The Leather Belt

Text: Matthew 3:4; Isaiah 11:5
Date: Advent II + 12/8/13

“Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Is 2:5). For God is searching us out and calling us out of the darkness of our sin and the dark prospect of our grave, calling us into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). That search and that call began already in the garden of Eden after sin had entered the picture. God searched for Adam, saying, “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9), and He called to both of them promising a Savior and clothing them with forgiveness. So to this day God searches for every soul of His creation lost in the darkness of sin and calls to all to repent, believe and be saved.

The season of Advent is unusual. For it welcomes us not at the beginning but at the end of Christ’s earthly life and then slowly takes us backwards until we arrive at the celebration of the Lord’s birth at Christmas. Today we’re taken back in time to the beginning of the Lord’s active, earthly ministry when God’s search and call was delivered through a man named John the son of Zechariah the priest, John the Baptist. John proclaimed God’s call to all, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and then faithfully put the spotlight on the One in whom the repentant sinner is to believe.

It has always struck me as interesting as well as a little unusual how St. Matthew seemingly goes out of his way to comment on John’s clothing. “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist.” So what? Why this detail? What is so significant about the prophet’s wardrobe? Well, two things.

The most obvious point is as a little visual aid to help people accurately identify who they were hearing and looking at. After all he looked, sounded and smelled like a prophet! What would you expect a prophet sent by God to look like? In the book of Second Kings we read of the injured king Ahaziah who sent messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron in clear violation of the commandments of God as to whether he shall recover from his sickness. But the messengers soon returned saying, “There came a man to meet us, and said to us, ‘Go back to the king who sent you, and say to him, Thus says the Lord, Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?” The king asked them, “What kind of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” Ahaziah instantly (instinctively?) said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite,” the prophet of God (2 Kings 1:2, 5-8). And therein is the second, more important point. Not only did John look like a prophet, he looked just like the prophet Elijah! In Malachi 4 God promised, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5), and in the eleventh chapter of Matthew Jesus says of John, “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14).

But beyond the obvious today I see something suggesting a further significance in John’s outfit, namely, the leather belt. Elijah wore a belt or cincture made of leather. John the Baptist wore a leather belt. Let this be a visual aid or object lesson of their message of preparation for the coming Savior. John called people to repentance. But contrition or sorrow over your sin alone does not yet save you without the second, more important part of repentance, namely, faith—faith in God’s promise of salvation, faith in the Savior. Repentance is  not only turning from something (sin) but also a turning to, to someone!

Notice, then, the difference in the Bible’s description of the Savior, as in today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah 11 when it says, “Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins” (Is 11:5). John only wore leather, the Savior wears righteousness and faithfulness. In the vision of Daniel he sees “a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold around his waist” (Dan 10:5), and in the Revelation to St. John he reports seeing “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest” (Rev 1:13). The risen, ascended, glorified Savior, the Messiah is pictured as clothed not with the lowly leather belt of His earthly humiliation but with a glorious one of fine gold of His heavenly exaltation.

Isaiah defines that golden belt of the Savior as “righteousness” and “faithfulness.” There the prophet is seeing the divine Savior bringing salvation to all. He came to share His righteousness with all who repent of their sins and turn to Him in faith. This was because of His faithfulness to His Father’s will and the divine plan of salvation foretold ever since the beginning. By faith in Him the repentant heart receives the forgiveness of sins by the merit of His sacred blood shed on the cross for you and the life of the whole world.

John’s call to repentance was wrapped in a leather belt, that is in the world where sin still reigns and ruins and kills. The repentance he called for is called for every day of the life of faith here in this life, for we’re not there yet. Today John calls to us again saying, “Don’t give up! Keep repenting, every day of your struggle against threatening sin.” But now by faith in Jesus that repentance includes the power of faith in the One who now wears the golden belt and sash of victory over sin and death. In Him we are able to die to sin and arise and live in daily repentance, complete repentance, contrition and sorrow over our sins yet with faith knowing, believing and receiving the forgiveness of those sins every day anew!

You are baptized only once, but you are called to repent daily. You are baptized only once because that is God’s perfect work and promise that lasts forever, the promise of a golden crown! We live out our baptism, however, in daily repentance and faith because…well, because we need to, as long as we sojourn in this world where sin still prevails. The Gospel begins with the call of the man in the leather belt. It will come to fulfillment at the feet of the Man in the golden belt, the crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, the refreshed shoot from the severed stump of Jesse, the new David, the One on whom the seven-fold Spirit rests, the One who alone is able to usher in eternal peace—peace for all nations for the glory of God. He is the One who says of His Advent, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20).