+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Six gospel verses. First, Luke set the time, the historical context: Tiberius was the Roman Emperor, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judea, Herod Antipas the Jewish ruler of Galilee, and Herod’s brother Philip ruling some lands nearby, and in Jerusalem Annas and Caiaphas ruling the Temple and the religious establishment. It’s a list of the urban power elites, those holding authority in the years just before and after 30 AD.
Second, Luke set the place, telling us that John went out to the desert, the wilderness around the River Jordan. In the Jewish scriptures, the wilderness is the place where human beings often encounter God. It is a place retreat and prayer, but also of testing and danger and learning and challenge. It is a place of suffering, growing, and rebellion: where God engaged Israel, where God formed Israel, where Israel learned of God’s care, where Israel’s identity was forged.
People often think of their lives as wandering, especially when we feel lost and alone. If we feel more connected to God and other people, then it might be easier to associate our life as a journey, as having more purposeful movement. Perhaps, we can see some similarity between our own life and Israel’s in the wilderness. In her journey, Israel had a variety of trials and consolations, and at times Israel was close to God and other times falling away from God, and then Israel repented and turned back to God. Eventually, Israel came to the banks of the Jordan, and she victoriously crossed over the Jordan to the Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey. To me, it describes my own experience and my ultimate hope.
Luke started by giving us time and place, and then he told us two things about John’s mission at the Jordan. First, this obscure, ordinary man had received a message from God to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, to call people to change their lives, to re-orient their lives. Then Luke quoted the prophet Isaiah.
The quote from Isaiah refers to Israel in the sixth century before Christ. A mighty empire, the Babylonians, what is now Iraq, had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the city and the Temple (the first Temple, King Solomon’s Temple) and forced the most able, talented, educated Jews into exile in Babylon. The Babylonians understood that power comes from human capital, human ability. They brain-drained Israel. Most assumed it was the end of Judaism.
In the bleak, grim rubble of the Jerusalem ruins, few literate people remained, but one of those was Isaiah, and he offered hope. His message: God hasn’t abandoned us, our suffering will come to an end, all will be well. He looked to a rising power in the East, the Persian Empire, what is now Iran, and he declared that the Persian King Cyrus would be God’s tool to defeat the Babylonians, and the captive Jews would triumphantly return home. Isaiah’s message: trust God; his salvation is imminent. The Lord, he said, is about to act decisively, and the whole world, all flesh, shall be amazed as they see Israel’s triumph. Israel will be the envy of the world. It is a message of hope and restoration.
Indeed, Cyrus did conquer the Babylonians and did release the Jews, most of whom did go home, but they didn’t return in triumph or astonish the world. For Luke, Isaiah’s prophecy was truly fulfilled over five hundred years later in John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness. John had prepared God’s way out in the wilderness.
John called the people of Israel to come to the Jordan and to receive a baptism of repentance. This is not Christian baptism, but like Christian baptism it was about turning from an old way of life and committing to a new way of life. Repentance means turnaround, change your mind, re-orient yourself to follow God’s way. John asked people to align their lives with God’s life, to make their goals consistent with God’s purposes, to close the gap between their reality and what God called them to be.
A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Palestinian Judaism, forgiveness of sins would have been just as intelligible as forgiveness of debts. While the urban power elite lived relatively well, the ordinary people were oppressed, deprived, barely making it, subsistence living. Among Jewish peasants debt was pervasive. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, family, one’s sense of belonging. It made people unable to keep their place in the community. Forgiveness was about restoring someone to community, a return to self-sufficiency and belonging.
Consequently, many among the masses longed to hear John’s message. They wanted God to help them, and John’s message and his baptism stoked hopes and challenged the status quo. But it angered those with an interest in maintaining the status quo. John’s message annoyed the powerful. He met much resistance and hostility. Herod Antipas arrested John, and although Herod feared riling up the masses and their pitchforks, he went ahead and killed John.
