Anyhoo- this is how the sermon would have gone down. The Gospel book would be put away, but instead of letting you all sit down in a dignified way in your pews, me saying "The people may sit", I would have strode back to the baptismal font area. Without a word. You'd all be looking at me a little oddly.
I would have said that John the Baptist was certainly not a prophet who came to proclaim the Messiah in the way we expected. In fact, John's work- baptizing in the wilderness, eating such odd food, wearing such uncomfortable clothes, crying out again and again that God's Messiah was coming... all of that should have been an inkling that perhaps this whole Messiah thing would not look like we thought it should.
Somehow, God's work just doesn't ever happen the way you think it should. And what if John had a hard time of it? I mean, if he really understood his role in the divine dance, he'd know that his words would foretell the coming of his cousin... he'd know that if he dared speak, he'd be sealing the coming of the Messiah- who came to die. He'd be setting in motion the things that would lead to the death of his cousin. Did he dare?
Listen to this.
John lay on his side. It was quite early, almost too early to be awake. He had gotten used to the early times, though. He had gotten used to never feeling like he’d quite slept enough. He’d tried to ignore what was coming as his destiny. But it just kept gnawing at him- this urge, this desire. He’d gone out into the wilderness. He’d given up the food of his childhood. He ate only locusts and honey now. He wore coarse hair clothing. His beard and hair had grown wild. Certainly he looked the part of crazed prophet, but definitely not respectable.
John thought back to before it all began. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen his cousin. Jesus was a strong boy, then, eager to help Joseph with the carpentry. But mischevious, all the same. Jesus liked to listen to the Rabbis and the temple preaching. John favored the wild outdoors. For John, God spoke in the wilderness- in the rocky mountains, the untamed, scrappy trees. Beyond the olive groves, the colors faded until the whole world was a slightly faded, melancholy version of its real self. That was where John heard God- not in the bright, noisy time of the temple. Far from the noise of the city, from the noise of the temple, from the noise of even his own family.
John remembered the awful day he’d realized what he and Jesus had been born into. THey were hanging out with each other, too old to play like child, but not old enough for eavesdropping to have lost its thrill. The mothers were talking, talking, talking, like women do. But they knew it was different, with them. John remembered well the stories of how Mary, pregnant and scandolous, had visited Elizabeth. He knew the stories of how an angel had visited his own father and told him the name to give John. The women loved to hash over those stories, and for some reason, he and Jesus felt they had to listen on these little bits of woman-talk.
On that day, he’d heard the prophecies- something about gifts Jesus had been given and a sword piercing Mary’s heart and someone dying. And Elizabeth responded that John was to be a great prophet, he’d know the Messiah when he came. John had looked at Jesus, then- Jesus had gone a little pale. Someone was going to die- someone important. A sword piercing Mary’s heart? Was his own mother going to die? Jesus looked at John- and suddenly John comphrehended. He was going to be the one who predicted it all. He was going to set it all in motion. It would all start because of him. The look of recognition lasted only an instant. Then Jesus shoved past him and ran into the yard with the other cousins and siblings. They’d never talked about it.
John left home when he was grown. He went into the quiet wilderness. He would not speak in the public arena. If he were going to be the one who would set things in motion, then he’d simply be far away from everyone. It couldn’t all start because of him, could it?
Soon after that, the urges started. When he spoke with his friends in the wilderness, they followed him, as his disciples. He found himself fughting an urge- he spoke indeed of a coming king. He didn’t will the words to come- they just came. He couldn’t keep them down. As he fought against his destiny, it was as if there were a howl of misery in his soul, scremaing to get out. He was amazed at how peaceful it felt to give in, and to call out of a coming messiah. And here he was, in the remote places. Nowhere near the city. Nowhere near his family. They’d be safe, after all. His prophecies would fall on remote ears. Nothing would come of his words. He was just a voice, crying out in the wildnerness.
John rose on his elbow and slowly pushed himself to his feet, facing the rising sun. It was time. Time to wash the pilgrims free of their day’s sins, and send them on their way. Time to tell them of the one coming after him, but nowhere near him. “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” And as he baptized each person, he would say, “There’s one coming later who is more powerful than I. He’ll baptize you with the power of God.” John stood tall as the Jordan swirled around his legs. There was one coming indeed, one of great power. But he was far, far, far from his family. He was far from influence. He was a voice in the wilderness, a voice no one heard or paid attention to. His family was safe. He’d avoided the disaster he’d feared.
He waved to the next pilgrim. Time to come in the water.