What did you go out to see? John the Baptist, a man for our time

December 17, 2012

On this third week of Advent, the Gospel reading in the Book of Common Prayer comes from Matthew 11:2. The followers of John the Baptist, who has been put into prison, came asking Jesus if he was the much-anticipated Messiah. There was an expectation that, when the Anointed One appeared, all would be set straight, so languishing in a dungeon did not quite seem to fit into the divine program. Jesus confirms that he is the expected Savior.

And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. (Mat 11:4-6)

Offended by Jesus? It hardly seems possible, but we all know how his earthly ministry and life will end. John and Jesus have this much in common. Each seems at once to be somewhat offensive and somewhat attractive. In the case of John, it was not so terribly apparent. After John’s followers head back to give him the news of a Savior, Jesus discusses this with the remaining crowds.

 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
(Matthew 11:7-10)

What did you go out to see? John the Baptist in no way resembled the powerful people who came out to see his “show.” He was certainly not on anybody’s “best dressed” list dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt. The man was probably just a little bit scary. Mark gives a few key details in his gospel account.

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
(Mark 1:4-8)

What did you go out to see? When the Pharisees and Sadducees dropped by, John openly called the most powerful religious figures of the day “a brood of vipers.” He sarcastically wondered who had warned them to flee the wrath to come (Matt 3:7). John preached a message of repentance and practiced a washing to represent a changed life. He made his ministry completely subordinate to the coming Messiah.

There are some things about John the Baptizer that should be noted. First of all, he appeared by divine appointment. This biblical prophet was in no way connected to the power structure of religious or civil authority. John was a complete outsider. His lifestyle was in no way marked by physical pleasure. This guy was an oddball, not the material of a successful television ministry or a megachurch pulpit. His message did not address psychology, self-worth, prosperity, political factions, or building relationships. John the Baptist dealt with our human sin problem and his message was a call to change.

We all know that this is the kind of prophetic figure that would be a real “game changer” for Christians. We especially feel that way in the portion of the church year that calls us to look back at the first coming of Jesus at the same time we are looking ahead to his return in power. What manner of man will prepare the way of the Lord?

If you are looking for a charismatic leader, you might be disappointed. What if the person that God appoints to make his paths straight is not part of a major organization, or good-looking, or well-dressed, or eloquent, or even male? What if, this time, God appoints many Christians to set a tone befitting the arrival of the King of Kings?

Did not Jesus command his followers throughout all time to teach all he commanded throughout the world and to baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity? It is true that John came with the spirit of Elijah, but we have the assistance of the Holy Spirit. It is up to each of us to, first of all, repent of personal sins and then continue to live out a life of such Christian virtue and outgoing concern for others that our belief in Jesus’ gospel is absolutely irresistible. By doing this, we will lead many of those around us to faith and repentance.

Since Jesus fist came into the world, when God took on human flesh, things changed forever. Now we are looking forward to his return to judge the living and the dead and to set up his kingdom on earth. In the meantime, for us right now, Jesus is on his throne and we are his agents on earth. The earth is the very body of Christ and Jesus is the head. The task today for every follower of Christ is the same work which God assigned to John. Are you making straight the way of the Lord?


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