Looking back at John’s career, he did not seem to have had much influence in closing the gap between Israel’s reality and its ideal, what God called Israel to be, but he did generate some expectancy for the Messiah. Was John a failure? John certainly seems to have some question about it as he sat in Herod’s jail wondering if Jesus was really the one who would restore Israel. (Lk 7:18-19)
We now recognize John as the opening act, the overture, setting the scene for Jesus by getting folks ready to hear the gospel, to engage with Jesus. The part I usually overlook is how he prepared Jesus, that his greatest “success” might have been the influence John had not on Israel, but on Jesus.
A few days ago, I saw a documentary about Lincoln, and it noted that during his one and only two year term as a Congressman, he was for the first time at odds with his district. The point of difference was the Mexican War, the biggest issue of the day. Lincoln opposed it. When his term ended in late 1850, Lincoln did not run again, but went back to Springfield. He was forty-one. He began a period of reflection and reassessment, a time of retreat from public life, even a time in the wilderness. It became a period of transformation. Some might call it a mid-life crisis.
(Incidentally, mid-life crises are normal and often helpful, part of growing and maturing. A true story: a friend of mine went to his spiritual director and told him that he was having a mid-life crisis. The spiritual director responded, “Oh, that’s okay. I’m on my fifth or sixth.”)
Like many men, Lincoln had spent his young adult years establishing himself, knocking himself out to please the community, to get ahead in his profession, to start a family, to gain status. As he came back from DC, he probably started asking himself, “Is this all I want to do?” “What’s really important to me?” He was about the age many people first start to feel mortality, where it’s not simply an abstract fact, but noticing mild signs of decline.
Lincoln kept a low profile for several years. Then, in 1854, Congress enacted legislation allowing slavery in the west. His chief rival, Stephen Douglas, had introduced it, championed it. Lincoln rose up, now clear about his priorities, committed to strictly highly principled behavior, and returned to public life, renewed. He helped to form the Republican Party to oppose the expansion of slavery. He became clear about what he wanted to do, and he was willing to risk everything for his purpose. He was willing, and able, internally strong enough, to disappoint and upset people, even his supporters. He would accept grief for his cause.
I wonder if Jesus also had a period where he experienced a significant internal transformation. I bet he did. Before Jesus encountered John, we hear nothing of his adult life. Possibly – we can never know one way or the other, possibly John was essential to Jesus getting ready for his own mission and ministry. In a way, Jesus repented, re-oriented his life after hearing John.
Jesus was probably about thirty when he went out to see John at the Jordan – perhaps not too young for mid-life crisis, especially in a world with a much shorter life expectancy and poor medicine and nutrition, where mortality becomes visible earlier.
What awakened Jesus’ religious passions and energies? What made the gospel and the spiritual life become the center of his life? What provoked the development of his understanding of who he was and what God was calling him to be? What inspired him to accept such grief and suffering? What led him to become a public figure? What helped him to become aware of what was most important?
John might have been the inspiration. Jesus had to see in him a courageous man willing to risk all and even to die for what he believed God wanted. He said of John: “no one born of woman is greater.” (Lk 7:28)
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus only began his ministry after John was arrested. It’s as if once John left the scene, Jesus discerned God calling him to step up to fill the vacuum. He became a public figure and, like John, challenged the status quo, upsetting convention, demanding change, provoking fury.
As Advent focuses our attention on John and his call to re-orient our lives, to re-align ourselves with God’s purposes, to renew our commitment, let’s appreciate how John might have inspired Jesus, and so might inspire us. The good news: what feels like the wilderness is often a step toward renewal and new purpose in life.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, Vol. 2, The Anchor Bible, Doubleday (1985), p. 906.
 Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 364.
 History’s Mysteries: Lincoln: The Untold Stories, The History Channel. This point made by Michael Burlingame.  Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, HarperSanFrancisco (1994), pp. 27-28.