Stories engage our senses and captivate our thoughts. Come and listen to a story about a time when people were waiting for something and expecting someone who would change everything.
Long ago there lived a man named John. John was a common name in that day so over the centuries following his death some confusion was inevitable. The fact that he would be associated with Jesus of Nazareth complicated things because this John would be confused with other men named John who knew Jesus, and later, men who would write about him.
In John’s day, though, there wasn’t much confusion. He was Yohanan bar-Zechariah—John, son of Zechariah, and Elizabeth, his mother. This was a well-known and respected family. Zechariah was a priest, after all, and Elizabeth’s family claimed to be descended from Aaron’s line. Although John was a common name in that day his parents created quite a sensation when they declared that against custom he would not be named after his father, nor any relative. This baby born to older parents would be named according to the will of God revealed to Zechariah in a vision. He would not be named Zechariah, which means, God has Remembered. He would be named John, which means, God is Gracious.
God is Gracious. Full of grace! But the word “gracious” as people commonly use it means refined, sophisticated, or well-off. And this didn’t describe John at all! No, to look at John one got the opposite impression.
Anyone who saw him wouldn’t forget him. He didn’t wear tailor- made suits made from plant products like cotton or linen; instead, he wore coarse, rough clothing made of animal hides. This gave the impression that John himself was a bit of a wild animal—not quite civilized. But it wasn’t just his clothing. It was the food he ate! You wouldn’t see John at the market, opening his wallet to buy from the neatly arranged rows of fruits and vegetables and grains and other products sold by vendors in the villages and cities. Because John had no wallet. He had no regular job. He had no house and no bed to sleep on. The food he ate was food he gleaned from fields, or, more likely, food he foraged from the wild. He ate insects, which wasn’t so bad since it was said that John not only ate insects but he feasted on honey, the fruits of their labor!
You might think that such a person would be an outcast, someone to be ignored or avoided, someone whom adults would make jokes about and whom children would tease. And yet, the opposite was true. John was not mocked but respected. And not because of his well-respected parents so much as because John appeared among his people at a time when people were less resistant to new things and maybe even less afraid. They were hopeful, waiting, expecting God to break in and change their world. As odd as John was, he was strange in a way that not only caught people’s attention but captured their imaginations. His appearance and behavior reminded them of other figures at other important times in their history. He looked like a prophet; he sounded like a prophet. In fact, everything about him made people wonder if he was the new Elijah.
They did more than just wonder. They responded. Unlike all the other prophets who came and went in that day, John was someone to whom people flocked. Like the prophets of old, John called for repentance: a change of heart and a change of life. In many ages before and after John people were not able to hear their need for repentance. In those times they refused to believe they needed to change, and would ignore the message of prophets, and hated their message so much that they sometimes even set out to kill them. But, at least for a short while, John’s message was not only heard but embraced. John announced the immediate in-breaking of God in the world. People believed it. They who had been chosen by God to set an example for the world were briefly able to accept responsibility for shifting their priorities from what was familiar and comfortable, to be open to something new.
It seemed like everyone showed up to hear John: from the countryside, from the towns and villages—even the capital city—people flocked to hear John’s message, to reflect on their need for change, to confess their misplaced priorities and to be washed, because that’s what John was known for: washing. John the baptizer. He wasn’t the first. Ritual washing was as common as John’s name. In fact, people might have thought that in an odd way John was following in his father’s footsteps.
But what made John stand out more than anything is that he never seemed interested in calling attention to himself. Always, his message pointed beyond himself. In fact, John described himself as unworthy of the one who would follow him. Many years later, people would remember this and marvel, because when it became clear who John was speaking of, this one whom John called the Chosen One was among those who came to John to be baptized. In fact, many insisted that Jesus of Nazareth, the man John spoke of, was in fact a follower of John! And up until the time John was executed, this seemed to be true.
So what to make of this man? Common, on the one hand. His name was common. Even as one who stuck out he was common. Like other prophets, he looked different, he lived different. And yet, this John stuck out from the crowd not so much because of his appearance but because of his message. He spoke with authority, and because people were expectant, waiting, ready to change, over time people learned to adjust their expectations. When other prophets spoke, for example, their words encouraged people to look in the usual places for signs of God’s presence and power. They pointed to political power and military might as God’s tools of choice.
John was different. He encouraged people to look for signs of God’s power and presence in the ordinary: ordinary people, ordinary routines, ordinary joys and sorrows. As people listened to John their eyes began to open and they became more receptive to the idea of God’s power resting in an ordinary person–even someone like themselves. As they began to see and think in this new way they felt less afraid. They began to experience hope– like they’d never experienced hope before. They felt empowered. In fact, when John spoke of One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, even before it was clear who John was speaking of people began to wonder if that Holy Spirit—God’s power–might even be present and powerful in themselves. And if God’s Spirit already was present, they could worry less about the inevitable winds of change. While they could be hopeful about the future, they could live gratefully in the present, seeing signs of God’s power and love all around them every day. All this, amazingly, they began to experience because of one odd, and ordinary, man.
We leave this story here and return to our own time and our own place to watch and prepare for Jesus, who has come to change everything and will come again.