Advent and the Preacher of Repentance
In an interesting twist, the Advent readings often include a selection from Matthew’s Gospel telling the story of John the Baptist. In these readings, we see that John’s fate is linked to his Lord’s. So, having heard John’s first sounding forth in the desert the radical freedom of detachment as he prepares the way of the Lord, we find him now doubly attached—in prison, yet held even more firmly by the One whom he has proclaimed (Matt. 11:2-11).
This is what happens to preachers of repentance, as Jesus points out. If nature hates a vacuum, the human heart won’t stand for anything even close. So those who call the self’s false attachments—the immortality projects, the idolatries, the myths of choice and consumption—into question generally have to pay their own bills. The quickest way to safety, back undercover, is to attack the one who has done the uncovering: the preacher gets it. The prophet has prophecy’s reward: John is in prison. Soon, his head won’t be worth any more than the passing titillations of a virgin’s immodest dance (Matt. 14).
It is no wonder John must ask, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” No matter what he may have known previously, his own future has now come into question and so have his hopes.
In Jesus’ answer, we finally get to see the real muscle of Advent: the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, the dead, the poor, those who have been the victims of this age and its dreadful powers, are restored by the One whose goal it is to reclaim the whole creation. And the victims are joined by those who have not surrendered to death and its minions, who “take no offense” at this glorious restoration.
This hope propels Advent and is the drive of the church’s witness. In Christ, God has decided that things are not going to go on like this, the rich taking it out of the backs of the poor, the strong relying on the disadvantage of the weak or impaired to perpetuate their illusions of superiority. The new age has already begun in the One who is to come, the One who has already arrived and will yet come. So, the balance will be restored: creation will become creation again, the forces of chaos being routed. The age of grace has dawned, the time in which all things will be made new.
Characteristically, however, having declared this hope, Jesus protects it from the enthusiasm that undid it in communities like Corinth. The resurrection does not annul the cross; the hope of Christ’s–the babe in the manger has come to be God hanging on a tree–ultimate victory does not immunize us against loss. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence” (v. 12): the powers of this age and those who have benefited by them are not simply going to surrender. In this age, the sign of fidelity is the cross. It takes shape in lives of hope lived in the midst of all that contradicts it. A Christian’s destiny is linked to Christ’s, just as John the Baptist’s was: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:15). There is no other way.