Something big was about to happen, but then John the Baptist had been expecting something unusual. He had heard stories about the time before he was born, how he had come onto the scene long after his parents thought children would be part of their lives. Both his mother Elizabeth and his father Zechariah, a priest, had received messengers—though his father did not at first believe what was happening—who made surprising promises that John would take after the prophet Elijah.
John “grew and became strong in spirit,” and in time he embraced his calling to be a prophet with a passion and headed out to the wilderness.
He even looked the part. With his camel’s hair clothes, leather belt, and a diet of locusts and wild honey, he was the spitting image of Elijah. And he had a prophet’s message: to call people back to God. “Repent,” he said—let your heart be changed, turn your life around—“for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Go down into the waters of baptism and come up a new person. Know you are forgiven.
Then came the moment John’s whole life had been heading toward. He realized one was “coming after me” who was “more powerful than I.” He even started denying he was the prophet he acted so much like. I’m not Elijah, or the Messiah, he said. The real Messiah was on his way.
John didn’t recognize Jesus at first when he showed up at the Jordan River to be baptized. But when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened and God’s presence came down like the Spirit of God that had swept over the waters at the creation of the world. And if anyone there needed any further persuading, a voice from above was heard to say, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
John had completed his work. He had made straight the paths for the way of the Lord.
It’s Advent. Jesus is near. With the rest of the people of God you are out in the wilderness waiting for him to appear. How can you make straight the paths of your own life? Be open to a change of heart, to letting yourself be turned in a new direction. To what new roles—perhaps unexpected ones—does your life, like John’s, point? Could it be to bring some forgiveness and peace to yourself, your family, your friends, your coworkers, the world?
The answers may be hidden just beneath the waters, waiting to surface.
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Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness. Learn more about this art in Arts & Faith: Advent.