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Preacher in Camel's Hair"
Although some folks like to think that there is some kind of giant gap between the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and the gospel story, I prefer to think that they are tightly linked. Because I don't believe that prophesy ceased with Malachi.
Rather, I believe that it continued right up to the adult life of Jesus. And I believe we find that prophesy in the work of Jesus' cousin John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Of course, John didn't write any books, at least none that we know of.
But that really doesn't matter; because the record that we have of him in the gospels should be sufficient. Besides, John's mission as a prophet was a bit different from that of previous prophets.
Indeed, it is argued that this prophet was HIMSELF fulfillment of prophesy. Hear the first verse of the third chapter of Malachi: "See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts."
And we hear, in the opening to the third chapter of the gospel according to Matthew:
"In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea."
Now, I think it is intriguing where John is located: in the wilderness. One would think that this would doom him to oblivion, to anonymity. I mean, how can he possibly make a name for himself in the wilderness? But somehow he did.
Listen to the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth verses of the eighteenth chapter of the book of the Acts: "Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.
“He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John."
And to know John is to know a very simple message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." And the nature of this message separates John from earlier prophets. For the earlier prophets spoke with less urgency on such matters.
That is not to diminish their messages; but none spoke so vehemently as John that the "kingdom of heaven has come near."
But what did John mean by "repent" in this context? Literally, the word means "return," and it would seem that he's calling upon his listeners to return to following the covenant between God and Israel. But if that's the case, does it mean that John's message differed from that of Jesus?
Or might it have been that John wasn't really sure how the kingdom of heaven was to manifest itself, but he WAS sure that the only way to prepare for coming events was to return to a right relationship with God.
In any case, John was a unique prophet. Not only is he considered fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi, but he is also very specifically considered fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.
Luke tells us, in the fourth verse of the third chapter, "as it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."
And there is other evidence of who John was. He was very much like the earlier prophets in his life-style, in his behavior.
Matthew goes on to tell us that, "John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey."
And hear the seventh and eighth verses of the first chapter of Second Kings: "He said to them, "What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?" They answered him, "A hairy man, with leather belt around his waist."
“He said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite." And again hear the words of Zechariah in the fourth and fifth verses of the thirteenth chapter: "On that day the prophets will be ashamed, every one, of their visions when they prophesy; they will not put on a hairy mantle in order to deceive, but each of them will say, "I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil; for the land has been my possession since my youth."
But what does it mean to have clothing of camel's hair and a leather belt, a hairy mantle? We're not talking about fur coats! Quite the opposite.
Rather, we're talking about a prophet who lived simply, even crudely, whose food was locusts and wild honey. Indeed, John was one who practiced what Jesus preached.
And although John did not have the glitz and glamour of our contemporary evangelists, he STILL succeeded.
"Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan."
Isn't that something? They didn't have the luxury of turning on the tube and sitting back and watching him. They WENT OUT to him! Now THAT'S powerful ministry. He obviously had no advertising budget. He didn't go into the cities where the heavy population was. But was EFFECTIVE enough in sending his message to those in the wilderness that word got out. And the word spread. And folks went out of their way to get to where he was.
Now, I have to admit that every once in a very great while I have watched television evangelists, and occasionally I have even learned something from them. But I have to wonder if they could have done what John did. Without benefit of modern technology, could they have been as effective as John in drawing people to them?
Being out in the wilderness, those who came to John "were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins."
And that sounds simple enough. But the passage is deceptive. Because what WAS John's baptism, anyway? It certainly was not the baptism that we know, for we have been baptized in the name of the trinity: the father, the son, and the holy spirit.
But for John there was yet no son, nor holy spirit. So what WAS his baptism? We can understand it as a symbolic washing away of our sins, but little more. And that makes John's ministry all the more amazing.
He had less to offer those who came to him than we have today, yet STILL he was amazingly successful. So what was his message? Well, much like earlier prophets, he was calling people's attention to their falling away from God; and, much like earlier prophets, he was preaching the coming of a messiah. The difference was that John was destined to SEE the messiah, and to be asked by the messiah to baptize him.
But what was the flavor of John's preaching?
"When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
And it's a bit odd that the Pharisees and the Sadducees should be there. Because these were the two leading Jewish doctrinaire groups! I mean, they already had the answers. But their position does not intimidate John. In fact, it inspires him!
And he minces no words in calling them a bunch of snakes.
But what are we to make of the question that John asks them: "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Is it an objective question? Or is it a rhetorical question? Or is it a sarcastic question? It may have been all of these.
But I think he's asking them, "Why are you here?"
And he tells them, "Bear fruit worthy of repentance." Now, that's a poetic way of telling them that baptism is not going to solve all their problems. And I can hear John telling them, "I don't know why you're here, but don't expect a quick fix."
I have a brother who had his son baptized in a Lutheran church--his wife's denomination--and his daughter baptized in a United Methodist Church--his denomination. But otherwise, he almost never sets foot inside a church except when his parents came to visit. He needs to hear what those Pharisees and Sadducees heard from John. That the act of baptism is not an isolated act.
To "bear fruit worthy of repentance" is to demonstrate to the world that repentance does make a difference in our lives, not just in the moment of repentance, but thereafter.
But John is suspicious of the Pharisees and Sadducees, suspicious that they MAY see his baptism as some kind of easy way out, and he goes on to warn them, "Do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor"; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham."
And it was easy for the Jews to see themselves as God's chosen people, to lay claim to the promises of their forebears, to somehow believe that being of the family of Abraham therefore earned them a special place. But John is telling them that all that is irrelevant, and demeans such arguments by pointing out that birthright is meaningless; if God so chooses, God could create the children of Abraham from the stones of the earth.
Indeed, it would seem that John's point of view is rather clear; it matters not from where or from whom we came, but rather to where or what we are going. Descending from Abraham is less important than bearing fruit now.
And in the modern church we might find a parallel: It matters not to what faith or denomination we belong. But it does matter what we DO with the beliefs we hold.
"Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
And it sounds like unforgiving condemnation; but we need to remember John's focus of repentance--genuine repentance. For with repentance comes forgiveness.
But the absence of repentance, the dependence on "who we are" rather than "what we do" merits nothing more than condemnation.
And John speaks not for himself, but for who is coming after him:
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
And it is both a promise and a warning. John knows his limitations and states them. He is humbled by the coming of Christ and admits that. But more than that he tells us what the coming Christ can do that he cannot: "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Whereas John's baptism is one for repentance, for a turning back, the baptism of Christ is a moving forward to a new life in the Holy Spirit, sent of God, a baptism with fire which both cleanses AND refines. For just as fire can destroy, fire can also renew.
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Of course, this image is two thousand years old, and we may have some trouble getting a handle on it.
But having grown up in wheat country, I can still see those self-propelled combines, which I spent more than a few hours driving, slowing moving through the fields. And at the top of one of those machines, just behind the driver, came a steady flow of golden grain into the bin; while at the back of the machine there was an equally steady flow of dirt and chaff being spit out.
Times may have changed, but the message of John the Baptist still holds true. That preacher in camel's hair genuinely humbled himself to preach THAT which was beyond him. He did not bow and scrape to the elite Pharisees and Sadducees, but he saw all of humanity in need of hearing the message of the call to repentance.
And in preaching that message, he also set the stage for one to come after him, one whose message would build on his own, but take humanity far beyond any place that John could take them.
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