“Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
here, that’s what you came to hear me say, wasn’t it. It’s what I’m most famous for.
Some called me Elijah. But they were wrong. Others called me The Prophet. They, too, were wrong. Some actually thought I was the Messiah, if you can believe that – me, John. You may call me the John the Baptist, as most do, or John son of Zacharias, or just John.
All my life I knew I was special. My father always reminded me of the angelic visitation and promises, and my mother too was always telling me of God’s purposes for my life. I grew up differently from other kids. I wasn’t allowed to drink wine or to cut my hair, because I had taken a Nazirite vow. I also had what you today might call an overdeveloped conscience, if such a thing exists. I saw sin everywhere and lamented it. Even as a kid I remember my anger whenever I saw the other kids lying and stealing and often getting away with it. Of course I was labeled, and other kids didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I knew that obeying my parents and the will of God was a good thing, but I almost – almost – resented it being so difficult. Sometimes I wished I weren’t so special.
In my twenties I gravitated toward the wilderness, full of wildness myself and ready to conquer the wilderness. It conquered me. I was wild at first, I mean wild with energy and ideas like a young man ought to be. But I matured in my solitariness, and my head cleared. Sometimes, it almost seemed as if God and I were the only beings in existence, and I basked in His fellowship.
In the wilderness I loved God, and my constant prayers were for God to show me His work. All I ever wanted was a chance to serve Him, and yet even this holy desire seemed thwarted. I prayed without ceasing for the coming of the Messiah, for God had shown me what my work was to be: I was to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the long-awaited King of Israel. God had elected me for this most exalted human role. My parents had reminded me of this my whole life, and in the wilderness sun it was burned into my soul indelibly.
It was so burning that it dried up my eyes: my vision began to fail. I thought maybe God had forgotten or more likely that my parents were deceived or mistaken in what they’d told me. I thirsted to drink of the mission God had given me. I wanted to charge into the cities of Israel, grab the first person I saw, and shake him, shouting my sermons until he repented. I wanted to carve out the Kingdom of Heaven from the wilderness and seize it and carry it away with the force and violence of my own energy.
You can forgive me. Maybe some of you are like I was: tired of waiting for God to come and to move in your life. Maybe you’ve given up on Him. Maybe you’ve said to yourself that God doesn’t care or that He isn’t really there. Maybe you’ve fooled yourself into being mad at God for the way your life is, without considering how much God loves you and is preparing you for maturity.
But God IS there, and He does care.
One day, without warning, without my planning it, and just as I’d learned to be patient, God told me it was time. The day had come when I was to go into the cities and preach repentance, for the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand! God’s long-awaited Messiah was coming, the light of the world, and my moment of service was imminent.
I trembled within myself; my knees knocked; a storm swept through my gut. I was finding out I was not as impregnable as I’d imagined myself to be. The wilderness seemed tame compared to the wild herds of society I must face and to whom I was now a stranger.
I’m sure I created quite an impression. I’d forgotten what a wild-looking specimen I’d become. I’d grown used to my coat of camel’s hair and leather belt, and I liked my locusts and wild honey, even as those in the cities liked their bread and wine. To me, I was just a man like any other, and I was just as shocked at their appearance as they were at mine.
But you should have seen them! You would have thought they’d seen the face of the Almighty Himself! How terrible my words must have sounded to them! “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” or to the Pharisees: “O generation of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?!” Again, I was alone, even though surrounded by many. Not everyone wanted to hear what I had to say. But I was never lonely because I was filled with the Spirit and at that very moment fulfilling my eternal destiny.
Many responded in faith. It was very gratifying, and yet I purposed in my heart to never let my “success” go to my head, because it was all the work of God. There is nothing a man has received that does not come from God. Even when they asked me if I was the Messiah, I did not give in to temptation but faithfully proclaimed that I was not He but only his humble messenger. Sometimes, when I saw the lostness of their souls and the hunger in their faces, I wanted to be that One. Everyone’s looking for a leader, someone worth following, and many of us are tempted to think we are that leader.
