All four Gospels include, near their beginning, a description of John the Baptist’s preaching and baptism, reminding their audiences then and today of John’s importance to the early Christian community. Some of Jesus’ first disciples came from among John’s companions (Jn 1:35-42). Even decades later, Christian missionaries encountered John’s disciples on their journeys and found them eager to follow Christ (Acts 18:24–19:7).
‘All flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ (Lk 3:6)
In what ways must you renew yourself?
To whom can you be a sign that God is still at work?
John’s apocalyptic preaching was popular. Many longed for an end to the world’s disorder. Sin had poisoned politics, economics, law and everyday social interactions. The world was haunted by evil; the widespread belief in demonic power one finds in the Gospels testifies to the profound anxieties of first-century life. Something was very wrong, but no one could figure out what it was or how to address it.
John countered these fears by affirming that God was indeed at work, preparing a savior who would clean out Israel’s spiritual and moral corruption. To prepare for the savior’s appearance, each individual had to purge all personal corruption as well. This was the point of John’s baptism: John had adapted the normal ritual washings practiced in every Jewish household into an act of total rebirth. John’s ritual bath symbolized inner transformation, gave individuals a clean break with their past and prepared them to recognize the savior to come.
Luke understands John the Baptist to be more a mystic than a moralist. John woke Israel up to God’s hidden work. John was at the center of the divine plan; only Luke includes an account of John’s miraculous birth and hands on the tradition that John and Jesus were related. As an adult, John’s ministry affirmed God’s fidelity, countering those who had begun to wonder. For example, a Jewish tradition recorded around 175 C.E., but possibly much older, suggests that after the prophet Malachi (late fifth century B.C.E.), no further prophetic messages came from God. It is not clear if people in Jesus’ day believed this, but it is clear in Luke’s Gospel that people were hungry for a word from God. The fact that Luke saw in John a fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy (see Mal 3:23-24 and Lk 1:17) suggests that in John, God again spoke plainly, without the need for special instruction or interpretation.
John’s ministry also pointed forward to the coming kingdom. John’s preaching, recounted in Lk 3:7-14, emphasized generosity, honesty and humility. John’s preaching also insisted that the arrival of the Messiah was at hand, and that repentance and a change of life were necessary for redemption. John’s very life affirmed that God was doing something new, and the individuals who wished to be part of the new thing God was doing had to renew themselves as well.
John’s mission has become ours today. We live in an age of anxiety, but for many, the traditional means of hearing God’s voice have ceased to function. Certainly, we can find the right words to address those anxieties, but this is not enough. Beyond his words and ministry, John’s presence on earth was a sign that God remained faithful. As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming, may our own lives be a sign to someone that God is still at work, still interested and still ready to save.