Luke calls John the Baptist’s preaching good news. For many Christians, nowadays, the evangelist’s claim may not sound credible. Who really wants to hear about winnowing fans and “unquenchable fire?” Who wants to be called a vipers’ brood, or to be told: bear fruit that shows true repentance? What joy can be found in the stark choice his harsh words offer?
Yet John will not back off. And, absent hearing his word and taking it to heart, we will never truly encounter the One to come. That becomes very clear in Jesus’ ministry. When his authority is questioned in Jerusalem, his counter question demands a stand on the origin of John’s baptism, and, by extension, his preaching. And, in the shocking conclusion to Jesus’ amazing parable, a doomed rich man learns that if people do not hear Moses and the prophets, they will not believe, not even when someone rises from the dead—such as the Son of God, perhaps. Our Lord is no less radical than the prophet who heralded his appearance.
Now John’s preaching is rooted in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, which are neither obsolete nor negative books. In the Torah, we are offered the loving covenant God makes with creation and the people of Israel. In the Historical Books, we are challenged as Israel is: choose whom you will serve—today. In the Wisdom Literature, God, who fills the earth with steadfast love, shows us the true way of life we are meant to walk. In the Prophetic Writings, we hear the word of the Lord that roots up and tears down, that builds and plants. So John is in tune with “the thoughts of … [God’s] heart,” which are substantially one with those of Jesus’ heart. The Old Testament’s good news may never be ignored or caricatured.
The same goes for John’s baptism. What he brings must lead to repentance and an authentic encounter with Jesus, the coming One who will “baptize … with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Come He has; come He does; come He will to bring us into communion with the God of Israel, whose steadfast love the Old Testament shows us at work in heart of the world. Hence the prayer Jesus teaches us: “Our Father, … Your kingdom come, your will be done…” Hence the radical choice: the joyful hope we are given and await, or the despair and doom its rejection leads to. The alternatives are that clear in the Scriptures, Old and New Testaments alike.