“Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
There, 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.
You may have heard something about me. My father, Zacharias, likes to tell the story about the time he lost his voice for 9 months. To me that’s ironic, him being the father of a prophet and all. The way he told it one day an angel came to him saying that he and his wife, my mother Elizabeth, were going to have a child, even though like Sarai and Hannah they were old and believed beyond the age of child-bearing. And like some of the others in the past and I’m sure some of you, he didn’t entirely believe God, even though he did speak with an angel. The angel told him all about me – about how many would rejoice at my birth, how I, John, was going to be great in the sight of God and man, how I wouldn’t drink alcohol, and how I’d be filled with the Spirit – even from my mother’s womb. And I was going to be the one who would turn Israel back to her God, to make them ready for His coming, His Advent.
My father loved God, and he was an important man – a priest, but this was too much for even him to believe. Sometimes even I didn’t believe it all, though it all happened to me. So in the best tradition of Moses and Gideon my father asked for a sign. He got one alright – God struck him dumb for 9 months! Nine months later, on the day I was to be circumcised and named, he wrote that my name was to be “John,” and finally, he could speak again.
My mom, on the other hand, liked to tell the story about how I was so precocious I jumped – and I mean JUMPED! in her womb when my Aunt Mary came to visit. Somehow I knew that my very special cousin Jesus was already conceived. Don’t ask me how, but it happened – it’s a mystery of the Spirit.
All my life I knew I was special, too. 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 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 got used to loneliness: maybe some of you know what I mean. It’s alright to be different. God knows that I was VERY different after all, He was the one who had created me that way. He had a very special purpose for my being different, and He does for you too.
As a teen and young man I always kept my vow not to drink alcohol, and again I was ostracized. 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.
And yet I was dissatisfied. Surely God hadn’t called me, the one promised of God, named by the angel, and marked by vows, to waste his precious gifts on the serpents and shrubs of the wilderness. I doubted.
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.
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. For several long years there was the wilderness, me, and my unquenchable thirst to serve God.
For many nights I was possessed by a restlessness that came over 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 of whatever it was he was doing. 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.
Maybe some of you are impatient to do things your own way. Maybe you too are eager and impatient to prove your maturity but in your haste you leave out the One who is able to give you your deepest desires and fulfill your deepest needs.
But as I said, the wilderness conquered me. I learned that those who wait are also those who serve. So I waited for God. It’s all any of us can do.
One day, without warning, without my planning it and just as I’d learned how to wait, 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 – a classic case of what you’d call stage fright. 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, certainly more than I had ever intended or expected. 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 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 infallible to follow, and all of us are tempted to think we are that leader.
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.
It was hard enough at times always knowing you were second best, being the one everyone looked to and yet knowing within in you and having to say to everyone “I am not the One.” It was even harder not knowing exactly WHO He was going to be. And then suddenly, when it seemed like things could not continue, after many had repented and been baptized and the whole world was seeking me – God sent His Spirit on Jesus, and I knew. Immediately, all my doubts and temptations vanished. All my petty cravings for self-importance were exposed for the foolishness they were, just as each of you will see on the Day of Judgment.
But do you know what perhaps the hardest thing of all was? It wasn’t the 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. But God did make it clear to me. And then, like a good Israelite, I sort of forgot. And before I knew it I was in prison for preaching the truth, while He was free and growing in favor. I hadn’t exactly counted on that, and though I knew better, 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 leaving. One day I was released from years in the wilderness and found myself in the public eye, preaching, baptizing, the center of the attention of all of God’s Chosen People, and seemingly the next day I withered. Both the high point of my life, and the beginning of the end. 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 had done 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. And in my day I was great, the greatest prophet of them all, and the last one as well.
But Alas! for John the Baptist he was destined to be second best again. Just when Jesus said I was the greatest man among those born of a woman, just when I felt best about myself after someone told me what He’d said about me, He also said that even the least of you, even those who are least 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, and yet you know that it may also be true that you will die before He returns. Pray for patience.
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. This requires responsibility for this great knowledge, just like I had, only greater. For when God shows you His truth, like He did to me, He gives you an 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 see 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, and not I who am dead, 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.
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.
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 find one way today that I can actively and humbly submit myself to my Lord.
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson