Magazine article The Christian Century

Preaching to the Prophet

Magazine article The Christian Century

Preaching to the Prophet

Article excerpt

John Sat in his prison cell staring at the four walls that kept him from freedom. He could no longer look upon the familiar landmarks of the country he loved. He was cut off from his friends. He was disconnected from his community and stranded in a limited world, a world filled math uncertainty. He remembered the days in the wilderness when every word he spoke exuded certainty and assurance.

The first words that he proclaimed to the crowds still echoed in his ears. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Perhaps John smiled as he remembered the crowds of people streaming from Jerusalem and Judea to the Jordan, where they confessed their sins and were immersed in the murky waters. Or perhaps there were tears in his eyes because now he was left only with memories of his once fiery self.

We read John's words in Matthew 3 and are cognizant of their power and strength. There is no conditional message here, no simple invitation. John's words reverberate in the stillness of the wilderness air. Even "urgent appeal" does not characterize the resounding rhetoric of this baptizer. His language is scathing. "You brood of vipers! Repent! There are no special favors here--even you who are ancestors of Abraham must bear the good fruit of repentance. The ax is ready to cut down every tree that does not bear good fruit. Those trees will be thrown into the fire."

John is certain that what he says will come true. "Someone is coming who is more powerful than I. One who will baptize with spirit and fire." Every word from his mouth is unconditional, resolute and steadfast. And just as he promises, Jesus comes to John at the Jordan. Jesus is baptized and declared to be the beloved child of God. He then heads to the wilderness, while John temporarily disappears from the scene.

Jesus takes up the message of John word for word. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Jesus calls disciples and walks through Galilee teaching, proclaiming, curing every sickness. He teaches the crowds on the mountaintop and instructs the disciples in private.

Then, when Jesus' ministry is well under way, we meet up again with John. But now the uncompromising prophet and preacher is in prison. …

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