As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus has gone from baby to boy to man and is about to launch out on his great mission. Before that however, there are three preparatory stepping stones for us to think about. These are the stories of his temptation and baptism, but first, John the Baptist.
John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin. As with Jesus, his birth was announced by angels, made a huge impact on his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1: 5); and was commemorated by a great early Christian hymn (Luke 1: 67).
The supply-line of prophets in Israel had dried up years ago. Suddenly there was a new one, and a great one too. He was a young man in his mid to late 20s, living an austere life-style, a righteous, non-compromising man. Calling a spade a spade and a sin a sin, John travelled around the towns and villages of Judah, which was in the south. With great passionate eloquence he called people out to be baptised in the River Jordan and out they came by the truckload. There was something in all of this of a return to the great days of Moses and the escape from Egypt. There was to be a new purified people of God, a new Exodus, Israel would be a newly cleansed promised land and his baptism and ‘soaking’ was the new crossing of the Red Sea.
John was the fore-runner, preparing the way for the ‘one who was coming’. He was not the Messiah, but Jesus was. He was like a ‘road builder cum herald cum people get ready warm-up act’. The ‘one who is coming’ will be far greater, more powerful and far more holy so that John will not even be able to fasten his sandals for him. John is baptising in water, but the coming one will baptise in spirit and fire.
John’s holiness was rugged, hard, lonely. Jesus’ would be just as deep and passionate, but would be more human, warmer, friendlier and gentler.
John took people back to their past, Jesus led them to their future. John directed people to their sinfulness; Jesus took them beyond that to their deep inner needfulness. John asked the questions but it was Jesus who pointed to the answers.
So here we see these two great spiritual leaders. They are cousins, they are both servants of God, sent to his people, but one is greater than the other. They are a bit like the moon and sun with the dawn breaking just as the moon is waning.
John was able to take people on a journey. It was a journey to the river. Jesus was to take them on from there deep into a new land on the other side of the river and even to the gates of Heaven itself.
Now here is a final thought, a teaser. Suppose this passionate, demanding John the Baptist was to wander into your life, listening to your words, watching the things you do and don’t do, picking out all the dirty washing, the stuff in the basket and the stuff just left on the bedroom floor. Suppose Jesus was to follow him into the house of your mind and soul, and in a rather warmer way was to say something like, ‘yes it is a bit of a mess, but let me help you to clear it all up.’ To say, ‘let me wash it for you.’ What do you think would be the stuff that they would both be focusing on?
Dear Lord Jesus,
Your light exposes my darkness.
Your purity highlights my sinfulness.
Your love contrasts with my selfishness.
So may your truth point to my failing,
Call me to repentance,
And wash me in forgiveness.
And may I emerge from the water Newer,