A voice will cry out in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!!!” That voice was John the Baptist. He was the strong plow who broke up and prepared the ground for the ministry of Jesus. He was John the Baptizer, also known as John the Forerunner. Let’s look at John today:
Seven hundred years before the birth of John the Baptist, Isaiah writes: ‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”’ And that points us to John, a wilderness man if there ever was one. Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, foretells the coming of John as well: “Look, I shall send my messenger to clear a way for me.” John is our messenger, John is our bridge between the Old and New testament; an Old Testament prophet and a New Testament saint.
There was additional foretelling of the birth of John. In the hill country of Judea, his parents were a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth who was a descendant of Aaron. They were upright and virtuous, they were also old and childless.
Zechariah is serving in the temple when an angel of the Lord frightens him. The angel tells him that Elizabeth will bear a son who is to be named John. John would be great in the sight of the Lord. Even from his mother’s womb, he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. He would go on to reconcile many Israelites to the Lord their God. He would have the spirit and power of Elijah.
Zechariah seems doubtful; “I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years!” The angel replies, testily; “I am Gabriel, and I have been sent to bring you this good news. Look, since you don’t believe my words, you will have no power of speech until this has happened.”
Now mute, Zechariah returns home and soon, old Elizabeth is with child. Gabriel was a busy angel, because six months later, he went to have a famous meeting with Mary. Young, pregnant Mary quickly sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Now I love this beautiful image; as soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the child (John), leaps in her womb and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary stays with her for three months, then goes home.
Elizabeth gives birth to a little boy and when it is time to name him, following tradition, he was to be named Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth insists he should be called John. Mute Zechariah asks for a writing tablet and writes, “His name is John.” And with that Zechariah regains his power of speech.
Young John is promised to the service of God from his birth. As a Nazarite; his hair remains uncut and he abstains from all strong drink. He goes to live in true desert wilderness, perhaps with Essenes monks. It seems like a stark way to raise a child.
We catch up with John the Baptizer appearing in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. Huge crowds throng to him from Judea and Jerusalem and the Jordanian countryside, as they confess their sins, they are baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wears a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He eats locusts and wild field honey which was a good kosher diet to follow in the desert.
When John realizes that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees are showing up for baptism because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he explodes: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.
“I’m baptizing you but the real action comes next: the main character in this drama will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives.”
Now Jesus arrives at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wants his cousin John to baptize him. John objects, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”
But Jesus insists. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John does it.
The moment Jesus comes up out of the baptismal waters, the skies open up and he sees God’s Spirit—it looks like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.
Later, John is standing with two of his disciples, and as he watches Jesus walk by, he exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples hear him say this, and they follow Jesus. In this way Andrew and Simon Peter, two disciples of John, become followers of Jesus.
John was shaking up polite society with his preaching and those in charge didn’t like it. Herod Antipas, was a wicked and egotistical ruler. He arrested John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison. Herod wanted to kill him, but he was afraid because so many people revered John as a prophet of God.
John, in prison, got wind of what Jesus was doing, and wanting to confirm, that Jesus really was the chosen one, sent his own disciples to ask, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?”
Jesus told them, “Go back and tell John what’s going on: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!”
When John’s disciples left to report back, Jesus started talking to the crowd about John. “What did you expect when you went out to see him in the wild? A weekend camper? Hardly. What then? A prophet? That’s right, a prophet! Probably the best prophet you’ll ever hear. He is the prophet that Malachi announced when he wrote, ‘I’m sending my prophet ahead of you, to make the road smooth for you.’
“Let me tell you what’s going on here: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer. If you read the books of the Prophets and God’s Law closely, you will see them culminate in John, teaming up with him in preparing the way for the Messiah of the kingdom. John is the ‘Elijah’ you’ve all been expecting to arrive and introduce the Messiah.”
John was in prison because he had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with his sister in law Herodias, “adultery.” Herodias, smoldering with hate, wanted to kill him, but didn’t dare because Herod was in awe of John. But a portentous day arrived when Herod threw a birthday party, inviting all the rich people in Galilee. Herodias’s daughter, Salome entered the banquet hall and danced sensuously for the guests. She dazzled Herod so much so that the king said to the girl, “Ask me anything. I’ll give you anything you want.”
Excited, she ran to the king and said, “I want the head of John the Baptizer served up on a platter. And I want it now!”
That sobered the king up fast. Unwilling to lose face with his guests, he caved in and let her have her wish. The king sent the executioner off to the prison with orders to bring back John’s head. He went, cut off John’s head, brought it back on a platter, and presented it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and got the body and gave it a decent burial.
There. The life and death of John. What a story! John did, indeed prepare the way of the Lord. John lived a harsh, intense life with no division within himself about who he was and how he wanted to live. No wonder he drew such crowds. No wonder Jesus speaks of him with such high praise.
Like John, let us prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Please join me in prayer as I share this beautiful advent prayer from Frederick Buechner:
“Dear God, in the darkness of the virgin’s womb the holy child grows. In the darkness of the world’s pain, the blessed light begins to kindle. In the darkness of our own doubting of thee and of ourselves, the great hope begins to rise again like a lump in the throat; the hope that thou wilt come to us truly, that the child will be born again in our midst, the Prince of Peace in a world at war, the hope that thou wilt ransom us and our world from the darkness that seeks to destroy us.
O Lord, the gift of new life, new light, can be a gift truly only if we open ourselves to receive it. So this is our prayer, Lord; that thou wilt open our eyes to see thy glory in the coming again of light each day, open our ears to hear the angels’ hymn in the stirring within us of joy at the coming of the child, open our hearts to the transforming power of thy love as it comes to us through the love of all those who hold us most dear and have sacrificed most for us.
Be born among us that we may ourselves be born. Be born within us that by words and deeds of love we may bear the tidings of thy birth to a world that dies for lack of love. We ask it in the child’s name. Amen.”