And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
John the Baptist. He is a shadowy figure for most of us, especially at this time of year, when the arrival of the baby Jesus is taking center stage. John becomes for us, if anything, a secondary character in an unfolding drama focusing on a barnyard birth, angelic anthems, scared shepherds, wandering wise men and rapacious regents. His appearance onto the stage of these events usually goes unnoticed as our attention is focused on what we consider the main plot – the coming arrival of the Baby King.
I have been thinking of him, in no small part, because I've been reading John the Baptizer by Brooks Hansen, an engaging novel about this enigmatic man and his mission. And I commend it to you.
It reminded me that, yes, John's birth is no cause for a natal celebration, no giving of gifts, no three month long frenzied buying season. Yet, the coming of this baby was miraculous, too. One that was heralded by an angelic announcement, by the same angel even, as was Jesus’. And it was his birth and his life that set the stage, prepared the way, for this one who would come, the one who gets all the attention (and rightfully so). Without this baby, who grew to a man, the people of his day would not have been as ready for the baby and man Jesus.
That’s often the way it is with people who help prepare the way for others to step into the limelight. We appreciate their moment on the stage but are often anxious for them to depart so we can get to the main attraction. We often fail to see the wonder and accomplishment of these talented troupers and notice how they have made us ready for what is to come.
My friend Alan Garinger appreciates those who play second fiddle – he’s done a whole series of sketches on sidekicks. All because he happened to like one back-up singer who made one of his favorite singers (he felt) sing her best. But Alan is rare (for that and other reasons) – most of us want to see the star not the sidekick.
And many us regard John the Baptizer as a sort of sidekick. In fact, if we are honest, we have a picture in our minds eye of Jesus as rather polished and smooth (in a good way) and John the Baptist as a sort of wild and woolly holy man. Like Gabby Hayes to Roy Rogers. After all, John the Baptist, as a man, was known as one who lived in the wilderness, ate locusts and honey, preached long and loud and baptized people in the River Jordan. He spoke the plain truth and didn’t soften it with nice parables. We have the feeling that he literally scared the hell out of people instead of winning them with kindness and love as did Jesus.
That may be because we don’t really look to closely at this one who was the way preparer. He comes from hardy and religious stock and his own birth had that of the miraculous about him, as did his cousin Jesus.’ John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest in the temple in the days of Herod. He was married to Elizabeth, who was a cousin of Mary, the mother of our Lord.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. Both were well past the child-bearing years. Still, they wanted a child. We are told they both lived righteous and blameless lives. One day, while going about his business as a temple priest, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and announces that God has heard their prayers. Elizabeth will bear a boy child. Just as when Gabriel later appears to Mary, he tells Zechariah what the boy’s name is to be and what role he is to play. Zechariah’s response to the angel is a bit more skeptical than Mary’s – he doesn’t believe the news. And so his mouth is sealed, Gabriel says, “until the day that these things come to pass.”
The people who were waiting on Zechariah to help them with their temple offerings were annoyed at the delay – where could that priest be? When he finally appears, he can’t speak. Maybe the wait was worth their while they think, assuming Zechariah has seen a vision. He makes signs to them, performs his duties and stays at the temple until his time of service ends and only then returns home.
Indeed, as the angel Gabriel says will happen, Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Six months into her pregnancy, Gabriel appears to her cousin Mary with his news for her. And he adds the information about her cousin Elizabeth, saying “with God nothing will be impossible.” Mary hastens to visit her cousin, both in wonder and for assurance. Elizabeth blesses her and helps her confirm the truth of the angelic message.
The time comes for Elizabeth’s baby to be born. The neighbors gather to see the child and on the eighth day, as the Jewish ritual demands, he is to be named. His father, remember, hasn’t spoken in nine months. The people want to name the boy Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says, “No, his name is to be John.” “But nobody in either family is named John,” they protest. Sounds like today, doesn’t it. So they take their case to Zechariah. He writes on a tablet “His name is John.” Immediately, his tongue is loosed and his voice erupts into the passage of scripture I read just a few minutes ago.
I love these words of Zechariah. First he praises the Lord for his remembering his promises and his bringing salvation through the house of David. These are the same things we read about in the prophecy of Jeremiah last week when we talked about how the people, and indeed the times, were ripe for redemption.
Then he speaks to the child. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” That’s quite a charge to child whose birth, and life, we largely ignore.