“No! I am not He,” I said. “I am not worthy even to undo the latch on his sandals,” I told them. If you want to know the stark truth, I wasn’t worthy of anything: I wasn’t worthy to be his prophet; I wasn’t worthy to be his cousin; I wasn’t worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with Him. God had taught me that He must be greater than I am: He alone is God. I must be second, for this is the lot of mankind.In the wilderness I’d had a lot of time to think about this, and I’d made my peace with God about always being second best. There’s a part of each of us that wants to be #1, that wants to say “I am worthy: I should have my desires met first.” Some of you may be second best. Maybe there’s someone in your life who is always a little faster, a little stronger, a little smarter, a little richer. I was special beyond my peers, and yet I was nothing compared to He who was truly #1. Considering who God is, being second best isn’t so bad after all.
One of the hardest things wasn’t just being second best or my self-doubts, or even my reluctance that it was Jesus, my own cousin Jesus, who was the Promised One. Think about it: if one of your cousins was, well, God, it’d make you think, too. What was even more difficult was that I hadn’t exactly counted on being thrown in prison, and so I began to doubt again. I, who of all people should know – I who had seen the Spirit descend on Him in the body of a dove – doubted. I even sent some of my disciples from prison to make sure of who He was.
But even this wasn’t the most difficult thing. The hardest thing of all was accepting that my role was now over, and as quickly as it had come, like a flower in the wilderness, it was gone. One day I was released from years in the wilderness and found myself in the city, preaching, baptizing, and the center of the attention of all of God’s Chosen People, and the next day, seemingly, I withered. I was done. I was in prison, watching everything God had created me to prepare and usher in.
All of these things were hard.
And yet it was the easiest thing in the world to do because it was right. It was the very thing for which I was created. In the end, I played my part well. I did all that God had commanded me to do.
If you will permit a man dead for nearly two millennia to speak to you today for but a few more minutes, to proclaim my one last sermon, I will continue.
Jesus the Messiah said of me that I was the greatest man of those born to a woman. But He also said that even the least of you who are in the Kingdom of Heaven are greater than me. And indeed you are. I bore witness to the first coming of Christ, but you have already seen Him and must bear witness to His Second Coming. This requires patience like mine, but even greater. Each of you must live your life as if He’s coming back today, with all His cloud of angels and glorious, blinding light.
You are greater than I. I saw Him baptized with water, but you have seen Him crucified, resurrected, ascended, and seated at the right hand of the Father. You have a great responsibility for this great knowledge, a greater responsibility than mine for you have been given a greater light. For when God shows you His truth, like He did to me, He gives you the awesome responsibility to be righteous and speak the truth. These things aren’t just good ideas: they’re the Law.
I had the Scriptures of the Old Testament, but you all have the entire Scriptures, the complete revelation of Jesus Christ. Go home and read them every day. God has given you His revelation that you might read it for yourselves and proclaim it to all.
Finally, I had the Holy Spirit for a season, but you have the Spirit within you forever and are His temple. The same Spirit who made me kick in my mother’s womb is in each of you, and each of you should be kicking and leaping for joy because you have seen Jesus Christ and you know Him. Pray, and the Spirit will guide you into all truth and will give you strength to profess, if you do not quench Him.
I beseech you, then, my greater brethren, do as I did. Faithfully confess Christ to all men, preach righteousness, do what is right, and do not be afraid of being second to God.
You, my greater brethren, who are greater than me because you come after me, must surpass my works. It is you who are now living who must prepare the way of the Lord. Behold! our Lord comes to you. Prepare ye the way for Him, for unto you is given the commandment to be greater than me, John the Baptist, by serving the One who is the greatest One of all.
Prayer: Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (The Collect for the Nativity of John the Baptist, from The Book of Common Prayer, 1979).
Point for Meditation:
- How willing are you to serve Jesus Christ, becoming less that He might become greater?
- In what ways is God asking you to be a prophet, making Him and His ways known to others? What fears do you have of being a prophet like John?
Resolution: I resolve to find one way today that I can actively and humbly submit myself to my Lord.