There is a time and a place for the message of John the Baptist. God knows that we need to hear that voice, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. It is a voice that is generally inconvenient to us, reminding us persistently, and sometimes none too gently that our ways are not necessarily God’s ways, lest we forget to strive in life for things that are noble, not just practical.
When the voice of John the Baptist and others like him is extinguished, how quickly and how easily we can forget to strive for the kingdom of God. How easily we lose a sense of vision! How easily our lives deteriorate into the meaningless, trite and endless barrage of the daily necessities that claim our attention.
We need the voice the cries in the wilderness that there is a point to life; that there is a purpose. And that purpose is to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness, a highway in the desert for our God. We need that reminder just as much as did the people in the first century of Palestine. Our wilderness might not be in that isolated area just beyond the Jordan River, or the isolated and rural areas of our country such as the Pennsylvania Wilds. In fact, our wilderness might be in the very midst of civilization, in what many people refer to as the urban desert; the urban wasteland, such as was celebrated in TS Eliot’s famous poem.
We need the voice of one who has the courage to stand and proclaim that what appears expedient is not necessarily either moral or ethical. Who has the courage to point out when we are headed in the wrong direction, and who holds out the necessity and the opportunity to repent and to head differently before it is too late. We need the voice of John the Baptist and his ilk. For from them comes vision, and without vision the people, the human spirit perishes.
But much as we might need the voice of the one crying in the wilderness and reminding us to prepare in the desert a highway for our God, yet the message of John is not the whole story. And we can get confused about that, just as the people who were sent to interrogate John were confused in the Gospel today. There they were wondering: by whose authority are you doing this? Just who do you think you are? If you are not the Messiah, and not even Elijah, what gives you the right to tell people that their sins can be forgiven and that it is possible to turn yet again?
Of course, these folk were aware of the prophecy that was found in the book of the prophet Malachi which reads:
Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse. Malachi 4:5–6
The point here is that John cannot be the Messiah. Valuable as John the Baptist’s insights may be, important as they are, they are not messianic in nature. Nor can they ever be messianic in nature, for it is not John the Baptist’s temperament. His is the prophetic vision to point out what is wrong, and the necessity of returning to the Lord. He may be able to proclaim the forgiveness of sins; but except at a great distance he cannot see the possibility of baptism fully in the power of the Holy Spirit. Those in whom the spirit of John the Baptist dwells can tell you what is wrong; they can offer an opinion about what to do to fix it; what they cannot do is offer a messianic vision, because they are not anointed to do that.
In contrast to John’s vision, the messianic vision is always:
- Graciously welcoming
- Anointed with a vision of hope
- Always looking at the potential in terms of the kingdom of God, rather than focused on the failures by which we have failed to approximate it,
Messianic vision is the type of anointed vision that:
- Brings good news to the oppressed,
- binds up the brokenhearted,
- proclaims liberty to the captives,
- release to all who prison, especially those of the own making.
Where John the Baptist says this is the year of the Lord’s disfavor, the messianic vision says this is the year of the Lord’s favor, so you had better get ready to put on gladness instead of mourning; praise instead of a faint spirit. You had better start looking for restoration, for you are about to be clothed on with the garment of salvation.
So, as we get ready for Christmas we do need the voice of John the Baptist. In contemporary society, we need those of his ilk. But we need to remember they are not the whole story. They only prepare the way for one that is greater. They prepare the way for greater vision and greater hope.
It does not take a genius to point out what is wrong with the world, although it may take great courage to state it. It takes the grace of messianic vision to be able to proclaim joyful hope and the assurance that the kingdom of God is in our midst.