This was originally written for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and is reproduced here by kind permission
Over Christmas I have been reading and thinking about the ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. As often with the Gospel narratives, we have to fit the whole jigsaw together from the four different Gospels. Sometimes these Bible passages are so familiar that we have to picture them as though we were there in order to catch the real spirit and flavour of what happened.
John the Baptist as portrayed in the Gospels has a holy boldness that renders him fearless. He has a message which he will deliver to whoever will listen, and will baptise those who are willing to repent and amend their lives in line with his teaching. He even dares to call the religious and legal leaders of his day, “a brood of vipers”. Affronted, they send a delegation to investigate the fiery young preacher. I can picture the priests and Levites coming to ask John just exactly who he thinks he is, and, as the conversation progresses, his growing alarm at the thought that some may be mistaking him for the long-promised Messiah (much as Paul and Barnabas must have felt at Lystra when they were mistaken for gods).
John first explains to them who he is not, and then goes on to define himself in Isaiah’s words as the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” So why, then, they want to know, is John baptising, if he is not the Messiah? I can imagine his face radiant and his voice fired up with excitement as he tells them of the One he knows is coming, even though he doesn’t yet know who He is: “I baptise with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
I see him on tiptoe, a-quiver with excitement, his eyes aglow, trying to convey to his hearers the momentousness of what God is about to do. And all this is a matter of faith, because he still has no idea who the coming one is, he just has one clue that the Holy Spirit has given him: “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.” He doesn’t know exactly how this will look, but he knows for certain that he will recognise the moment when it comes.
And then comes a day when John looks up and sees his cousin, Jesus, coming to be baptised. John is troubled. He’s known Jesus all his life, and for a start, he can’t think of one single thing Jesus might have to repent of. But more than that, he has a sense of being in the presence of one far greater, more righteous than himself, and he looks at his cousin with a combination of curiosity and unease as he blurts out, “I need to be baptised by You, and do You come to me?” Questions fill his head, as he looks at his familiar cousin through new eyes. Things he has been told of Jesus’ history begin to fall into place. Jesus assures him, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.”
And so, filled with a sense of anticipation, yet not knowing exactly why, John steps down into the river Jordan and baptises his cousin. And suddenly, the sign he has been told to look out for manifests right in front of him: the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends on Jesus as He stands dripping on the river bank. And to remove any doubt that this is the One whose coming he has been sent to foretell, a voice resounds out of the heavens: “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.”
And at once John understands his own reluctance to baptise Jesus. All the excitement he has felt as he has been describing the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire now finds its realisation in the person who stands in front of him. His whole life has been building up to this moment; his faith in God has not been in vain.
Jesus goes on His way, leaving John changed forever; he has seen the Messiah, the long-awaited promise of God. The next day, as Jesus walks down towards the Jordan at Bethany, John cannot contain himself. He points to Him. “Look!” he calls to the crowd. “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And maybe a voice from the crowd asks him how he knows, and still with that tone of wonder John replies, “‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know Him, but the One who sent me to baptise with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the One who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
John’s enthusiasm must have seemed fanatical and out of place to a society that had grown weary of waiting long centuries for God’s promise. It was much more sensible to live a life of resignation than be at the mercy of hope. Hadn’t many previous generations longed to see Messiah, and died with their hopes unfulfilled? Why set yourself up for disappointment? But John refused to be conditioned by the spirit of his community. God had ignited a flame of hope inside him, which he was going to nurture and not let anything extinguish it.
We, too, live in a world that is weary and has to a large extent given up hope of seeing God come in any significant way. More than that, many of the woes of the world, the wars that cause suffering, destruction and starvation, are caused by religious fanatics who think they are espousing God’s cause. The rest of the world can be pardoned for thinking they would rather not be visited by such a God.
And yet we who know Jesus have a twin hope of His coming. We have an expectation of His ultimate return to bring justice and peace and to establish His reign and rule. And we have the hope of His promise never to leave us or forsake us. (Are we as excited about these as John was about His first coming?) Whatever circumstances we are currently facing, Jesus is certain to appear in the middle of it all! I remember being told by a preacher that an old Quaker Bible rendered James 5.8 “The coming of the Lord is at your elbow”. Do we really believe He is that close?
I love J B Phillips translation of 1 John 3.2: “Here and now we are God’s children. We don’t know what we shall become in the future. We only know that, if reality were to break through, we should reflect his likeness, for we should see him as he really is!”
Suppose the reality of Christ were to break in on you right now? I would like to encourage you, whatever your personal circumstances, no matter what difficulties or struggles you may be facing, not to lose your excitement over the ways in which Jesus is going to come to you this year. You may not yet know how that will look, or what difference it will make, but like John, you can be sure you will recognise Him when He comes. Don’t allow the general pessimism in the world around to rob you of that excitement. We have His word, the apostle Peter tells us, “made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place”.
No one in their right mind would turn their back on the beam from a lamp and step out into the darkness; and yet I know there have been times when I’ve done exactly that, focussing on the conditions around me rather than on the promise of God. But if you keep your focus on the promise of Christ, He will illuminate all your surroundings. So whether you are starting 2015 with a pleasant prospect of good things to come, or whether the outlook is grim, pay attention to the promise of His presence, His coming in your circumstances, just as you would pay attention to the beam from a lamp shining in a dark place. Soon enough you will discern His presence and see His transformation in your life.