The brazen desert sun reflected mercilessly off of every rise, wallowing in the gaps between the dry cliff walls and the tawny wilderness floor. The opening crags of jutting rock faces joining to form the rugged hillsides of the desert of Judea seemed to move toward the afternoon sun as the light played its way in waves above the hot sand and desert gravel looking off to the west.
Along the winding path of coarse yellow scrub brush and strewn boulders bleached in the intensity of the dust-blown air, the pale blue sky pressed in on the wastelands in a dry haze, hanging languid and resilient over the amber hills. In places the stretching shadows of a Terebinth or Carob tree or the scrawny silhouette of a brier standing out along the otherwise barren terrain.
A bit off to his right, stretching like a welcome hand of hope into a dry land John saw the Jordan River branching toward the path he was on. He was nearing his destination. At 27, John was well accustomed to the life of the desert – the hidden streams, the honey to be found in deadwood, the communities of wilderness dwellers, the bandits, the ascetic pleasure of fasting and prayer, and most of all the voice of God hidden in the silent moments of reflection and clarity. John came to the fork in the road and headed for the river. He knew his purpose, he knew it was time.
God had sent him to fulfill an age old prophecy. God had chosen him to share a critical message. God had sent Him to announce the arrival of the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed King of God — Jesus.
“Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, ‘Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken!” – Isaiah 40
John made his way down the rocky slope toward the winding banks of the Jordan as He began preaching to the crowds gathering below,
“Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” – Matthew 3
He made a striking image in the minds of those who saw him, a desert dweller and a member of the Nazarite holy order, dedicated to God from birth. John had maintained his holy vows, avoiding wine and alcohol in all forms and never cutting his hair or beard. And now, as he stood before the first of many crowds he lifted his voice to speak out and be heard,
“Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3
He spoke with authority, moved powerfully by God’s Holy Spirit rising up and overflowing within Him. He spoke with passion and purpose, confidence and conviction as the prophet God had called him to be, to share the good news of salvation for his generation.
John stood up to declare God’s message just as Elijah had stood before him, clothed, not in the best quality or highest style of the day, but in a rough garment woven of camel’s hair, bound to his body by a broad leather belt. A rough man with a clear calling, drawing crowds not because he was confirming their lifestyle choices, but exactly because he was challenging them to live a better life.
John had been born 6 months before the savior of the world, and arrived as the first prophet in Israel in almost 400 years.
His preaching was simple,
“If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” – Luke 3
To the much hated tax collectors, famous for stealing and enriching themselves by collecting more than was required of them by their Roman overlords, John said,
“Collect no more taxes than the government requires.” – Luke 3
And to the Roman soldiers, the occupying force of an entrenched police state, he said,
“Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.” – Luke 3
To everyone who asked he gave an answer. Simple. Truthful. Faithful. Clear.
John knew his purpose to prepare people to meet, to recognize, and to follow Jesus and so he baptized as many as possible in the waters of the Jordan river and preached repentance from every kind of sin.
He knew his time was limited and so he told everyone who came to him of the coming Messiah, dissuading them of their expectation that he was the Christ,
“I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” – Luke 3
Equal parts good news and identification of the challenges facing them, John communicated with urgency and with hope.
Even Herod, the local king, came to hear the words of John, and John didn’t hold back from rebuking Him and asking Him to repent for taking Heriodias, his brother Philip’s wife as his own. John’s willingness to confront power posed a challenge to Herod that was unusual. Herod knew the law and the fact that he had violated it, and yet Herod also enjoyed a position of immunity as he was considered above the law as a king and so was unwilling to change his ways. Herod was struck by John’s authority, and perhaps even convicted by the clarity of his condemnation, but still Herod was unwilling to accept it for himself. And so, eventually, Herod would throw John into prison and later still would behead him at the request of his step-daughter Salome, but not before John had a chance to see his purpose fulfilled in launching the ministry of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and savior of the world.
It took more than two years of preaching in the wilderness, baptizing Jews and gentiles alike (quite the scandal at the time, although not so striking to the modern reader), proclaiming the kingdom of God and announcing the coming Messiah for John’s mission to be complete. And yet, he knew his time was coming to an end when his cousin, Jesus, from Nazareth came down from Galilee into the Jordan to be baptized by John and John finally recognized that He was the promised King of Kings, anointed by God to launch a kingdom that would last forever.
“Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. ‘I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,’ he said, ‘so why are you coming to me?’ But Jesus said, ‘It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.’ So John agreed to baptize him.” – Matthew 3
This was the most humbling experience of John’s life, to have the Messiah, the chosen one anointed by God to rule both heaven and earth, ask him to be baptized with the waters of repentance. What need could Jesus possibly have of repentance? And yet, Jesus wanted to start His public ministry in the waters of the Jordan, setting an example of the need to set aside the sins, mistakes, obstacles, and challenges that life throws at you and being born again by the power of the spirit of God.
“After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.'” – Matthew 3
If there had been any doubt that Jesus was the one, John no longer wondered, “This is My dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy”.
Until the day he died, John would tell anyone who would listen that,
“I saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove from heaven and resting upon him. I didn’t know he was the one, but when God sent me to baptize with water, he told me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I saw this happen to Jesus, so I testify that he is the Chosen One of God.’ – John 1
God’s promises were true. God’s promises were being fulfilled. It was just as the prophet Malachi had said almost 400 years before,
“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming” – Malachi 3
You may feel that these stories are the stuff of myths and legends, nice for Sunday school and coloring books, but of little relevance to the challenges you are facing right now. So, let me be the one to point out that the people John was preaching to in the wilderness of Palestine so long ago felt the exact same way. It had been hundreds of years since they had heard anything of immediate relevance from God. The scriptures were becoming dated and forgotten. The teachers and preachers of the day seemed more interested in their own success and political connections than in sharing God’s secrets to health, peace, and joy with others. The promised kingdom of Israel seemed a far off promise to a people oppressed by Roman rule, and the prosperity of God’s blessings seemed out of reach to a people under-capitalized and over-taxed.
And yet, amid the doubt, the fear, the confusion, the loss — surrounded by defeat and despair, disease and death, evil and cruelty, injustice and oppression — Jesus came to save all people for all time.
Undeterred. Unstoppable. Unashamed. Unafraid.
God’s promises were sure. God’s promises were trustworthy. God’s promises were real.
God’s promises are sure. God’s promises are trustworthy. God’s promises are real.
John spoke the truth when he said,
“Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1
Do you have a weight that you would like to let go of? Do you have a sin that you would like to leave behind?
“God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” – John 1
This is not a myth. This is a not a legend. This is the fact. This is the reality. This is the promise of the God who created you and desires more than anything to save you — that if you will accept Him and believe Him, if you will make His life your life, His purpose your purpose, and His way your way — you can be born again — you can become a child of God.