Friday, August 29, 2014

August 29 - John the Baptizer, Voice in the Wilderness

John the Baptizer wasn't the kind of person you'd likely invite over for dinner on Sunday afternoon. By our modern sensibilities, he's a little odd. By first century sensibilities, he was frightening and perplexing. He wore garments made out of rough camel hair and subsisted on an odd diet of locusts and honey. In a sense, he had rejected the comforts and pleasures of the world he lived in to set an example and proclaim the truth in an intriguing way. Like a modern day Ezekiel, he became an object of derision and mockery so that people would hear the message he was proclaiming: "Repent, for the God's Kingdom is right around the corner!" The people began to wonder if this wasn't the person that Isaiah had been talking about when he described: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

John the Baptizer was known for preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Though he went to a fairly inhospitable part of the land, people streamed out to him to hear his message of repentance and to be baptized by him. They recognized that there was something different about him. They could see it went beyond weird clothes and a scavenger's diet--it had something to do with the truth of his message. In the face of that present darkness of spirit, John was proclaiming truth as if he had no fear of reprisal--as if God had anointed him to speak. He took those who could feel the tension in the air--the seeming climax of the ages--and baptized them hoping to begin the inauguration of a new Kingdom.

Seeing some of the religious professionals come out to him he preached, "I see you, you children of serpents! You clearly didn't see it for yourself so who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? If you're sincere, then produce fruit in keeping with repentance. I can hear you saying to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I know that makes you feel better but I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones. Your heritage isn't enough, anymore. This isn't some far-off judgment--the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire like the scrap wood it is. Oh, yes, something is going on here. I baptize people with water on account of repentance. But there is somebody else coming--somebody more powerful--whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. You think this is amazing? You think this is 'out there?' Just wait. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor. That's right, he'll gather the wheat into the barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

Eventually, John would baptize Jesus and indicate that this one was the one he had been talking about. Though he begged Jesus to baptize him, Jesus insisted that John live into his calling and be the baptizer. After all, John would soon have his own baptism--a baptism of blood. Being a truth-teller, John would speak truth to the Empire and Herod. Herod had taken his brother's wife as his own and John had spoken out against it. For his truth-telling, John was arrested, bound, and thrown into a prison. The hope was that John would rethink his truth and deny it to purchase his own freedom. They underestimated John the Baptizer and, consequently, he remained in prison for some time--until Herod's birthday to be precise. A beautiful woman--his new wife's daughter--performed a special dance for Herod and pleased him. Herod, in a fit of ignorant lust, agreed to give her anything she asked for. Her mother had trained her well and, so, she asked for the head of John the Baptizer. The demand had been made for the Empire to behave like the Empire and execute a person who told uncomfortable truths. Herod knew this was a bad idea--people loved John and would be enraged when he was executed for sport--but he did it anyway.He had John beheaded and the head presented on a silver platter.

John died for telling the truth--like many prophets--and for refusing to purchase his freedom at the price of his soul. He had lived into his calling: to be a voice in the wilderness and to prepare the way of Jesus in the world. Jesus would praise John when John's disciples came to him and told of his execution. Many of John's disciples would become disciples of Jesus--both at Jesus' baptism and at John's death. Jesus was aware that John's death foreshadowed his own impending execution and, so, likely felt some intimate kinship with this truth-teller knowing that he, too, would be executed for telling the truth. As we look back at the life and words of John the Baptizer, we must recall that living into our calling and refusing to live a life of deception and destruction will cost us dearly. It may cost some of us our lives in one instant moment of martyrdom, while others it will cost our lives a moment at a time as continue to tell the truth to a world that doesn't want to hear it--as we continue to prepare the ways of our Lord.

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