Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?
John the Baptist was a man of the desert. He lived in the wide-open spaces of the wilderness. He was used to the hot, dry wind, driving him on his path. He was familiar with the snakes and scorpions that scuttled over the sandy floor. His dress to us seems bizarre, but not so much then.
This is important: his simple dress of camel’s hair and leather was not original. In fact, his dress confirmed the very opposite of originality. John the Baptist dressed just like Elijah. At first sighting a Jew would know this man dressed and talked just like an authentic Prophet of Israel. No Prophet was more authentic than Elijah! A real Prophet, indeed! A Prophet of Israel who had a word from God for Israel not the whole world: “Repent, for the King of Israel is coming.”
But – along with all this familiar, prophetic identification about Israel and her prophets and John’s singular message — you have to understand that John was a rock star. A boni fide rock star. There were crowds, adoring fans. And probably all sorts of venders. And John was the only star in Israel. If you and I had been there, looking for Jesus, we would have been lucky to find Him in the midst of John’s celebrity. Flavius Josephus, a contemporary, has a detailed and sympathetic description of John’s life and even his death in his history of the Jewish people. But he mentions Jesus only two times in passing. John was the center of attention. But all that attention was not good.
He got into trouble. When Herod visited Joseph, his brother in Rome, he seduced his wife. And then he married her for some reason. That became the big story of the day. John could not resist inserting into his sermons his commentary on this piece of breaking news.
Herod was swift to settle the matter. John was thrown into prison near the Dead Sea. He had just enough time to do some reality checks with his Cousin, Jesus. With the greatest of respect, Jesus answered him and then, according to the texts, John was decapitated and his head was delivered to Herod’s bride on a serving platter.
An old Anglican priest told a story about parishioner who used to watch lamplighters when she was a little child. Back then they lit up the streets with gas. In the evening he watched the lamplighter move slowly along the street lighting the lamps with a tapper not unlike the ones our acolytes use. The astonishing thing, in the priest’s story, was that the lamplighter was a blind. He brought light to others he himself could not see. The point being, the lamplighter was not the source of the light himself. John the Baptist was like that lamplighter.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. (John 1:6-8)
John was not the Light. He had seen the Light. He could identify the light, but he was not the Light. One time some of his disciples complained that Jesus’ disciples were multiplying over John’s. John simply declared, “He must increase and I must decrease.” There, you have it! The heart of the man’s character! “He must increase and I must decrease.” John was certain that nothing is more important than the Kingdom of God.
He reminds me of the Mary in many ways. Both live radically committed lives. He is the best of Israel. She is a living icon, the image and likeness of the Church. Like John, she had lost self-interest. Both, in their own indispensable way, announced and enabled the First Advent of Christ. And both of them literally presented their bodies a living sacrifice to God.
But there came a moment, an existential crisis, when John questioned the truth of Jesus Himself. Have you ever questioned Jesus? Have you ever asked Him – “Are you the One.” Doubt entered John’s life at the very end. Another Anglican priest once pointed out,
A dying man cannot afford to have doubts; he must be sure; and so John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question: “Are you the One who was to come, or, not?”
His men returned to John with Jesus’ answer. Not a finely tuned argument. No nuanced interpretation of the Prophets. Only the facts. “Tell John what I say — tell him what is happening.”
The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.
Jesus insists that John’s disciples return to John with evidence and the evidence is Jesus himself — because his life is self-authenticating. And Israel knew what to expect from their Messiah. The Church of God proclaims with John the Baptist that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and he is the King and he will come again.
The Church of God, following the example of Mary, still waits for Jesus’ return. On the last page of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, the Church discovers her voice and she calls all the people of the world to Christ:
And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely…(Then Jesus said.) Surely I come quickly. Amen. ( and the the Church says) Even so, come, Lord Jesus.