“In due course John the Baptist appeared…”
It is amazing how God sends his people “in due course”. This fills me with hope – especially when I realise that the blank page that divides the old and new testaments in our bibles has a “value” of some 400 years’ silence and hunger for the word of God… It took God only about 400 years to send John the Baptist after the last prophet before him – so why should we get impatient when some “church things” are taking a bit longer than we anticipated? And equally, if John the Baptist hadn’t recognised the “due course” and responded, we would have been living a very different “now”. But thanks be to God, he did and:
“…he preached in the wilderness of Judaea…”
Or more precisely, in the wilderness at the far side of Jordan (John 1:28; 10:40). But why is this son of a priest (Luke 1:5-25) hanging around in the desert instead of serving God in the Temple? Why is he “out there,” in the barren land just behind affluent Jericho, far from the main focal point of the religion of his time? Perhaps because the river Jordan is a natural boundary and there is something about being immersed in it by another human being that brings home the striking message of John…
The Israelites crossed the river Jordan under the lead of Joshua (which we could equally transcribe as “Jesus”) in order to reach the Promised Land (Josh 3:15-17); and Elijah would cross the same river also dry-shod before he ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11), making room for a double portion of his spirit in Elisha (2 Kings 2:9). So is John telling people that they first of all need to retreat from the known religious “landscape” in order to wholeheartedly re-enter the Promised Land with full and conscious commitment? Is he telling them that by doing so they will iron out the path for Elijah’s doubly-zealous spirit to rest on them in the baptism of fire that was to come?
“…and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’”
Certainly, something amazing is about to happen… Like the dust stirred on the horizon by the hoofs and wheels of a king’s carriage, the certainty of God’s reign drawing near is almost tangible – and so people cannot go about their business as usual. How invigorating it would be if such a sense of expectation and urgency could soak our Advent time like the water must have soaked the garments of those seeking John’s baptism… What is more, even Jesus was happy to preach this is message (Mt 4:17) after the arrest of John.
“This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said:
A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.”
This is a quote from the Second Isaiah which was originally addresses to the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon after Jerusalem fell in the 6BC. This was the in-between time when the First Temple was already destroyed and the Second one was waiting yet to be built. Therefore the restored connection between God and his people required a “highway” at that moment in time, a straight path of communication that allowed for the “flow” of God’s presence into human history. And once again a “divine highway surveyor” enters the scene of human history to mark out the path in the wilderness.
“This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
In a certain sense, John the Baptist reminds me of a hippo… Quite a grotesque creature out in the open – but extremely dangerous, especially when plunged in its element. He is cut as a prophet in his camel-hair outfit and leather belt accessory (2 Kings 1:8), feeding on a radical diet of clean (Leviticus 11:21, 22), wholesome and providential food. He thus walks in the footsteps of Samson, Samuel and Elijah. No wonder he attracts some curious attention. In fact, he is a magnet that pulls the whole region into a movement towards the most significant river in his people’s history: the river Jordan.
“Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins.”
So why is it that John often gets just a cursory glance from us? Why is it that we often overlook the fact that he was such a powerful magnet that he drew even Jesus out of his “hidden” life into the “public ministry” as his call echoed “righteousness” in the heart of the Son of God (Mt 21:23-27 & Mt 3:15)? It is perhaps because the realm of water is where John becomes dangerous…and that is perhaps something that does not sit easily with us because the font of baptism contains water too. At any rate, John turns out to be a “wild beast,” defending the territory marked out for God from any sinister trespasser:
“But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’”
And maybe John is not so far off the mark when he claims that God can raise Abraham’s children even from stones. There is a master-builder coming soon, known as the carpenter’s son (Mt 13:55) – where carpenter (tekton) means also a stone mason or builder. He will also refer to himself as a cornerstone by the words of Psalm 118 (Mt 21: 42-43), and he will be on an outrageous mission to build a new temple (Jn 2:19). So perhaps the most pertinent question is: do I let myself be chiselled by the master builder this week?