Indeed, John, as a baby, drops from the biblical narrative at this time after a sentence saying that he grew and became strong in spirit and was in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation to Israel. Attention is now drawn, in the Lucan story, to the nativity, which begins with those familiar words “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
When John reappears he is around 30 years of age. He emerges as a wilderness preacher, adorned in coarse camel hair as opposed to the finery of the temple priests. He lives simply and preaches a simple message – “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The people who hear him think he is the prophet Elijah come back.. The political powers, especially Herod, are afraid of his popularity among the people, but also afraid of what might happen if they do away with him. He urges the people to show their repentance by being baptized in the waters of the Jordan river. If you read his words, they sound remarkably like the message of his cousin who is to follow. Loving those in need of loving and stern with those to whom much had been given and much was expected.
He was especially harsh in his confrontations with the royal palace – in this case, King Herod. This is not unusual for an Israelite prophet. Judean kings, while not liking it, had gotten used to it. Of course, they often dealt with it by imprisoning or killing the prophet, but they were used to it. The reason for Herod’s ultimate dissatisfaction with John has to do with John’s denunciation of marriage to Herodias. For the Jews of the time, John’s denunciation was more than a moral pronouncement – it was one of political, religious and ethical dimension. Herod had put away his first wife, whom he had married in a political alliance which did indeed bring peace to the area, to marry his half-brother’s wife. Herod Antipas, incensed at John’s increasing popularity, his attacks on himself and Herodias, and perhaps frustrated in his attempts to find and silence the other Jewish trouble maker Jesus, has John arrested. But that’s all, until at his birthday celebration, the daughter of his wife danced and so enchanted Herod that he promised her anything she wanted. She asked for the head of John the Baptist. A man of his word, good or evil, as were all mid-eastern potentates of the time, Herod granted her wish. So ends John’s ministry.
Or does it? The latter part of John’s story is something most of us are familiar with. Movie makers have delighted in telling it, with its blend of sex, scandal and mayhem. But we don’t often think of John as one who gave his life in the cause of preparing the way for the Messiah. When we do think of him, we think of John the Baptist as an adult. A man who captured the imagination of the people of Israel, talked of turning from sin and toward righteousness and announcing the coming in immediate terms of Jesus. And it is true that this is one of the ways he pointed people to Christ and prepared the way for the Messiah.
Yet, I think it is important to remember, especially at this season of advent which some Quakers (bad or not) pay a little bit of attention to that all of John’s life was heraldic in a way. Even in the nature of his birth. That is in itself miraculous.
We, like the people of John and Jesus’ day, expect to see the things of the spirit dressed in trappings of something religious. That is, in the liturgy (or lack of), singing, sermonizing, scripture reading and so on. That’s not to say that important things aren’t there – they are. But we are so used to finding them there that they are often the only place where we see God at work. And so we fail to see God moving in the things we often think are the simplest and every day things of life. In this case, the birth of two baby boys. But that’s the way God works, more often than not -- in the normal course of human existence – although, I grant you, in these cases, with miraculous dimensions to them. We are much more likely to hear the voice of God in an infant’s cry, if we will open ourselves to that instead of being annoyed, than we are in some super charged religious setting.
That’s because, true to His nature, God did not prepare the way for a Messiah on a white charger with angel armies arrayed behind him by sending a dramatic figure with trumpet blaring and mountains moving. God instead prepared the way for a Messiah who would come as a baby, grow into manhood, preach and teach, heal, care, and live and love and breathe and die, all in the name of God’s love, by sending another baby who grew into manhood, preach and teach, heal, care, and live and love and breathe and die, all in the name of God’s love and pointing the way to the one who was to come. Those who come to follow Jesus, both during his lifetime and after his resurrection (including us today), had their hearts opened in preparation for the everliving Christ by John. He was not the Light, but willingly pointed people to the Light.
We would do well to remember that during this advent season -- the willingness of John the Baptist to point to Jesus. How he made his life’s work, indeed gave his life, preparing the way so that others could see Jesus. It may well be that that is our call this advent season – to help others see Jesus. It is, after all, easy to lose sight of the Christ child in all the Christmas wrapping and decorating and caroling and on and on and on. Even in the midst of celebrating his coming, we fail to prepare our hearts and eyes for the birth of the miraculous child from the skies.
John reminds us that pointing people to the everliving Christ who comes to call us His own is a noble ministry in and of itself.
May we open our hearts and minds to being preparers of the way – so that through our hearts, and words and actions others might encounter the Christ for whom they seek – even if unaware.
Brent Bill is a Quaker minister, writer, and photographer. Learn more about him at www.brentbill.com or holyordinary.blogspot.com or theartoffaith.net