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A prophet with a new message, but he's not the Savior

From the Lectionaries
by Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
Advent 3, Luke: 3:7-18
13 December 2009

John the Baptist headlines today’s Gospel as he did on Advent 2. But he may not be the Baptist you have come to know. Luke robs him of his scratchy clothes and his edgy diet. He has a new message though he appears as one of the old prophets. He doesn’t baptize Jesus. Though his and Jesus’ birth stories entwine, at each intersection Luke distinguishes and separates John from Jesus.

John is an old prophet with a new message. He has a prophet’s vocation, as the angel tells Zechariah, John’s father: “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:15-17).

After John’s birth, Zechariah renews his son’s identity as a prophet in the great canticle: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76-77). The word of God comes to him just as it did to the prophets (Luke 3:2).

His message is new. No one had a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. His general message to the crowds is stern: “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire: (Luke 3:9). But when they ask him questions, when they show willingness to follow his teaching, he softens it: “whoever has two coats must share,” “collect no more than the amount prescribed,” “do not extort money,” and “be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:10-14).

He is a prophet with a new message whose family and birth intersect those of Jesus. Luke demonstrates their closeness over and over again. But I notice this year that every point of comparison bears with it a mark of contrast. John and Jesus cannot be confused. Their mothers are kinsfolk. The same angel announces their births. Their messages are compatible. But in all these things a very striking point is made about John: he is not the Person who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever” and be “holy…called the Son of God” (Luke 1:33 and 35). John can be and give a pointer, but he cannot be “raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69). John is a great many things, but his is not the Savior. That “Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” is Jesus (Luke 2:11).

[The Ven. Howard Stringfellow is Archdeacon for the Diocese of Bethlehem and supply priest for Good Shepherd Scranton.]

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