“Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.” This is the message that John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness. It will be what Jesus preaches as well, showing how Jesus is building on what John started. Later Jesus would call John the greatest man ever born of woman. All four gospels show him preaching in the wilderness before Jesus begins His ministry. John is an important figure in salvation history, one we should remember to look at from time to time.
John “cries out” in the wilderness. I love the symbolism of that. John’s message can’t be heard in the city. No one in the establishment will listen, and they won’t want anyone else to hear. So he goes out into the wild and preaches like a madman. He is not a part of the priesthood. He is not a Sadducee or a Pharisee, he is doing this all on his own, without permission. This questions the very legitimacy of the existing clergy by doing religious practices on his own authority. In doing so John becomes a symbol for religion’s need for constant reform.
He is the wild man, God’s madman. He wears hide instead of the clothes of polite society. He doesn’t eat like everyone else, but instead eats bugs and honey. Pay attention to that, something sweet and something bitter, like Ezekiel. The wise man must learn to eat both the sweetness and the tragedy of life. Wisdom always brings those together, the dark and the light, the yin and the yang.
In Mathew it says that Jerusalem, Judea, and all the Jordan went to see John. God was behind this crazy guy in the wilderness and the people knew it. This is why he was such a threat. All these pilgrims were supposed to be going to Jerusalem and the temple, but instead they are going to hear some upstart in the desert. Even Jesus went.
When Jesus goes to see John and is baptised by him, He is legitimizing what John is doing. He is saying it is ok to dunk people in water and say their sins are forgiven. This is totally radical thinking. Jews were supposed to follow the Torah. The priests had been adding rules so people had to jump through a lot of hoops to be forgiven, all under the supervision of the priests. Now John is saying that forgiveness is as plentiful as water! He is saying you can find God anywhere, even outside of institutions, official priesthoods, or formal rituals. Funny how we seem to have missed that message.
The stories in the Bible sometimes become stale and old. We’ve heard them all our lives and familiarity can blind us to them. We have the angel telling John’s father that his wife will become pregnant then becoming mute. When he speaks again we have the Spirit foretelling what the child will do, so it all seems preordained, just part of what had to happen. We forget that these were real people. How hard must it have been for John? Look how much we have to learn from him. John the Baptist was free. He didn’t care what society thought about him. I’m sure his family had other ideas for his life. When it was all said and done he had the courage to tell a king that he was wrong. Could you do that?