It was about three years ago. Seems like yesterday. That day I first heard about John.
Passing through the market square in Jerusalem, the crowd was abuzz with talk of a man who had come up out of the southern wilderness, preaching about repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Messianic talk, folks said. My people have long understood that repentance, turning around, returning to God, is necessary preparation for the coming of the Messiah, God’s agent who will restore the world as it was at the dawn of creation.
Curious, I went out to see. I wasn’t alone. Throngs of people from Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and along the Jordan had gathered on the riverbanks.
And John was something to see! Short. Thin. Almost gaunt. Yet sinewy. Long unkempt beard. Dirty hair, ratty and matted. His appearance repulsed me. He looked like he smelled! It didn’t matter though. The crowd was huge and I couldn’t get too close. Nevertheless, my anxiety was stirred. I thought, “Who…what is this?”
He wore a camel’s hair garment and a leather belt. People said, “He looks like Elijah!” I couldn’t figure out how they knew. Elijah had been gone almost a thousand years! But, on second thought, I recalled our sacred history. Elijah is described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” I also remembered our prophetic writings. Four hundred years ago, Malachi foretold that Elijah would return announcing the Day of the Lord, that great moment when God intervenes and overturns the course of human history and sets things right. I finally put two and two together. Elijah. John. Close enough!
Once I figured that out, my hope was aroused, for it wasn’t only how John looked, it’s what he said. “I cry out in the wilderness! ‘Prepare God’s way!’” Isaiah first said that almost six hundred years ago declaring the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and their return to the Promised Land. And here we were, occupied and oppressed by the Roman Empire in the Promised Land! So, when I heard John talking like Isaiah, again, my hope, long dormant, was awakened!
Some Pharisees, those pillars of righteousness who keep God’s law to the letter, and those aristocratic priests, the Sadducees, were in the crowd, too. Funny to see them together. They don’t agree on much, politically or theologically. Nevertheless, they came out to see John. John saw them. When he did, all heaven and hell broke loose! He pointed his bony finger at them and shouted, “You vipers!” Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since the Garden of Eden. Terrible thing to call someone! No way to make friends! But that’s what John said to the most respectable people of our community. I thought he was crazy! I can still hear him screaming. “Vipers! You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s chosen! It’s not enough without integrity. If you’re not true to yourself and to God. Vipers!” I’m an extrovert and I love attention, but for once I was glad that I didn’t stand out in the crowd!
Now, in the past, others had come out of the wilderness professing to be prophets. John was different. He didn’t claim to be a prophet, he simply acted like one, in unmistakably authentic ways. Even more, he preached and practiced baptism. (That’s why we called him John the baptizer.) No one baptized except those desert dwelling ascetics, the Essenes. Even so, it was only for the members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of cleansing, a mark of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, whose shoes, he said, he wasn’t worthy to carry. John never pointed to himself, but always beyond himself. Wow, what humility!
I tend to be skeptical, but I confess that I was impressed. John had charisma. A gift. Of truth-telling. I responded by wading into the water and out to where he stood. “Baptize me!” He put his hands on my shoulders and plunged me under the water. Held me there for a long time! Finally, he let me go! I came up, gasping for air! At that moment, I wasn’t sure whether or not my life had turned around, but I did see my life pass before me! Funny thing, though. I felt different. Expectant. Prepared for a brighter, better day.
But nothing happened. Well, something happened, but it wasn’t good. John was imprisoned, then beheaded by King Herod. Just before that a man from Nazareth named Jesus came to John. People began to call him “Messiah.” Incredible stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, even raising someone from the dead. Many followed him expecting God’s kingdom to come. But not too long ago, the Romans crucified him.
Promises. Hopes. Like all before and since, came to naught. Despairing, I wondered then, I wonder now, why, why did I bother to go out to see John?