Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 23 - John the Baptist

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins
.  -- Matthew 3:1-6

"Oh, boy, here comes another one. Another prophet telling us the same old thing, 'Repent!' Why don't they ever say 'You're doing okay, but maybe try a little harder'?"

Being a prophet is not an easy job. Biblical prophets especially seemed to have a lot of things to do and overcome in order to do the job they were given to do. They ran around the marketplace stark naked, they lay on one side for weeks and weeks before turning over to the other side and all in full view of the public, they made scenes, did things that would attract a lot of attention, even gave their kids names that suggested trouble or dire events to come. Most of all they were given the job of telling the people that they were on the wrong track and needed to get the wheels back in the right grooves God-wise.  John was no different. He dressed in an approved prophetic garb, ate what the land would provide including bugs and the honey found in trees and rock crevices, and lived a very basic, simple kind of life. His job was to call the people to repentance, just like his earlier prophetic ancestors, and he was doing it.

Today we look for prophets also dressed in camel hair with leather belts, only we expect them in Brooks Brothers suits of a very fine weave and leather belts that probably cost more than it would take for John to live on for a decade.  We don't look so much for messages of repentance as we do messages of the health of our 401k or what the market will be doing in the next few months or even years. We look to prophets to tell us the future, like fortunetellers, instead of what they actually were intended to do -- look about, see what is wrong and pass on God's message of straightening up and getting on about making the world better for everyone, not just the privileged few with everybody else getting whatever is left over, if there is anything left over. Most of all, we want them to tell us that the slick-looking dude standing in front of a video camera telling us how to get closer to God by claiming the blessing, contributing to this or that ministry or even simply believing in the message of a prosperity gospel is enough.

John's job was also to do what other prophets did, namely proclaiming the coming of a messiah who would bring about the kingdom of God. The interpretation of that messiah and coming of the kingdom soon became a dividing line between Christian and Jew, but for John, he was giving the message he was charged to deliver. He wasn't even really sure he had the right guy when he dunked him in the living water of the Jordan River. In prison, he had to send a message to Jesus asking, "Are you the one?"  Still, John did his job to the best of his ability and pointed the people toward God and the necessity of changing to a different way of thinking, even to continuing to look for the messiah that was to come.

What can I learn from John?  Most of the time God calls people to do difficult things; easy ones seem to take care of themselves most of the time. Doing what God wants quite often means doing unpopular or sometimes downright spectacular things, in the sense of one appearing to make a fool of oneself  rather than some great, overwhelming event.  Most of all, hearing a prophet is one thing, checking his/her bona fides might be a necessary thing as well. They don't all come in Brooks Brothers suits.

The real path is usually the harder one.

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