Prophets are rarely attractive, gently spoken people. They are usually loud, strange, annoying, odd people. We get a glimpse of that when we hear of John the Baptist’s ranting on the banks of the Jordan. John wore strange clothes – an animal skin, a strap of leather holding it to his body – and his diet was even stranger: locusts and honey. No doubt he smelled bad, living as he did in the wilderness. And his proclamations were wild, and I’ll bet he was pretty wild as well. Ancient Orthodox icons of John show him with dreadlocks and dirty, rough hands.
Why would anyone want to pay attention to a man who looked like that?
One reason might be that the people were hungry for some proclamation. As I shared with you last week, the people of Israel were sorely oppressed. Life was hard and there was no end in sight. They were in dire need of the very thing that Isaiah talks about in this morning’s reading from the Old testament: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”
God’s people, hungry for relief from oppression, looking for something or someone that would give them relief.
So what did God send them? This man John, who looked and spoke and smelled like the person you don’t want to sit next to on the bus. No one would mistake him for a divine messenger if they used the usual methods of evaluating people. But these were unusual times, so an unusual messenger might be just what was needed to get people’s attention.
And get their attention he certainly did. People flocked from all around to hear what he had to say, to be baptized by him in the Jordan.
They were hungry for what he offered them, even if they didn’t completely understand it. If they hadn’t been hurting so badly, so tired, so despairing, they mightn’t have come out to hear him, but perhaps this strange man had something to help them, to give them hope again.
Wasn’t he just like the old prophets had foretold? Wasn’t he “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”
Perhaps it takes a smelly, odd, screaming man to get the word out: “fix things up here, get ready, prepare the way of the Lord.” Perhaps it takes a people who are so hungry for something to relieve their pain that they will accept the message from a more than a little frightening prophet.
Think about it.
Would we listen to him? Would we allow such a man to escort us into the river, to press our heads down into the brown and swirling waters, pray over us? My guess is probably not. Our needs, as real as they seem, as harsh as they are, have not made us desperate enough to take that risk.
But let’s imagine for the moment that our desire for relief from that which oppresses us gives us the ability to overcome our distaste for this odd man and his strange ways. Let’s imagine what it felt like.
We have come to the riverside to hear this man. We’ve heard of him back in town. People say he’s crazy, or they say he’s a weird follower of God, or they say that his message is powerful and they feel changed when they hear him. We are intrigued, so we go to check it out for ourselves.
We wander out to the riverside, outside of town. There he is. He’s just as strange as our friends have told us. His eyes glow with a strange fire, and his words fill us with that glow. People are walking into the river where he stands, and he pours the water over their heads, praying over them. They are weeping, confessing all their wrongdoings. But when they come up from the water, they seem to have the same glow as he does.
So we step forward. We think of all the times we have felt alone and broken. All the times we have wished for something, anything, more than this hard life of work and taxes and worry and hurt. All the times we wanted some comfort for all that ails us. All the tiems we asked God, “Where are you in the midst of this? Will you help me?”
And now we are standing at the edge of the water. He turns toward us, sensing our hesitation, and extends his hand. It is hard, calloused, but clean from all that time in the river water. We take it, and he sees what we are thinking. He wants to clarify what he is doing here, so we have no confusion in our hearts: “I know what you are looking for. I am not that one. There is another one coming who is so powerful that I am not worthy to tie his sandals. I’m here to prepare you. I will wash you in these waters to wash away your sins, but he will wash your spirit with his spirit, his holy spirit, and you will be forever cleansed.” And as we think about these words, we are suddenly pressed down into the water. We should be afraid, but we are not. The warm water swirls above our head. His hand on our heads is warm, too, and the pressure is not frightening, but…what? Comforting? Cleansing? Yes, and more.
And then the pressure stops, we bob up in the water, and the breeze across the river dries the skin of our faces. We feel like we are glowing, just as he is.
We walk up to the shoreline, a little shaky but happy. Happier than we have felt in a long time. Where does this feeling come from?
Is it from the man?
Is it from the water?
Or is it from his message, his promise that someone even greater is coming?
He no longer seems strange and frightening to us. Odd, perhaps, but not frightening. Suddenly we feel that warmth again, because of the promise he made.
Another one is coming. A powerful one who transforms people through something more than river water. He transforms people through his holy spirit. Will that feel as wonderful as that moment in the river did?
All we know is that we can barely wait for this one whom John spoke of. We can barely wait for the way he will make us feel, for the way that he will change us and the world.
Here, now, in the present day, our needs and wants are not for relief from oppression, as the people in John the Baptist’s time suffered. They may be for relief from sadness or a dreadful illness or loneliness or worry over a child or a parent. They may be for an end to wars and cruelty, an end to poverty or the abuse of children. They may be for release from the habits that enslave us.
Can we imagine walking into that river water and letting go of these things? Can we imagine the hope reborn in our hearts when we are washed clean of the pain that holds us back? Can we await what we will do when the One who is to come arrives?
John the Baptist came to get people ready for that One who is to come. He came to warn and to promise. He came to tell us to prepare ourselves, to make the road straight, to make our hearts straight.
The One who is to come is on his way. Step into the water to prepare yourself. Let go of the pain, let go of the old ways. Make yourself ready, because things are going to be different when He comes!