Monday, January 20, 2014

John the Baptist: Eccentric, Passionate and a little Prophetic


John the Baptist is known by most as passionate, eccentric and committed to preaching and baptizing.  Though I bet you didn't know what I'm going to tell you about John the Baptist...

Who was John the Baptist? The Scriptures tell us little of who John the Baptist was, but we do glean some information from the Scriptures and documents such as Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18, chapter 5, 2). He was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Luke 1 records the story of the birth of John the Baptist, and the miraculous work of God in Zechariah's life and the naming of the baby as 'John'. John the Baptist was known to have worn clothes made of camel's hair, lived off locusts and wild honey. He was eccentric to say the least, and was committed to preaching a message of repentance and baptism to his listeners.

Let me sidetrack for a few moments.

Have you been watching The Voice? The Voice has been a popular promoted show around the globe, showcasing some of the finest voices in their respective countries. Coupled with panelists who are famous entertainers offering the occasional comment, and you have a show. John the Baptist was 'The Voice' of his generation. In fact, prophets were few and far between following the years of the minor prophets. Though John the Baptist was a voice. As mentioned in the Scriptures, he was a voice calling out in the wilderness. All the Synoptic Gospels mention John the Baptist as one calling out in the wilderness (see Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3 and Luke 1:80). Matthew 3:3 and Mark 1:3 are both making reference to Isaiah 40:3.

We must be a voice to our generation. We must live out and communicate the good news we have found in Jesus Christ. Without a voice, the church is hindered. Sure, we must and should let our actions speak louder than our words, but in all appropriate ways, we need to be a voice, a generation that represents the one we serve: Jesus Christ. Just as John the Baptist was a voice, we too must be a voice today.

As Romans 15:5-6 says: May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

*****

The weather in the United States has been horrendously cold lately. They called it a polar vortex and the cold weather and mind numbing temperatures affected over 200 million people in parts of Canada and eastern parts of America (all the way down to Florida). The weather was unprecendently cold. My parents know about freezing temperatures, when they spent some time in Detroit, Michigan. Dad would wake up early to begin throwing water on the car, trying to loosen up the ice. Then he would spend some time shovelling snow out of the driveway so they he could reverse the car. Shovelling and shovelling and shovelling. Without doing that, there was no way to make an exit! Finally, after making a way through the snow, he was off to work!

John the Baptist, paved the way for the Messiah. You remember his preaching right? John the Baptist would preach his heart out, about preparing the way for the Lord. He would preach out about repentance and baptism and the crowds would gather and listen. Just like my father who shovelled away the snow and made a way through the snow, John the Baptist made way for the Lord. Matthew 3:3 quotes Isaiah 40:3, saying that he would prepare the way for the Lord.

We must prepare the way for the Lord today. I have this picture of someone slashing their way through a thick jungle area, until there is a clearing. In today's culture, we need to slash away all the things that hinder people from following God, and provide a way for their salvation. Let me explain. There are some who have been burnt by organised religion: They need someone to help them navigate their way through to forgiveness. There are some who misunderstand who Jesus really is, and the role of the church today: They need someone to explain to them the real Jesus. There are some who are broken, hurting and depressed: They need followers of Jesus to offer them hope in Christ. Just as John the Baptist did, we need to prepare the way of the Lord!

*****

John the Baptist didn't live in the luxury of palace grounds. We did not even live within the rough, difficult social conditions of any 1st century town. He chose to live in the desert. Was that because people didn't accept his message in mainstream society? Maybe so, but either way, he truly was one preparing the way for the Lord in the wilderness.

Interestingly, people hear God in the wilderness. I'm not trying to be smart. There is something about being away from the noise and hustle and bustle, that you hear what you would not have heard otherwise. Call it the still, small voice of God if you like. When we consider the desert, we could think of people such as David, Elijah, Moses, Joshua, Joseph and others, who heard God in the desert. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before he even began public ministry. People hear God in the desert.

Maybe some of us reading this, are in a metaphorical desert. Wandering around and around, trying to make ends meet, trying to keep the marriage together and trying to fit it at church. I know so many people who are 'in-between jobs' or have depression or who are sick, or who are battling weight or finances or addiction. God can speak to you in the desert. In fact, being in the desert maybe exactly where God wants you to be right at this moment, so that you can learn to hear his voice and appreciate the greater blessings of life.

People hear God in the desert. Speak to us Lord!

*****

I want to elucidate one more pertinent point from the life of John the Baptist. We have seen that he is the voice of his generation, we have read of his role in preparing the way for the Lord, and also of his life in the desert.

Lastly, I come to the dramatic point in John the Baptist's life, where he is thrown in jail in the fortress of Machaerus in the mountains by the Dead Sea. We understand that through the courageous and challenging words of John the Baptist, he got on the wrong side of Herod Antipas (ruler of Galilee - ruled from 4BC - 39 AD). John spoke out to Herod about repenting of his marital affair, with his sister-in-law. Herod Antipas threw him in jail in Machaerus. Before John the Baptist was beheaded, something interesting happened. All of what I have said about this eccentric man brings me to a critical point in his life.

As John the Baptist was reflecting in jail, he began to question his life. He began to question the authenticity of the messages in which he had been communicating to the people in the desert of Judea. This is recorded in Matthew 11:2-3  When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” After all those months and months of telling the people about the promised Messiah, he wants his followers to find out where Jesus really is the one he's been talking about. The doubt has risen up within John the Baptist. Is the Christ really the Messiah? Is he really the one who comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire?

There is no doubt, a nagging wait for John the Baptist in prison as he waits for a message to be relayed back to him. These are the astounding words that Jesus replies with, '4 “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6). What an amazing word from Jesus, sent to John the Baptist in prison. You may well be in prison John, but I'm still healing the sick, I'm still raising the dead, the good news is still being proclaimed! In fact, John, let me tell you, Jesus IS the Messiah that you've been speaking of. It is how you say!

Let me finish by preaching a little. You may find yourself in that place of loneliness and isolation, but let me say to you, Jesus is still Lord, God is still a God who heals! Remember, even if you are in the desert, you can still take encouragement from the fact that Jesus has still come with good news! So, prepare the way for the Lord!



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