John the Baptist talked about winnowing and the coming fire. He would tell the leaders of the empire that they were dead branches in need of burning. His beliefs made him fearless -- and he paid the ultimate price for his refusal to back down. There's nothing just about what happens to John the Baptist. He's killed on a whim, to please Herod's lover. It's not like he had a trial and was found guilty and, therefore, had to be beheaded.
Above all, John the Baptist understood his role. John had a chance to claim greatness; he could even have claimed to be the Messiah, and people would have believed him. But he knew his part in the story: to get people ready for the Messiah who was coming soon.
John warns us again and again of the dangers of letting our attention wander. In our time of increasingly fragmented attention spans, the central message remains: John tells us to keep the focus on the Messiah not the messenger. If John appeared in our modern wildernesses, he’d tell us to concentrate on Christ, not on our computers, our smart phones, our email accounts, our televisions, all the screens that rule our lives.
John also warns us against thinking that we have the answers. In John 1:20, John the Baptist asserts, "I am not the Messiah."
John reminds us that we are not the Messiah either. It’s Christ’s role to save people. It’s tempting to think that we can save ourselves and each other.
But we can’t.
It’s comforting to say, "I am not the Messiah," as John the Baptist does. In our daily lives, we’re confronted with scores of problems that we can’t solve, from the disastrous choices made by friends and families, to the work issues, to the larger state and national issues that bedevil us. We can only do so much. We are not the Christ for whom the world waits.
We are not the Messiah. That phrase can keep us humble. Many a powerful figure has been disgraced by forgetting that someone else is the Messiah.
These days, perhaps we have the opposite problem. Far from feeling powerful, we may feel oppressed by forces outside our control.
John the Baptist reminds us that the time of salvation is at hand. That’s both good news and terrifying news. We might ask ourselves where we go from here.
The life of John the Baptist gives us a powerful role model. Or it might lead us to despair: Does being a Christian mean we must forsake the familiar and eat bugs?
If we're not willing to brave the wilderness for our faith, perhaps it's time to deepen that faith. If our mission doesn't move us to eat locusts and wild honey, perhaps it's time to adjust the mission. What would excite you so powerfully that you would never lose your grip on that gospel message, that you would never look back? How can you get that excitement into your daily life?
Start on a small scale: What used to bring you joy? For some of us, it’s reading our Bibles by ourselves, while for others, it may be a Bible study group. Maybe we need to buy a new book or return to old favorites. Maybe we could begin making plans to attend a retreat. Try praying once or twice a day; if you’re not sure of what to say, use the Lord’s Prayer. You could try a new physical discipline for summer, one that’s rooted in spirituality, like yoga or taking a meditative walk. Turn to an art form, like singing or painting and see if that’s a way you can speak to God while listening for God to speak to you.
As you move more fully into your chosen spiritual discipline, you may find that people respond as if you’ve moved into the wilderness to feast on locusts and honey. You may find that, like John the Baptist, you’ve set yourself on a more satisfying journey.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.
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