John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In reflecting on this fact, two thoughts occur to me.
First, I think that there is a significant difference between God and human beings when it comes to forgiving others. It’s hard for us to both offer and receive genuine forgiveness. Our understanding of forgiveness is complicated by our own experiences. Our ability to forgive or receive forgiveness, even more so. Self-deception is a constant peril. We can manipulate others through giving or withholding absolution. On the receiving end, we can presume upon the mercy of others or take it far too lightly. Certainly, human beings understand something about of the power of forgiveness, but God’s mercy far surpasses anything we can come up with on our own. God’s forgiveness is more thorough, more genuine, more cleansing.
Second, John’s proclamation means that God has opened the door for forgiveness for all who repent. We justifiably think of John as a frightening, fire-and-brimstone preacher who presented his audience with a rather scary picture of God. God is already taking an ax to the roots of fruitless trees, John proclaimed. He’s separating the wheat from the chaff, and burning the chaff away with fire. This is hardly a new picture of Israel’s covenant Lord. The prophets of the Old Testament had similarly described the justice and judgment of God. But in his preaching of a baptism for repentance, John also proclaimed that God was ushering in a new era of forgiveness. With John’s appearance, new possibilities exist. The sinful can repent, and the penitent can be forgiven.
God was rising from his apparent slumber and starting to do something new. For some, to be sure, God’s actions would lead to eternal damnation. For many others, however, John’s preaching opened the door to restoration with God. In fact, a lot of surprising people responded to John’s preaching.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31b-32)
John’s preaching, then, is not just bad news for the unrepentant, it is good news for all who believe in the possibilities he proclaims.