John the Baptist
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” … Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:1-2, 4 NRSV).
If you visit St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, West Jefferson, North Carolina, you’ll see Ben Long’s splendid fresco painting of John the Baptist. It portrays a gloriously hairy man wearing an equally hairy loincloth, carrying a staff. It’s a powerful image that stays with one well after one has left the site. John, in this depiction, looks fierce as his rhetoric would lead one to believe. Was this really what he was like, or did his rhetoric come from a passion that was not to be fobbed off by pious platitudes?
According to tradition, John was six months old when Jesus was born. They were cousins and one can readily imagine some of their childhood and teenage discussions. In him we have a complete history of a prophet, from birth to death. There was his miraculous conception and birth, his prophetic ministry in the Judean wilderness and on the banks of the Jordan River. His courage in speaking out against Herod’s dissolute life finally led to his shameful death. Speaking truth to power has its consequences.
His language was extreme by anyone’s standards (“generation of vipers”) but there was a great kindness to John: He never refused anyone who came to him for baptism, provided that there was a genuine desire for amendment of life. He was humble, as shown in acknowledging Jesus as the Christ (“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal”). Like many passionate religionists, John possessed a deep anger for everything that was false. May we also share his gift of discernment and equal his passion for the mission and ministry of his cousin.
O God who inspired prophets in every age, we give you thanks for the example of your servant John the Baptist: Enable us by your grace to profit by his example, so that we may truly repent and amend our lives, speak the truth, rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.