It’s out in no man’s land that John the Baptist calls people to repentance. In fact, it was the people of Judea and Jerusalem who were going to him to be baptized. Away from Zion and the Holy Temple to the mucky insignificant waters of the River Jordan. It’s there that they sought renewal. Given the status of the Temple in the religious life of the average Israelite it was quite the statement that the people went to John instead of to the priests. Surely the wilderness is lacking in resources, empty and desolate. The city of Jerusalem, on the other hand, beams bright with all that is needed for a pious Israelite.
But it’s here, on the periphery, that John the Baptist is called. He is a prophet in the tradition of Elijah who lived in the wilderness and on the outskirts of King Ahab’s power and influence. Elijah was the perennial thorn in the side of the pinnacle politician for all time – King Ahab. At the sight of him it was Ahab who said, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” I suppose what drove King Ahab nuts was that he could not control Elijah. He was the man in power’s worst nightmare. Those in power were bothered by John the Baptist too. The Pharisees and Sadducees came out to investigate what he was doing in the wilderness. Any threat to the Temple apparatus must be investigated because it is God’s Holy House and there’s much to lose. Politically and economically, that is. King Herod was intrigued by John, but he was also put off by him because he called him out on his adultery and all the evil things he had done. Plus, John lived out in the wilderness where many revolutionaries were known to live as well. In Herod’s mind, John could easily foment a military revolt given his influence and favor. John probably gave King Herod and many others in power more than a few gray hairs.
There was no way to control these men because they were not beholden to status, to privilege, to getting ahead and all the normal kickbacks that comes with ambitious persons. The “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” was a science in such a culture, that’s how one got ahead. But these peripheral men lived according to the great tradition of faithfulness that began with Abel in Genesis. They were not to be found in the midst of the cities, the creation of their brother Cain, but on the outskirts. Their sole authority was the Creator – Yahweh – no more and no less.
We are often inclined to think that in order to make a mark, to be considered important, to have a significant impact,we must be in the thick of things and amongst influential and powerful people. One can almost hear the echo from Genesis 11, “Come…let us make a name for ourselves.” But John the Baptist and Elijah reveal otherwise. A recurring theme throughout the Scriptures is that God often shows up on the periphery, in strange places and amongst outsiders. God appears to Moses in the wilderness with no one around and Jesus grows up in Nazareth in the northern land of Galilee. And think about what both ended up doing.
We’ve often downplayed the prophetic voice of such persons and, in particular, Jesus. Prophetic voices are not palatable to the polite and nice or even to the rigid traditionalist. But we Christians ought remember that we are called to speak truth to power when necessary. Such a call should be heeded as our nation shifts towards authoritarianism as evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump and leaders in my own denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Authoritarianism is but the result of the anxiety and fear that comes from a loss of control, whether real or perceived. These are nothing more than the workings of the powers and principalities that Paul spoke of and John wrote about in his Revelation. But Christians are called to see beyond, to lift the veil, and to understand that they result in death and not life. Remember, these put Jesus to death, but Jesus was raised to life. We’d do well to remember such a reality.