John is one of many prophets who spoke from beyond the boundaries of conventional Israelite society. Even in our own country, people like Henry David Thoreau have removed themselves from the traditional rhythms of life and work in order to critically observe the world they inhabit. Inherent in this act is gaining a perspective which is impossible to have from within mainstream society. From the periphery, they are able to observe and comment on realities which the rest of us have ignored or forgotten. At a distance, their voices are amplified and heard above the white noise which inhabits our lives. In the remote regions which they inhabit, the prophets’ message is given greater weight because they live in desolate and demanding circumstances. This is where we meet John the Baptizer. In fact, it’s the last verse in this week’s lesson which tells us about his location. “This encounter took place across the Jordan in Bethany where John was baptizing,” reads verse 28.
1. John’s place in the world matters. Location is everything. He is in the world but not of the world. John’s location offers perspective. Where can we find a similar place, in our lives, to offer the Gospel today? We too compete with the “white noise” and sounds of modern life. How do we talk about the kingdom of God and who Jesus is without shouting to be heard or turning others away?
2. People were coming to hear John. John’s message wasn’t turning people off or repelling listeners. Despite the remoteness and hardship involved to reach John; persons from all walks of life were attracted to his message. The crowds were genuinely interested in what he said (others more curious) and sought to be baptized. John’s message, while delivered on the fringe of society by someone living on the fringe, was appealing to large numbers of people. From within our society today, is it still possible to deliver the Christian message without alienating people?
3. John was clear about his identity. The visiting delegation of Jewish religious leaders asked him, “Who are you?” They ran down the list of possible suspects. Was he Elijah, the prophet, or someone else? The religious leader’s questions were rooted in authority. What authority did John have to preach and baptize? Who gave him this authority? Surely, he had to be someone returned (like Elijah) or incredibly special to speak so powerfully. John knew from whence his authority came. That wasn’t the issue in his mind. When John hears that question, he’s thinking, “Who am I in relation to the one who is coming after me?” John’s thinking big picture; where do I fit in the grand plan?
4. John doesn’t show them a driver’s license, passport, or other identification. He doesn’t even give them his name. He answers their questions by quoting scripture. He repeats a passage from Isaiah, “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight.” He is the living embodiment of the word of God. He is acting out, living out, and being obedient to scripture. He has no identity other than the text itself. He cannot explain himself other than through scripture. John’s life doesn’t make sense unless it is in the context of God story becoming God’s reality. Who are we? Do our lives make sense apart from God’s story? Is it possible for you to talk about who you are without talking about Jesus? I can’t explain any of my reality until and unless I explain God’s reality in my life at the same time. Think of the man born blind, whom Jesus heals later in John’s gospel. It is impossible for him to explain his healing without talking about Jesus. For the rest of his life, he must explain this miracle by talking about Jesus’ intersection with his life. The story is incomplete and cannot be understood otherwise. John can only discuss what he’s doing by talking about the word of God becoming a three-dimensional reality. Are we able to talk about our lives in the same way?