Taking John the Baptist Seriously

Caravaggio,  Salome with the Head of John the Baptist,  1607

Caravaggio, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 1607

Read John 1:19-28 & Isaiah 40:3-5

John the Baptist came to proclaim the arrival of God. Both his message and his baptism centered on repentance, an adjustment in orientation, a reordering of priorities. The Baptizer identifies himself with the voice of the forerunner found in Isaiah. Along with Isaiah's rich picture of the coming of God in Isaiah, John the Baptist, most likely quotes this section of Isaiah to highlight Israel's desolate spiritual state. 

When Isaiah originally penned his command to "Make straight a highway for our God," it was a dark time in Israel's history. Having endured conquest and captivity Israel was living in exile in what became known as the Babylonian Captivity. Israel's separation from her land meant separation from her God. Isaiah's use of wilderness language alludes to Israel's wilderness wanderings. The wilderness was quite literally a vast desert, a place the people of God had wandered through in route to the land of promise. In this place of desolation, Isaiah commands Israel to prepare for God, to prepare for a return to Jerusalem, out of exile. 

While historically most of Israel eventually makes the journey out of exile back to Jerusalem, John the Baptist points out that spiritually Israel remains in captivity. The people of God may dwell within the Roman-occupied land, but it is not truly theirs. They may live in the shadow of the temple in Jerusalem, but God is somehow still far from them. John highlights this point by physically going out into the wilderness. There the people would have to leave Jerusalem to be baptized before returning to the city. The representative nature of John's baptism symbolized Israel's continued state of spiritual desolation. The physical representation of spiritual reality begs Israel to prepare themselves. God is coming. 

Israel had a phrase to capture this idea, "The Day of the Lord." Today we might call it the apocalypse or the end of all things. In their minds, the arrival of God meant the restoration of all things. God would establish justice throughout the world. The Baptizer proclaims the coming disruption of all things. God is coming, and nothing will ever be the same. He calls the people away from their preoccupation with trivial pursuits and draws their attention to the thing that matters most — the coming Messiah. In spite of their spiritual state, God's people had gone on to build lives for themselves, complete with economies, and power structures, religious practices, and regular rhythms and customs of daily life. Yet even in the best of this God was somehow far off until now.

John calls them away from this both in word and by example. John himself rejects the opportunity to take for himself a title of importance and significance and instead only points to the coming Christ and his superior quality, rank, and prominence. Wearing tattered clothing and eating boring food, John joyfully proclaims the coming of all that truly matters.

The Gospel of John places this story in its prologue for us, its readers. The Gospel confronts us with Christ and demands a response. We will either continue straining and striving to build or own kingdoms of power, wealth, and fame, or we will recognize the arrival of God's. We stand on the outside of the narrative as observers yet somehow find ourselves in it. Jesus has arrived. The one who immerses us in His Spirit has come. He embraces us as we are whispering affection to our hearts, and offering hope for our futures. 

This reality means we get to rest. The scratching and clawing for meaning and relevance can end. We can finally stop stressing over how we can continue to build our kingdoms of self-worth and self-satisfaction. Instead, we get to open our hearts to Jesus, recognizing that the Eternal One has changed everything. The Divine has done for us all that ever needs doing. We can lay down our tools and rest. We do not need to conjure self-righteousness or self-worth.

The trap comes in our forgetfulness. We are quick to forget this and can find ourselves once again, pursuing our kingdoms or making attempts to earn for ourselves what God has freely given.

Jesus has arrived. He has disrupted our order of things. Jesus demands we either ignore Him and go about our lives as if he does not exist or reorient everything and live lives overthrown by faith, love, and trust.

Let's Live Into This Today:

  1. What things consistently distract or deter you from spending time with God? Why do you think this is?

  2. In what ways are you tempted to perform for God to get stuff from God? Knowing this is not how the grace of God works, why do you think you are tempted to keep doing it?

  3. How can John the Baptist's lifestyle of simplicity be a lesson for you? Why do you think you value things as much as you do?

  4. Take this to Jesus, ask Him for grace and forgiveness. Sit a moment in His presence internalizing, trusting, and meditating on the fact that He has done all that needs doing.

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