John the Baptist

Mark 1:1-8
Isaiah 40:1-11

A teenage boy had just passed his driving test and asked his father as to when they could discuss his use of the car.

His father said he’d make a deal with his son, “you bring your grades up from a C to a B, study your Bible a little, get your hair cut, then we’ll talk about the car.”

The boy thought about that for a moment, decided he’d settle for the offer and they agreed on it. After about six weeks his father said, “Son, you’ve brought your grades up and I’ve observed that you have been studying your Bible but, I’m disappointed you haven’t had your hair cut.”

The boy said, “You know, Dad, I’ve been thinking about that and I’ve noticed in reading the Bible that Samson had long hair, Moses had long hair, and John the Baptist had long hair.”

His Dad replied, “did you also notice they all walked everywhere they went?”

Just be thankful you didn’t get lumbered with john the Baptist as your Minister!

I’ve never quite been able to decide whether John the Baptist was mad, fanatically confident, or just very scared. He might have been utterly crazy – and you expect crazy people to do the sort of thing he did – standing up in the middle of nowhere and shouting out about some religious manifestation. He might have been a zealot, a fanatic, proclaiming his fixed point of view with such fervour that he wouldn’t mind being put to death for it because it would be worth it. But I do wonder if when he first drew breath to proclaim that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, John was scared, very scared.

John the Baptist wasn’t some nutcase tangled up in a weird religious sect, and willing to say anything for someone who was controlling his mind. No, he was second cousin of Jesus of Nazareth, and the son of a priest; and his own odd birth had directed him to this task, to this moment.

But he was facing his destiny without any proof or reassurances. That is the amazing thing about John: he proclaimed a gospel that hadn’t happened yet; he announced the Saviour before Jesus had appeared in public or been baptised or started to teach and heal. John the Baptist was working blind, he was going ahead of the main story, he couldn’t yet see what he was describing.

He was enacting the prophecy we heard from Isaiah’s writings centuries earlier, a form of words that had lain there all that time, read by the people and wondered about for generations. What were those words about? Were they describing the work of Isaiah himself so that perhaps they had been fulfilled long since? Were they a sign of something still to happen to the people of Israel? And where would the voice be heard? Whose voice would it be? If someone came along and made those words come true, he would be making a pretty big claim for himself, and woe to him if he was having the establishment on, woe to him if he did not deliver something earth-shattering in his wake. That was the reception awaiting John as he opened his mouth to be that figure calling out from the empty place with the big, big promise.

What a risk it was for John to do that. Was it not astonishing that he took such a risk to proclaim something that God was going to do, and do soon? Everyone takes risks in the things they do and say sometimes. Businessmen take the risk of making some big promise to their customers, and the responsibility is on them to deliver no matter what it takes and what it costs. John was not the one to deliver; he was making a promise on behalf of God, and that should have sounded like madness or blasphemy to his hearers. Tipsters predict the outcome of horse races, and everyone knows they cannot be sued if the horse falls at the first fence. But John’s life was at stake, and his promises were definite.

Like Mary and Joseph, Anna and Simeon, Elizabeth and Zechariah, John did not have the New Testament as his script, did not have the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for his saving hope. These things had not happened yet. He just had a message and a desperate hope that the message would come true. Contrast that mystery and puzzlement with the witness-bearing that is asked of us. We don’t go ahead of Jesus; we follow behind him. We do not introduce a story yet to be; we tell a story that is ancient and tested on many millions of ears. We do not wonder how people will respond to Jesus when he makes himself plain to them; we have a world full of stories of Christian strength and mercy and charity and love.

We are not faced with the terrifying task that characterised the ministry of John. There is only a risk if we do not put our faith in what is there for us. It will remain something unproved only if we do not commit ourselves to the story and the movement, and find out by living it that it is perfectly true. We have the New Testament complete before us; the fault is only ours if we do not read it for our comfort. We have the witness of the Church tracing a path from Jesus’ day to ours stretching out past all the ancestors we ever knew about or imagined. And the loss is ours if we do nothing to preserve make their faith service relevant in this time and place. We have resources of Scripture and the community of faith that John the Baptist might have yearned for; the least we can do is have a little of his courage and something of his prophetic vision.

Most risky of all, I suppose, was the moment in which John pointed to Jesus walking along a country road and said to his hearers ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – and some of his followers turned from him and started to follow Jesus instead. In any other story it would be amusing to ask what would have happened if John had picked the wrong person, pointed out the wrong cousin, made a mistake like the one in Life of Brian. But this was the moment when the expectation of Jewish history was placed by one charismatic figure onto the shoulders of another, and the world was invited to look towards Mary’s son, not Elizabeth’s, to see a new light.

We too have to look around the life we lead and make a choice about where we will place our hope. In a world where it’s still acceptable to use more violence against black people than white, where food processors can hold their suppliers to ransom, where helping the poor in the developing world with the crumbs from our table is still contentious, ijn such a world, there are still choices to be made, and the message of hope is still needed.

If you look at the world around us, it can seem like we have options for our faithfulness, and some people put their faith in wealth, some in pleasure, some in respect, some in a vague kind of spiritual-but-not-religious. But we don’t have to figure out who the Messiah is. If we have the wisdom to put our faith in God, we know where to find the Lamb of God. John had to point in the right direction because he was doing it for the very first time in the history of the Christian movement. We only need to follow his gaze and copy his gesture. We who are called to bear witness to Jesus Christ in our day and place are called to be as convincing as John must have been, called to point in a direction in which many have gazed before now, called to obey a master who has millions of servants and not only us here. We are called to trust in words that have sounded in almost every language and awakened new life in every sort and condition of person. Our work for God is to be brave, but actually not really very brave. We’re called to take risks, but the risks were first taken long ago, so we are not alone in history. Thank God for John the Baptist, and may we be inspired by him, and worthy of him, proclaiming Christ the messiah.

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