This morning we heard a very short reading from the Gospel of Luke about one of the Bible’s most fascinating characters: John the Baptist. We reviewed some of the details about John in the All Age story: he’s that wilderness-dwelling, wild-haired, honey-licking, camel-hair-sporting, locust-munching, light-bearing prophet. But those are just the details, not the meat of the story. And since John really only appears in the lectionary during Advent, I think I can safely assume it’s been about a year since you last heard the story of the Baptist – or maybe even longer – so if you’re a bit hazy on the details, I’d like to offer a short retelling of the Life of John the Baptist to kick your memories into gear and to reignite your Advent senses… or maybe even your sense of wonder.
In the days of King Herod, there was a wrinkly old man named Zechariah who lived with his equally wrinkly old wife, Elisabeth, in the hill country of Judea, about a day’s walk West of Jerusalem, in a well-kept little cottage with a few sheep and neighbors who loved to gossip. Zechariah and Elisabeth both came from good, traditional Jewish families. They were good Jews – observant and righteous. They kept kosher and said their prayers and observed the Sabbath. Zechariah had even been born into one of the lines of holy temple priests who entered into the inner room in the temple in Jerusalem to burn incense on the altar. So: a righteous man; a good wife.
There was just one problem: they were childless. For Elisabeth, these should have been the happy golden years of a Jewish grandmother – or that’s how she always imagined it: baking challah bread and frying latkes for a sea of grandkids on the High Holy Days. But to their great and mutual sorrow, children and grandchildren had never come.
So it had been a bittersweet existence, just the two of them – that is, until one fateful day when Zechariah was chosen by lots to be the one to enter alone into the holy temple to burn the incense, and came back with his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth, unable to speak for almost a year. In trying to communicate with his very confused wife, Zechariah kept drawing an angel on a tablet, and gesturing at Elisabeth’s stomach, but it was like a bad game of Charades and Elisabeth was a little slow to catch on. But as a few more months passed, the signs became indisputable. God had done the impossible: they were pregnant. At their age!
Stranger things were yet to come. Like that day when she went to visit her cousin Mary, and as the two women embraced, one huge whale belly touching another huge whale belly, the baby in her own womb literally leapt inside her with such force that she had to sit down to steady herself.
When Elisabeth’s time came, her son arrived red-faced and screaming into the world, healthy and vigorous as any baby could be. And when Zechariah scrawled out the name John on a tablet, his tongue was finally loosened, and the first thing out of his mouth was a song of praise.
For Zechariah and Elisabeth, each day was stranger and more wonderful than the one before. What was God up to, they wondered: visions and angel visitations, a man losing his voice for nine months, old women having babies, virgins having babies, strange pregnancies and strange signs in the sky. These were very, very strange times in the land of Israel.
But the strangest things of all were yet to come.
Twenty years pass. Twenty years that the Bible glosses over with a single sentence: “The child (John) grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”
John left for the wilderness a pale-skinned boy, a mere child, but when he walked back into town twenty years later he was a radical-looking prophet fed on locusts and wild honey. He was taller, leaner, stronger, browner. He wore leather sandals and animal skins, his hair was long and knotted and dirty, and he smelled of dirt and sweat and unwashed skin. The girls in town whispered behind their hands, he looks like a cave man.
But what John really looked like, for those who had eyes to see, was a Hebrew prophet – the kind of figure the Jews hadn’t seen in over four hundred years, not since the last prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible had been set down on parchment.
Anyone who was paying attention to John couldn’t help but notice his striking resemblance to Elijah, or even to and Isaiah and Jeremiah – other men who had also been out there in the wilderness, face to face with their God, being fed scrolls and seeing visions and being called upon to speak the words of the Lord. And now here was John, come back from 20 years in the desert looking like one of the ancient prophets, with the same urgency in his voice, and the same wild gleam in his eye when he talked about the coming of the Lord.
