The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”, John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ -- Mark 1:1-8.
Where have we heard the following story before?
An angel of the Lord appears to an old man and declares, “O Zakariya! We give thee good news of a son: His name shall be John: on none by that name have we conferred distinction before.”
The old man replies, “O my Lord! How shall I have a son, when my wife is barren and I have grown decrepit from old age?”
The angel replies, “So thy Lord saith: ‘That is easy for Me: I did indeed create thee before, when thou hadst been nothing!”
The old man insists, “O my Lord! Give me a Sign.”
“Thy sign,” the angel answers, “Shall be that thou shalt speak to no man for three nights.”
The scenario rings a bell, but from which of the four canonical Gospels is it? Or perhaps it is from the historian Flavius Josephus who wrote Jewish Antiquities in the first century of the common era. Or could this be the dialogue of one of thousands of Christmas plays and gospel movies that have been produced since the invention of film?
Actually, the passage is from the Qur’an – sura 19 (Maryam), verse 7. The only thing I held back, to make it harder to guess, is the name John. The baptizer – the precursor – the forerunner – is named Yahya in the Qur’an, but he is the same figure who came to proclaim the coming of Jesus.
It’s surprising how John’s influence has so profoundly affected Muslims and Jews as well as Christians. More than any other figure of the gospels except Jesus himself, John the Baptist has permeated our culture. He is the subject of plays, movies, books and operas. Actors such as Charleton Heston and Michael York chewed up the scenery with their portrayals of John as an eccentric, wild-eyed and bellowing fanatic calling hoarsely on sinners to repent.
As the centuries passed, even the artists who portrayed John became legends on their own. Karl Perron, the German bass-baritone who sang the role of John in Richard Strauss’ Opera Salomé, was a life-long hypochondriac who believed harmful germs would enter his body through his ears. During rehearsals of Salomé, Perron would stuff balls of cotton in his ears and quickly retreat to his dressing room between acts. He would turn his head away from cast and crew members as if they were disease-carrying pariahs. This was an annoying habit to some of his colleagues, and it led to a disastrous denouement on opening night. In a climatic scene after Salomé’s dance, when the platter bearing the plaster head of John the Baptist was carried on stage, the head had cotton balls stuffed in its ears. The stunned singers and musicians dissolved into laughter, and it was several moments before the opera could proceed.
Art has not always provided a useful rendering of the story of John the Baptists. The 1953 movie Salomé, starring Rita Hayworth in the title role and Alan Badel as John, is best known for Hayworth’s dance of the seven veils (which, in the interest of research integrity, I watched several times in succession last week). Hayworth’s dance is breathtaking, as is evidenced by the possibly feigned but convincing heavy breathing of Charles Laughton in the role of Herod.
The scene may have created a fitting emotional illusion of what it was like in Herod’s palace when Salomé began dripping veils, but it is otherwise inaccurate. Director William Dieterle’s film version would have us believe Salomé is a Christian who thinks she’s dancing to save John’s life. That’s not only un-biblical, it takes all the fun out of it.
So what was John really like? If you grew up Baptist – or Babtist – you may have heard a Sunday school teacher try to convince you that we trace our roots back to John. But – as satisfying as it may be to tell our Presbyterian friends that our founder predates John Calvin by 1500 years – there’s no truth to the claim. Our 18th century origins had nothing to do with John.
Only in the Qur’an, it seems, is John Yahya known for his kindness:
“And piety (for all creatures) as from Us, and purity: He was devout, And kind to his parents, and he was not overbearing or rebellious. So Peace on him the day he was born, the day that he dies, and the day that he will be raised up to life (again)!” —Qur'an, sura 19 (Maryam), ayah 13-15.Other ancient views of John raise questions about our stereotypical image of him as a raging prophet dressed in animal skins and eating locusts. According to Bart D. Ehrman in Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament, the records of the contemporary Ebionites portrayed John as a fellow vegetarian. He did not, the Ebionites insist, eat locusts, and he preferred his honey in the form of honey cakes, or manna. If John were a vegetarian, that would also raise doubts about his propensity to dress in the skins of dead animals. The image of John that emerges looks more like the dapper, purple-clad gentleman in the Tiffany stained glass window that illuminates North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y. (above, right).
So who was John?
No doubt he was not a raging maniac, and Mark did not believe he was an esthetic vegetarian. “Now John,” Mark says, “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” Okay. Not my cup of tea, but there it is. One can only hope the locusts weren’t still buzzing when he bit into them. Probably not. He was surely a discrete eater, or he would have scared away more crowds than he attracted.
But his culinary habits don’t really matter. What we do know about John is clear enough.
It was John who was sent by God to give us an important message:
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
It was John who “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
And, most significant of all, it was John who came prepared to turn his back on fame and influence as soon as his cousin, Jesus, arrived on the scene. That’s not a common attitude. It’s like Steve Jobs telling everyone, “but even more important than me is Tim Cook, who must increase as I decrease.” Not bloody likely.
But John said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Even two-thousand years later, John’s message is too important to be dismissed by speculation that he was a rustic eccentric who ate bugs. It is still John’s message that calls us away from the frenzied chaos of our Christmas preparations and says, stop. Take a deep breath. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Be patient.
Waiting, as Henri Nouwen wrote, is essential to the spiritual life.
“But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting,” Nouwen said. “It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for. We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory. We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God's footsteps.
“Waiting for God is an active, alert - yes, joyful - waiting. As we wait we remember him for whom we are waiting, and as we remember him we create a community ready to welcome him when he comes.”
It is John the Baptist who calls us to create that community of readiness.
It is our job to nurture one another and live in that community with patience and joy, so that when this hectic season culminates with the coming of the Christ child, it will be a happy celebration and not a blessed relief.