Matthew 3:1-12, pt. 3
For a guy who had spent his entire life hanging out with nature’s ruffians – a life closely mirroring that of Grizzly Adams or Gollum of Lord of the Rings fame – John was surprisingly adept at political repartée. He had little to prove and even less to lose. He was barely dressed for one thing; hardly presentable as a suitable dinner guest. It did, however, allow him, deftly and with nimble turn of phrase, to jostle and joust with the religious muck-a-mucks in ways that would have had my mouth duly soap-scrubbed as a youngster!
One wonders if this is the reason why Jesus so often insists upon his followers’ disavowal of worldly wealth in favor of the relative mobility and freedom promised by possession of little. Unencumbered by the often unwelcome and burdensome responsibilities of consumptive living, Jesus’ disciples are then free to move in and out of places, conversations and situations requiring the touch of God. Then they, like John, can float easily into unknown territory rife with uncertainty and even danger in bringing the prophetic but healing message of the gospel. Then they, like John, can speak truth in love without fear of reprisal in the way of property loss, theft, or impounded vehicles. Then they, like John, can spend significantly less time and resources on appearance, entertainment, security or insurance.
John the Baptizer as he came to be known is best understood as our very first Desert Father. Before Abba Antony of Egypt was John of Judea. As the Jewish leadership walked the sharp edge of a knife wobbling between capitulating to Rome’s insidious charms, including her deadly Pax Romana, or throwing in their lot with Zealot revolutionaries, the spiritual malaise left in the wake made for thirsty, disillusioned souls. Many of these stood ripe and ready for the kind of radical removal from Roman rot John enfleshed. Say Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw of John: “He invited people from the centers of civilization to the desert, to the margins, to find God. All of Rome’s dreams were made irrelevant as he ate locusts and made his clothes from camel skin. And folks didn’t go to the desert simply to escape the world; they went to the desert to save the world” (Jesus for President, ©2008 by the Simple Way, pg. 78).
Rome: just another empire claiming a unique place in history – special, gifted, envisioned, blessed by “god” and triumphing over “evil.” To fall under her spell was only too easy given the awful alternatives. Many succumbed only to sell their souls to the prevailing militarized political reality that appeared sparkly and dizzyingly arrayed in the best the ancient world had to offer. She was the newest version of Babylon.
Hence, when John comes, preaching a bold message of repentance on the margins of the empire, its allure was complete. He spoke freely, unfettered by the weight of Roman economic detritus, inviting all who heard to come and take a dip with him in the Jordan. How mythical. How transcendent. How authentic. He offered a new way to think about life and how we live it together. “People went to the wilderness to get Rome out of them, purging themselves of empire and seeing the world stripped of the fabrications of civilization” (Jesus for President, pg. 78). Is it any wonder Herod was at once fascinated and fearful of one whose life of freedom from the fears of a warmongering empire preached so loudly to so many?
John’s weapon of choice: Baptism. What a strange way to reveal a person’s intentions. Only a God of utter mystery with a lot of secrets would conjure this up. Anything but neat and tidy, baptism forces dry, respectable people to become soggy, vulnerable people. As a former Baptist, now Presbyterian, I have seen baptism from more than one angle and I can safely say that, regardless of dunk or sprinkle, lake or font, bathtub or teacup, baptism is an odd practice at best.
It is surprising to me just how clear a picture John had not only of his ministry but of Jesus’ ministry as well. John’s baptism was rather like the promissory note that hinted at the banquet to come. It was like the wedding invitation on paper before the personal invitation from the bridegroom’s own lips or perhaps like the ticket to the concert yet to begin. Although John was rather more than mere ticket-taker, he was fully aware of his preparatory role in this strange unfolding of much anticipated but little understood events…(wait for the final segment yet to come).