba’s presence.
What Advent and the birth of Jesus mean for us today is that in the midst of darkness, loss, sin, evil, and even death, we can have joy, real deep joy. This joy reaches beyond our human experiences into the true spiritual realities where we are held in Christ in the presence of Abba by the Spirit. There is hope, peace, joy, and love in the presence of Abba, and it is all ours—we are fully victorious in Jesus Christ. Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God in Christ. We, even on a dark and gloomy night, can gaze upon the face of the divine Son and rejoice, because he is a victorious warrior!
Thank you, Abba, for the precious gift of your Son. Thank you for not leaving us in our darkness, pain, and sorrow, but for lifting us up and giving us the victory over evil, sin, Satan, and death in Jesus. Holy Spirit, bring us close and enable us to see clearly the face of the Father in the face of his Son, so that we can fully participate in the divine love and life Jesus has created for us. Abba, fill our hearts overflowing with your joy, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” Zeph. 3:17 NASB
A video of this blog may be accessed here.
By Linda Rex
Now that I actually do have cable TV in my house, the other day I was flipping through channels futilely trying to find something I wanted to watch. I happened upon a preacher and his wife who were diligently informing their listeners of the imminence of Jesus’ coming and they pointed to several current events, including the current cycle of “blood moons” as proof of their prediction.
Naturally I flashed back to my earlier years which were filled with “World Tomorrow” broadcasts and sermons about the tribulation coming soon! At that point, my finger hit the up key and I was looking at the next crazy option on the menu (which wasn’t much better).
Later this week I was talking with a sincere, Bible-believing Christian who is on fire for Jesus, and I found myself once again in that place. The end is near! We’ve got to get ready! We must be prepared or we won’t escape disaster! We’ve got to do something now!
Now, I respect these people’s desire to love and serve God, and their sincere belief that Christ is coming soon and that they’ve got to get everyone ready so they don’t miss out. But I am just as concerned that they do not realize how much they are like the Jews of Jesus’ day who expectantly waited for a messiah to come and rescue them from their oppressors and restore to them their kingdom. They so anticipated a conquering deliverer and majestic savior that they didn’t recognize Jesus when he did come.
Sure, John was down at the river baptizing everyone and telling them to get their act together in preparation for his coming. But even he became so unsure of Jesus that after a while he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matt. 11:3).
John the Baptizer, whom Jesus described as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming and was the Elijah to come, (Luke 1:17, 76) had forgotten the lesson of Elijah: God doesn’t always speak to us or rescue us in big and powerful ways. No, he prefers the opposite. Thomas F. Torrance describes it eloquently, I believe:
Recall the contrast between Elijah on Mount Carmel and Elijah under the juniper tree, dejected and dispirited because the events of history after Mount Carmel have not taken the course he had hoped. God had certainly vindicated Elijah’s faith, and the prophets of Baal had been overthrown, but the tyrant forces of evil were still in control defying God’s sovereignty. Then Elijah is taught a supreme lesson on Mount Horeb. He is shown a terrific display of violence in wind, earthquake and fire, but God was not in the wind, or earthquake or fire. After the fire there came a still small voice and immediately Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle: that was the violence of God. It is still the same story with John the Baptist. He expected the events of history after the baptism of Jesus to take quite a different course. He expected as Messiah a mighty deliverer coming in judgement and bringing upheaval and violence, who would redeem Israel from the New Testament Ahab and Jezebel, Herod and Herodias, and restore to God his sovereignty over his people. But instead of all that, he saw the meek and mild Jesus, preaching the gospel of grace and forgiveness to the poor and needy, and healing the sick…Like Elijah, John had misunderstood the violence of God and was offended at the weakness of Jesus, but in Jesus the still small voice of God had become flesh, and that was more powerful than all the imaginable forces of nature put together and unleashed in their fury….
Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgment: on the contrary he continued it, and … he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgment….In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgment on evil simply by smiting it violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into it from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his very intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its incredible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin.1
I do realize that the creeds tell us that one day Jesus Christ will return in power and glory. And on that day we will become most truly who we are in him and will shine like the sun. But I think we need to reconsider exactly what Jesus is going to do when he comes.
Will he start striking down all the evil people and evil governments? Will he start killing people right and left? Too often this has been the description I have heard of what Jesus is going to do when he returns.
Wouldn’t a greater, more violent attack upon evil be to just make it irrelevant? To so fill the world and universe with light and goodness that darkness has nowhere to go except away? To so expose the reality of human hearts that they can no longer pretend or hide behind apparent goodness and kindness but by God’s grace become what they truly always were meant to be?
Yes, I wonder.
I think that it is interesting how through the centuries since Jesus died and was resurrected we have continued to see Torrance’s “inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil.” Even though Jesus is present in the world today by the Holy Spirit, we still see the forces of evil and humanity defying the sovereignty of God.
But at the same time, we witness daily, if we look closely, “the meek and mild Jesus, preaching the gospel of grace and forgiveness to the poor and needy, and healing the sick.” When we actively participate in the ministry Jesus is doing in the world, even now we participate in the kingdom of God. As we actively participate in what God in Jesus through the Spirit is doing and we actually live in relationship with God in Christ led by and filled with the Spirit of God moment by moment, the tyranny of evil and inhumanity of man is being violently overthrown in our hearts and lives and in the hearts and the lives of others every day.
It is in this divine ministry through human instruments that once again we see and experience the “violence” of God at work in our world. And all of this is in anticipation of the fullness of his kingdom at Jesus’ return in glory. In my view, this is what we need to be focusing on.
Dear Jesus, please give us eyes to see and ears to hear who you really are! Father, please take away all that blinds us to your great love for us. Thank you for allowing us to participate each day in your violent work of redemption. Let all we think, say and do be a pure reflection of your light in Jesus by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’” Matthew 11:2–3
1. Torrance, Thomas F., “Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ”, Walker, Robert T. ed. Downer’s Grove, IL (InterVarsity Press, 2008). Pages 149-150.