A Scary Ascetic
Luke 3.16 I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I
will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
There�s a piece of graffiti I once enjoyed: "John the Baptist was the
first Rotarian". In other words, because he made you feel guilty you
handed over your money.
But the image he presents in the Gospels actually is uncomfortable.
John lives on very little, he doesn't drink alcohol, and he tells off
everybody who comes to see him.
However, above all else he is presented by the gospel writers as the
forerunner of the Jewish Messiah. He is the herald of one who is greater
than himself. He is made to quote Isaiah that he is nothing more than a
voice crying in the wilderness.
There is considerable evidence from the first century of a rivalry
between John's followers and those of Jesus. Many commentators believe
that Jesus began his faith journey as a disciple of John. And John was
quite a celebrity in his day. Therefore to claim retrospectively that he
had bowed to Jesus was to make great claims for the latter.
This was indeed clever marketing of Jesus by the gospel writers.
We need to recognise what they are doing with John. They are taking a
well-known dead hero of the faith and bringing him on-side. What are today
known as "on-message" politicians tend to do this. They claim to be
continuing the ideas of some heroic predecessor. They might speak of
Roosevelt or Kennedy, Bevan or Brandt, Churchill, Gandhi or Mandela. These
great figures are used by their lesser successors to imply that "They
would have voted for me. They would have agreed with my policies".
But the trick is that when we use a historic figure merely to point
beyond ourselves, we can ignore that person's message. Those who wish to
go to war, for example, might quote Churchill the war leader. But they may
not concern themselves at all with his interest in prison reform.
Similarly, we tend to focus on Jesus much of the time and forget that
John the Baptist had his own powerful message. It was one of radical
living. Share your possessions and do not use money for your own ends, he
said (Luke 3.11-14).
Traditional Christianity can so often get bogged down in what and how
we should believe rather than how we might live.
Coming up to Christmas, we are supposed to wonder at the possibility
that the maker of the stars should become a little child. With this in
mind we import a great preacher, ignore what he said and claim that he
pointed to the same wonder. But where does believing such a thing about
Jesus get us? We sit by the crib with sickly smiles and say "Aaaah!".
John, on the other hand, told his hearers in rather uncomplimentary
terms that they were hypocrites. He told them to change the way they
lived. He told them quite specifically how they could make the world a
fairer place. People with extra clothes should share them, tax collectors
should not take more than required, and soldiers should not extort money.
This is not a series of beliefs to assent to. It is a faith to live by.
So if John the Baptist was a forerunner, it was not as a rather scary
looking ascetic whose main purpose was to say how wonderful he thought
Jesus was. It was as a man whose ideas influenced Jesus and his followers
to a radical way of life.