Fleeing the Wrath

Good historian that he is, Saint Luke tells us exactly when word of the Messiah’s advent came to John in the wilderness (Luke 3:1). It was the fifteenth year of the principate of the Emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, son of Nero, or perhaps twenty-eight years after the birth at Bethlehem of Jesus. Palestine was divided into small geographical units, tetrarchies (conventionally fourths), with the tetrarchy of Galilee governed by Herod Antipas and that of Ituraea governed by his brother Philip. And their names go far in describing the world to which John the Baptist was sent. The Emperor Tiberius, after a brilliant but brief military career and an administration marred by over-zealous persecution of his enemies for treason or dishonoring his name, was about to descend into the madness that marred the last six years of his life. Whether or to what degree he was or was not responsible for rendering Capri synonymous with unexampled sensuality is debated by historians. Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee, was the tool of his niece Herodias, whose daughter would dance in exchange for the head of John, and on whose advice Herod dared to petition the Emperor Gaius for the title king, only to be deposed by his nephew Agrippa. Caiaphas, who three years later would know who Jesus was but who gave prophetic assent that “one man should die for the people,” was then high priest (John 18:14).

In the fifteenth year of Tiberias judgment was about to come upon this world of ambition, violence, and cunning, announced by an obscure prophet who in his desire to be pleasing to God had gone into the wilderness, to us a place of desolation but in the Bible the place in which God was to be found. It was the days of their wilderness wandering that God remembered Israel’s fidelity (Hosea 1:14–15). It was in the wilderness that God gave a place of protection to the woman crowned with twelve stars and clothed with the sun (Revelation 12:1). It was in the wilderness that Jesus won the victory over Satan (Maatthew 4:1–11), and it was to the desert that some of His most zealous followers would return, laying the foundation of Christian monasticism. The city’s walls, real or imaginal, shout its claim to have successfully established the dominion of man, which is why John the Forerunner was to join those who seek God’s voice in the wilderness. Communities such as the one supposed to have collected the library found at Qumran, communities like the Essenes, all movements offering ritual washing and teaching asceticism, dotted the Judean wilderness, each populated by those in flight from the city. Our Lord weeps over Jerusalem, for he knows that unless it is incorporated in that new city that comes down out of God from heaven (Revelation 21:2), its destiny is the destruction described in the Apocalypse, when merchants and ship-owners cast dust on their heads and mourn the great city that has been laid waste in one hour (Revelation 19:19).

There would be prophets and prophecy in the Church (Acts 21:10–11; I Corinthians 14:1), men no less filled with the Spirit than Isaiah and Jeremiah, and in the early church the Holy Spirit would be called the Prophetic Spirit (Revelation 19:10), but John brought the work of Old Testament prophets to its perfection. The work of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, of every prophet, had been to preach repentance and to announce the coming of the day of God, the coming of the Messiah, and the establishing of His Kingdom. They had done so because the word of the Lord had come to them as it had come to John. John’s words are those of the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.… All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:4–6, Isaiah 40:3–5). The world into which John spoke the Word of the Lord was ripe with expectations that had brought into focus the necessity for conversion of heart. Although there were still those who expected the Messiah to appear as a king among kings, the political solution, the rebellion of the Maccabees, Mattathias and his sons, against Syria in 163 and the ensuing century of rule by the Hasmonean house had ended in subjection to the Romans. On a deeper level the centuries before Christ were marked by an awareness of fragility of all things human and an apprehension that judgment was imminent. It is in this period, in a literature that is partly canonical, as in Daniel, and partly neglected because it was never included in the Hebrew canon, books like Enoch, that belief in the immortality of the soul, the glory of eternal life in the Kingdom of God, the inevitability of judgment, themes always foreshadowed and sometimes taught in the Old Testament, became focused and insistent by contemporary apocalyptic literature, raising the stakes as it were in the matter of being human. This literature of fervent expectation and longed-for holiness, as it was located in the imagination of Judea, was the background for John’s mission. Ultimately John’s work was to announce the coming of the Messiah, but first he would preach repentance in the face of the coming judgment. John’s baptism would be with water, not with the Holy Spirit as would the regenerating baptism of Jesus, but as a sign of a desire for a purified life.

The religious climate made his mission fruitful, for multitudes came out to be baptized by John. These he greeted with a stark realism that discomfits modern sensibilities, naming them a generation of vipers, and asking, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” reminding them that their claim as children of Abraham would have no weight on the Day of God, for God could raise up children to Abraham from the very stones (Luke 3:7–9).

If God is good to us on this Sunday in Advent we will see that we stand in the place of those to whom John addressed these hard words. They were probably not exceptionally blackened sinners, certainly not moral giants, just ordinary folk whose motive may have been no higher than concern for their own skins. But they had the sense and perhaps the grace to see that there was something that needed to be done for their souls, something they somehow doubted the sacrifice of the Temple could make right, something the proposed insurrection of the Zealots could not accomplish, some gift that the learning of the Pharisees could not grant. They sought the new heart for which repentance prepares the ground.

One of the Beatitudes called blessed those who mourn and promises that they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4). The more obvious reference is to those suffering loss, but in its deeper meaning the text is also calling blessed those who mourn their sins and negligencies. We may think John’s words to the multitude who came out to seek baptism at his hands in the wilderness very hard. In fact every human generation in its natural alienation from God, in its neglect of the worship which is his in right and justice, knowingly or unknowingly, without the grace of God, is drawn into blind alliance with the Serpent. Those are blessed whose hearts God has touched with the ability to see the dangers of the human condition when confronted with so deceptive, so alluring, so powerful an Enemy, to mourn and to repent, the one condition for escaping the wrath that is to come upon those who have forgotten God.