Today’s selection from Mark 1:1-8 presents John the Baptist. Surpassing his well-known title, John is more than just a historical curiosity. In the context of the gospel story, John is interpreted as a transition to Jesus. “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. . . ‘ “ (Mark 1:2b). In their looking back, it is likely that the author(s) who collected and wrote Mark perceived John as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. John’s distinctive teachings may have been interpreted as paving the way for Jesus’ Gospel.
What is John’s background? Jesus’ mother Mary and her cousin Elizabeth were pregnant about the same time. Scripture therefore portrays John and Jesus as second cousins, which means they likely were raised in proximity to each other and shared a worldview, inasmuch as they were indoctrinated and educated similarly. John was not an ordinary citizen. “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). John’s peculiar eating and dressing suggests that he wasn’t a mainstream Jewish teacher.
John was likely an Essene, a member of a strict, apocalyptic Jewish sect isolated in a settlement near the secluded Dead Sea. Given Jesus’ teachings and lifestyle, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Jesus and John were either members of or heavily influenced by the Essenes, a community of contrarians who shunned the progressive cultural pollution of cosmopolitan cities like Jerusalem. Attributing John and Jesus’ idiosyncrasies to Essene peculiarities does not solve all the problems of their mysterious, complex relationship.
Some misguided watchdogs of orthodoxy react against any suggestion of John’s and Jesus’ Essene identification. The sense is that identifying John and Jesus with Essene oddness is an attempt to render Christian teachings derivative or invalid. Contrary to these reactionary tendencies, we know from a rational view of human history that ideas seldom just pop-out from nowhere. There is always a context, always some tie-in to some existing or preexisting situation or causal circumstances. Novelty and transformation do occur, of course, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly. Even so, neither John nor Jesus fell from the sky fully formed. Both men lived immersed in a cultural milieu from which they and their admirers forged ideas, some of which have been passed to God followers today.
It is notoriously difficult to place John in a definitive category or perspective. On the one hand, John has often been treated as a shadowy, secondary figure, merely a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (40:3) about who must prepare the way for the Messiah. On the other hand, there are New Testament narratives (Matthew 11:1-19) suggesting that Jesus and John had a falling out because John was questioning Jesus’ methods. Until Jesus started his public ministry, John may have been the more popular preacher. The tension between Jesus and John seemed to reach its zenith while John was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by the Romans’ political puppet, the latest in a series of Herodian leaders hated by the Jews. There is undeniable tension between Jesus and John but we may never know the precise nature and extent of what was happening.
From a devotional standpoint, we can treat John as a harbinger or signal of great expectations. In the theme of today’s Advent topic, let us make peace with uncertainty and novelty. Part of the goal of a productive life is the journey toward wellbeing. Along the way, perhaps we can be like John and Jesus, proclaiming God’s wonderful message of love and truth in interesting and effective ways. Have a great season of peace!
–Reverend Larry Hoxey