Standing at the Precipice (Second Sunday of Advent)

“Whether we have started with all on our lists or are prepared for the company on its way, Advent reminds us that Christmas will come. Christmas will come because Christ has come, because Christ is coming. What kind of reception will we offer when he breaks in?” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” -Matthew 11:11

“John said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” -Luke 3:7–9

If you look at both Catholic and Protestant liturgical readings — that is, the pre-assigned sections of Scripture to be considered during respective Sunday services — you’ll notice a lot of John the Baptist throughout the season of Advent. That’s all well and good when it’s the John who leaps in Elizabeth’s womb upon her benediction of Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:44). Unfortunately, that’s not the John often given in these Advent readings. Instead, we get the John screaming “brood of vipers!” to those he was about to baptize. Doesn’t exactly ring with “Christmas cheer.”

John the Baptist has always facinated me, and far beyond his aesthetic preferences (Matthew 3:4, Mark 1:6). It was his message of “decreasing” so that Jesus “might increase” (John 3:30) that has always enraptured me and, in fact, set the direction for my next book. This message is both provocative and intriguing. Amidst the Baptizer’s strange practices and shocking words, Jesus claims that there was “no one greater” than John. That’s quite the endorsement.

Many well-meaning interpreters see this greatness in light of his Elijah-ness. That is, because of Jesus’ interpretation of his life, that John was Elijah — or, more theologically accurate, John was in Elijah’s office — he is the greatest born of a woman (Matthew 11:11). But James and John the Baptist seem to discount this. In fact, John himself was never comfortable with the comparison to Elijah (he denies the connection plainly in John 1:21, and if you’re interested, I’ve dealt with the differing views on this in a previous post). Secondly, James, the brother of Jesus, writes that Elijah was “a man with a nature like ours” (James 5:17). Neither of them are any more special than anyone else, it seems.

If it wasn’t necessarily his Elijah-ness, what made John the Baptist great? In his previously controversial commentary on Matthew, Robert H. Gundry hits on the interpretive key of chapter 11, verse 11. Here’s the verse again:

“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” -Matthew 11:11

Gundry argues Jesus is using a rhetorical strategy that we will certainly miss if we stop reading midway through the verse. The truth about this verse is shocking when read carefully: Jesus is actually not calling John the Baptist the greatest human to ever live. He’s calling him the least greatest human to ever live. Notice: “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

In Jesus’ ranking of the kingdom — and he does have ranks — he estimates that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist, and therefore, that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is far ahead of John’s position in Christ’s good goverment.

Why?

Jesus alludes to the sad reality in the next verse: John the Baptist came to prepare the way for a kingdom he would never see himself, this side of eternity. The New Living Translation might be clearest:

“12 And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it. 13 For before John came, all the prophets and the law of Moses looked forward to this present time” -Matthew 11:12–13

John was the last prophet of a particular age. He was in the company of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and yes, even Elijah. While written about in the New Testament, he is a character of the Old. All these prophets (including John) played the role of announcing a coming administration they would never fully see. John just got the last glimpse of the old age as it turned anew. Don’t get me wrong, John was truly great, but he was great for the time in which he lived.

Depending on how you look at it, the Baptizer was either the first in Christ’s kingdom age or the last of the age before. I like to say that he stood at the precipice of the kingdom, in a place no one else was able to stand, looking over into the new age, calling people to repentance as Jesus ushered it all in. Perhaps, as some have argued, he was both — a bridge of sorts between two ages. Being the prophet he was, he had one fate: assasination. And his fate was met at a young age (Matthew 14).

What do we learn from all of this? Does it matter?

First, preparation and anticipation is an essential role of the people of God, no matter the age we are in. As John the Baptist and the prophets before him, the church today prepares the way for the full arrival of the kingdom of God at the return of Christ. We decrease, like John the Baptist, in order to increase the fame and reknown of Jesus Christ, the one who will come again to rule the earth. We, like John, stand at the precipice of another coming age, “When he shall come with trumpet sound” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

This has long been confessed by the church, but rarely spoken about in the right way. As the church, we too must be willing to be “last” during this age as the next age comes. We, like John, may lay our lives down for a kingdom we may never see this side of eternity. Advent is a season of readiness, of preparation, asking us, “are we prepared to lay our lives down for that which we will not see right away?” Are we prepared to meet the fate of John the Baptist?

Secondly, greatness must be reinterpreted in this age. To Jesus, greatness is a man screaming “Repent!” in the wilderness as the powers-that-be hunt him down for assasination. Greatness is a death, a low position, a humble estate, a lonely voice in the desert. Greatness is servanthood. The only way the church shows the greatness of Jesus is by the laying down of its life for the sake of others. A great church is a suffering church, sometimes a lonely one that never wavers from its essential message, the gospel. Only when our suffering “fills up what is lacking” will we see our purposes anew (Colossians 1:24, 2 Timothy 1:8, 2:10). The Church will look foolish, depleated, unremarkable, and ineffective as people decry its “death” in society. Then and only then will its greatness be truly seen (1 Peter 3:13–22, 2 Timothy 4:6–8).

Ultimately, John’s message is one for the church: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” And yet, one must not forget the prerequisite for bearing fruit is being buried and broken. If the church desires not to be “cut off” at the roots, but instead to bear the kind of fruit that will last for eternity, she must first die in her soil and bury deep roots in preparation for the coming of Christ.

Everywhere the church is currently thriving was, at one point, dying. China, the Middle East, Africa, the Philippines, Korea, and most of Western Europe all tell the same story: once dead, it came to life and is bearing much fruit. In the community of resurrection, there is no other way.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” — John 12:24

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Chris Nye

Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books