John the Baptist: Man of Destiny

A sermon preached by Annie Coley on 8 December 2019

We meet him in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John as he begins his public ministry as an adult. Luke introduces him before he is born. It is, of course, John the Baptist, who is the focus of this second Sunday of Advent.  

Luke tells us how Mary, having received the news that she is going to be the mother of God’s son, hurries to share it with her kinswoman Elizabeth – and finds that Elizabeth has her own miraculous story to tell. In fact, she is already six months pregnant with the one whose life is going to be so intimately entwined with his only slightly younger cousin. As Mary approaches, Elizabeth feels the baby quicken within her, a sign that authenticates the messages Gabriel has been busy delivering, appearing first to Zechariah, and then to Mary, telling them both they are to have children of destiny. Two miracle babies in the same clan. What a dynasty.

I often wonder what life would have been like for John and Jesus growing up. Did they ever meet for play dates or family celebrations? Did they get on or were they chalk and cheese? Jesus, we assume, was apprenticed to his father’s trade but what does the son of a priest do? (A lot of clergy kids rebel!) Perhaps like the boy Samuel, another child of destiny, he was sent away from home early, and was brought up by the desert fathers.

In any case, we don’t hear anything about John for the next thirty or so years, but then at a very specific moment in time, at about the age of 30, as recorded by Luke, he bursts on to the public stage, fierce and fearless, confronting sin wherever he found it, baptising by full immersion in the Jordan, and preparing Israel for the coming of Messiah. In only a few short months, he will be gone, job done. But what a calling.

If you have applied for a job in recent years or given someone a reference, you will be familiar with job descriptions and so on. Well, the Gospels lay out very clearly what the core tasks are and what sort of person is needed for this new post of baptiser, created by God after a prophetic gap of 400 years.

Imagine the post as advertised in the Nazareth News: Forerunner.

Core tasks

  • To commit to preaching the word of God without fear or favour
  • To call people to repentance and baptism
  • To proclaim the good news of the coming Messiah

The chosen person will

  • Have a strong sense of history
  • Be well versed in the scriptures
  • Live a simple lifestyle – although won’t be vegan
  • Be energetic, single and itinerant.

It is envisaged that the post will be for no more than three years. No pension but an everlasting reward. Accountable to the God of Israel.

So step forward John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth from the hill country of Judaea, now living an ascetic life in the desert. How self aware was he? Was he consciously emulating in style and demeanour the prophet Elijah, who had stood up so boldly to King Ahab and Jezebel hundreds of years earlier? Was he aware of the hand of God upon him, the first prophet in Israel since Malachi, and the one whom Isaiah had foreseen: One crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him and prepare to see the salvation of our God”?

Once in post, his impact was immediate and people from both sides of the Jordan flocked to him, queueing up to be baptized, even wondering if he could be the Messiah. The Pharisees turned up too. In excoriating language John condemned their complacency and hypocrisy, warning them of judgement and the wrath of God to come. Then Jesus turned up. When he stepped forward for baptism, John at first protested, but Jesus insisted. That moment was for John a turning point: his star would descend, even as Jesus took centre stage. Over the months, John made a powerful enemy of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, denouncing him for his adultery. Herod imprisoned him, and eventually killed him in a spiteful act of reve

So how might the solitary and enigmatic figure of John the Baptist, who someone described as a cross between a monk and Bear Grylls, be an example for us and nudge us along in our Advent journey?

I’ve lived with John the Baptist, as it were, all this week, and in the Christmas run-up, when my spending is liable to go through the roof, he has made me think. I grant that even by first century standards, John the Baptist seems to have been the embodiment of frugality – the Gospel writers remark on his locusts, honey and camel-skin lifestyle. But there’s been a lot said recently about frugality as a lifestyle choice. Less is more is definitely trending, conspicuous consumerism so last century – and that’s good news for the environment. It’s also good news for the kingdom of God, and the world God wants us to build.

Next Saturday’s breakfast is in support of the small British charity, Toybox. It’s not actually a very helpful name in my opinion because it suggests we are going to be sending to disadvantaged children, who would otherwise have nothing, Christmas toys and other plastic stuff, which has instant appeal for all of ten minutes. But this charity is not what its name suggests. It’s about providing for street kids in places like Latin America and Asia the official documents they need to prove they exist so they can access education. Something as simple as a birth certificate can change a life and offer hope for the future. It’s an opportunity for us to be generous with a gift that won’t be forgotten by Boxing Day – or end up in the belly of a whale. Win win. Hearing the Advent challenge to prepare for the coming of the Lord must lead to the question: What does that mean for me?

If we read further we can read John the Baptist as an example of faithfulness, especially in the dark times. The baptism of Jesus was for John the beginning of his end. He had done his bit and now he had to stand aside. The one to whom crowds had flocked was at the end alone and in prison. He saw his disciples go over to Jesus; he began to doubt himself and everything he had worked for; he had to face up to the snuffing out of his candle after only a year or two. But he remained faithful, the supreme witness to Jesus as the Messiah and the Lamb of God. Jesus called him the greatest man who ever lived.

Like John, we experience times of darkness and struggle when things don’t work out as we expect. This man of the open spaces found himself caged like a beast – and he had just announced to all Israel the arrival of the Messiah. Surely one of the things Messiah did was to set the prisoners free, right? No wonder John sent messengers to Jesus, desperate as he languished in his cell for reassurance that He was indeed the One. Suddenly this last of the OT prophets is no longer a two-dimensional exemplar but an uncertain, even conflicted, human being, with whom we might identify.

At the end of our Epistle reading today there is a prayer for the Christians in Rome, who were also needed hope, a prayer prayed for them by the Apostle Paul. We can do no better than to echo it for ourselves and each other as we continue our Advent journey:

May God, the source of hope, fill us with joy and peace as we trust in him, so that we might overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.