Put yourself in the shoes of John the Baptist. He is in prison, and not because he stole or had too many unpaid parking tickets. He is in prison at the order of the king, whose adultery John had the guts to call out. Now an enemy of the royal family, John waits. He knew that what was coming next was his head on a silver platter, presented to the king, his new wife, and her wicked mother. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
John the Baptizer sticks out, both in his generation and ours. He looked strange, ate odd foods, and did unusual things. He preached and baptized by the polluted river, and called people to repentance. He didn’t filter things and speak in nice ways. No one was off limits. He condemned all sinners equally. Most famously, St. Luke records that in one sermon he calls everyone a brood of vipers. We may say pious things to the contrary, but if John was the Pastor of any congregation today, he’d be run out of the church before he could unpack a single box. He would be sat down by boards or district leaders and told that this isn’t how you run a successful ministry. Preaching sermons like that isn’t how you win people for the Gospel. But John wasn’t sent to be successful in worldly standards. He wasn’t sent to be charming and soft. He was sent to be faithful, to preach the message that was necessary, not the one that people wanted to hear.
We talk a lot about John the Baptizer being the Advent preacher par excellence because he unwaveringly preaches the message of Advent: repent. John is the last and greatest of the Prophets, the one who gets to truly prepare the way for the Messiah, because he is the Messiah’s contemporary. He was no longer prophesying a far-off person, someone yet to come. As we will hear next week, John is the most blessed of the Prophets because he gets to see, hear, and touch the one of whom his brothers could only dream. He gets to point with dripping finger to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But interestingly enough, the first time the Lectionary introduces us to John the Baptizer he is in prison, near the end of his earthly life. Even in prison John does his prophetic work. Like a light hidden will find any crack it can through which is can shine, prison cannot silence John, nor can the sword of his murderers or the platter on which his head will be delivered to Herod. John the Baptizer is proof to all of us that we can rejoice in the Lord always, even when “always” means oppression and death and everything else that threatens to undo us.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.