The Uncivilized Baptist: Why John Beckons Us to the Wilderness

John the Baptist is uncivilized. With locust legs stuck between his teeth he’ll never rank on Ms. