John the Baptist: I am not the Christ

 In the days before Christmas, Luke’s gospel linked the birth of John the Baptist closely to the birth of Jesus. Luke carefully notes the superiority of Jesus to John; at the same he indicates that John will play a privileged role announcing him as the Messiah.  Only Luke mentions that John and Jesus are related.

In the day’s after Christmas John’s gospel offers the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus. “I am not the Christ,” John responds to the Jewish leaders who question him about his ministry as he baptizes at the Jordan River. “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

The lower Jordan valley where the river flows into the Dead Sea, where John preached and baptized, was a place hallowed by heroic events and figures of the Jewish past.

After the death of Moses in the desert, Joshua led the Israelites over a river ford of the Jordan to conquer the city of Jericho and enter the “land flowing with milk and honey.”

Later in the 8th century B.C., the prophet Elijah began preaching reform here when Israel turned to worship the false gods of the wicked Queen Jezebel. God sent ravens to the Wadi Cerith near the Jordan to feed Elijah in a terrible drought as he began his preaching. Returning to the lower Jordan at the end of his life, Elijah disappeared mysteriously on a mountain nearby.

Later Jewish tradition said that Elijah would return – most likely to the same river area – to announce the Day of the Lord, God’s final coming. And so, when John came dressed in a rough camel hair cloak, like Elijah of old, and preached with great power at this memorable spot, people wondered: “Has Elijah returned?”

Jews saw the Judean wilderness as a place to  recapture the ancient faith of their forebears. The desert air was purer and life more simpler in the hard, memorable land that seemed to belong to God alone.

Strongly religious people, like the communities of Qumran, preferred living in the desert to Jerusalem, rejecting what they saw as the compromise and spiritual lukewarmness of mainstream Judaism. Living there, they hoped for a Messiah and Teacher to bring renewal to their people.

Besides the communities of Qumran, Jewish revolutionaries were also associated with the Judean wilderness. In 6 A.D. after the failure of a bloody revolt led by Judas the Galilean against the Romans and their puppet rulers, bands of his followers waged a guerrilla campaign for Jewish independence from these barren hills.

And so, the Roman authorities and their local allies kept a wary eye on anyone like John the Baptist coming from the desert, a place so significant, a major pilgrim road to Jerusalem.

Pilgrims came from Galilee that way especially. As John’s Gospel points out, Jesus himself and some of his followers were among them. I suspect the authorities who watched John the Baptist also associated Jesus and his followers with him. They needed to be watched too.

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