John the Baptist stands between the Old Testament and the New like a man straddling two banks of a river. With his clothing, his demeanor, his strange and powerful message – to his audience he looks and sounds like he had just stepped out of the pages of the Torah and the Prophets and into their own contemporary Israel. If you had been standing among the crowds listening to him in those days – with his booming voice and his ragged appearance – I’ll bet you could easily start to think you were standing before the prophet Isaiah, that great Israelite poet whom John so loves to quote.
In other words John is an old-school Hebrew prophet with a priestly bloodline who shows up 300 years after the last book of the Old Testament was closed in order to walk into the desert and for 20 long years to seek the living God and then to go back to his people, the Jews, to call for the repentance of sins, yes good old fashioned SIN, and to proclaim the coming of the Lord in a way that is both as old as Moses and fiercely, radically new.
And the people flock to him. They haven’t had a prophet like this in generations. His charisma is irresistible. The man is on fire. The people come to him from all over Judea and later from all over Israel, leaving their homes and their hillsides and their sheep and their warm dinners to seek out this living prophet who has heard the Word of the LORD.
And the people who come to him are hungry. For all of Jewish time the people have been waiting for the Messiah. John can see in their eyes how they long to believe that the hour has finally come for the Messiah. Tell us about the Messiah. What will he look like? Will he come in great power? They crowd in upon the banks of the Jordan, masses of people, looking for the signs of the One. John tells them to get ready: “Repent and be baptized, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And so they come to him in droves, impatiently waiting for their turn to be lowered into the water guilty and raised up again forgiven, ready for the Messiah.
But the people were, as people will be, kind of confused about the Messiah. They even started telling themselves and one another that John himself is the Messiah. In other words, they didn’t even know whom they were waiting for. The people didn’t even know whom they were waiting for. How would they recognize him when he comes? Who will proclaim the Messiah when he arrives? Who will know him when he appears?
John the Baptist knew that he would be the one to proclaim the Messiah’s coming. And John never lost sight of the fact that his job, his one and only job, was to proclaim the presence of the realMessiah. And so when they all come running to him, “John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. “
John knew that he was only the forerunner, the message boy sent to tell the people that God was sending not a man like John, but God’s Own Self into the world so that “all flesh will see the salvation of God”.
It was John, more than anyone, who knew, who really knew, what they were all waiting for. After all, John had recognized his Messiah even as an unborn baby, and had leapt up in joy when his Lord came near. And now, John senses the hour is at hand when his Lord will appear again. All of John’s life, his miraculous inception, his years in the wilderness, his prophetic call, this ministry of baptism and repentance: everything leads up to the one eternal fact of the coming of the One. All John has to do is know the One when he comes.
Every day the crowds gather around John at the Jordan. The crowds are all looking at him, full of misguided expectation. But John isn’t fooled: he knows that they are crying out for a Messiah, and he isn’t it. As so even as the people came looking for John, John was constantly, ceaselessly, tirelessly looking for the Messiah.
John kept his finger kept pointing, day after day, beyond himself to the One who is still coming. Every day John woke up at dawn and waded out into the water of the Jordan and faced the crowd not because he thought the people needed him, but because he knew how much they needed the One to whom he was a witness. And someone needed to be ready to recognize him when he came. It would be his job to cry out in joy and to leap up once more when his Messiah finally appeared.
Every day John’s eyes scanned the crowd gathered at the Jordan looking for him. Oh, he didn’t know yet what he would physically look like, but he knew his soul would leap up and his heart would burn within him when he came near.
And as body after body passed through his arms for baptism, day after day, John must have thought, with tears in his eyes, one of these will be him. One of these days I will take a man into my arms to baptize him and it will be my Lord and my God.
This is John the Baptist: standing, for all of time, with his finger in the air, pointing the way beyond himself and into the wild light beyond. And for all of time John is crying out to us from the wilderness, from the river banks, and from beyond eternity: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
Let us pray:
Holy God, Light beyond true light,
We have heard the voice of the one in the wilderness crying out, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
Give us eyes to see and ears to hear, that our hearts may leap up within us on the day of your coming.
Grant that we, too, may cry out with John the Baptist and all your holy saints on that day:
“Our eyes have seen the Savior, hope of the world, light of the ages, salvation of all flesh.”