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The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin

Essay posted 4 December 2006

John the Baptist:
Divine Wisdom from the Lunatic Fringe

For Sunday December 10, 2006
Second Sunday in Advent

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           Malachi 3:1–4 or Baruch 5:1–9
           Luke 1:68–79
           Philippians 1:3–11
           Luke 3:1–6

John the Baptist in the desert.
John the Baptist in the desert.

           In the movie Life or Something Like It (2002), every day at the corner of Fourth and Sanders in downtown Seattle, Prophet Jack scrambled onto his crate, dramatically thrust his arms into the air, arched his back, threw back his head, gazed into the sky, and then prophesied: “I see and I say,” intoned Jack.

           One day the television reporter Lanie Kerrigan happened by Jack's pulpit. She tossed a few coins into his coffer, and in return received a disturbing message. Prophet Jack prophesied that the Seahawks would beat the Broncos 16–13, that it would hail the next day, and that on Thursday Lanie would die. She dismissed Jack as outrageously loony, until he looked her straight in the eye and with utmost seriousness said, “prophets don't joke.” Lanie was a bottle blond, but she was not a dumb blond, so when Jack's first two prophecies came true, she repented of her ways and reformed her life.

           Jack is not a bad imitation of a biblical prophet. In the Bible prophets see with unusual clarity the significance of current events or the circumstances of God's people, and then based upon their diagnosis they say a word from Yahweh to provoke His people to change. They do more "forth-telling" about the present than "fore-telling" about the future, more prognosis than prediction. Prophets connect God's word with our world, explaining each to the other. Sometimes they deliver a word of rebuke, at other times a word of social, political, economic, or religious analysis, and often times a word of hope and encouragement. They ultimately speak a redemptive word, for "prophets don't joke." God in his unfailing mercy always pursues His people. He is the gracious “hound of heaven” who does not stand by idly and let His people flounder.

John the Baptist in the desert.
John the Baptist in the desert.

           For about a thousand years, from Moses to Malachi, God spoke to His people Israel by sending them prophets. Abraham was the first person to be called a prophet (Genesis 20:7), but it was with Moses that Israel's prophetic institution took shape. Moses outlined the criteria for true and false prophets (Deuteronomy 18:9–22), and was himself called a prophet without peer (Deuteronomy 34:10). Across the centuries God sent significant women prophets like Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Deborah (Judges 4:4) and Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14). By the time that Israel was exiled to Babylon, Jeremiah summarized their prophetic history: “From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets” (Jeremiah 7:25). 

           Malachi was Israel's last prophet in two senses. His book comes last in the Old Testament, and was chronologically the latest. Malachi wrote about 100 years after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon (c. 450 BC). This dates him the closest in time to the birth of Jesus. After Malachi there was a 450-year prophetic silence, and then a direct link with the first prophet of the New Testament period, John the Baptist. In the Gospels there are at least three distinct references to John the Baptist as the forerunner who was prophesied in Malachi 3:1–4 to prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 1:17 = Malachi 4:6; Matthew 17:12–13 = Mark 9:11–13; and John 1:21).

           In this week's Gospel Luke pinpoints the precise time and place when "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah." Scholars debate how to calculate the regnal years of Rome's emperors, but the "fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" dates his story to about the year 26 AD. Luke provides additional political commentary, specifying that the word of God came to John the Baptist "when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene." After naming Rome's political powers both great and small, Luke identifies Jerusalem's religious establishment—"during the high priesthood of Annas and [his successor] Caiaphas."

John the Baptist by Donatello (marble), c. 1450.
John the Baptist by Donatello (marble),
c. 1450.

           But "the word of the Lord" came neither from imperial Rome nor from Israel's religious establishment. It did not come from someone dressed in fashionable clothes who lived in an expensive palace, said Jesus (Luke 7:25). Nor from a business board room, university laboratory, ski lodge or power lunch. God's word to his people came from a wild and woolly man who lived in the deep of the desert, on the fringes of society rather than in its corridors of power, at the periphery rather than at the epicenter. As with the prophet Jack, so with the prophet John: the divine messenger and his message originated in an unlikely place and from an improbable source, and therefore was easy to ignore.

           As a "prophet of the Most High" (Luke 1:76), John the Baptist proclaimed "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." He urged listeners to prove their spiritual intentions by concrete deeds rather than by claims of religious affiliation. Some among the crowds took John at his word, but neither the political powers nor the religious establishment did. Some listeners even dismissed him as demon-possessed.

           About six months after John emerged from the desert like some scraggly lunatic and baptized Jesus, he was beheaded at the whim of Herod the tetrarch, who at a dinner party one night capitulated to the sadistic demand of his girlfriend's daughter. John was a forerunner of Jesus, but he was also a forth-teller to Herod, having rebuked Herod for sleeping with his brother's wife (Matthew 14:1–12). But as with many perverse politicians, Herod had his way with him who had spoken truth to power, so John was murdered. As for the religious establishment, Jesus tells us that "the Pharisees and experts in the law" spurned John's call to baptismal repentance, and in so doing "rejected God's purpose for themselves" (Luke 7:30). The prophetic word of God from John the Baptist, then, did not originate with the state powers or the religious establishment, nor did it find a receptive audience with them.

Caravaggio, Beheading of John the Baptist.
Caravaggio, Beheading of John the Baptist.

           God sending his prophets is one thing; our listening to them is another. John the Baptist announced the claims of God’s kingdom upon our lives as ultimate, which means that the claims of race, gender, culture, money and political or religious allegiance are, at best, penultimate. With his announcement John counsels us to repent of anything and everything that might hinder ultimate allegiance to Jesus. He invites us to make our crooked ways straight, to flatten all hilly terrain, and to prepare space for the birth of the Messiah into our own lives.

For further reflection

* In the words of the hymn, how might you "prepare him (Jesus) room" this Advent?
* Why do we dismiss divine wisdom from apparently unlikely sources? Examples?
* Why did the political powers and the religious authorities reject John the Baptist?
* To quote Seattle's Prophet Jack, if God could "see" your life, what would he "say" to you?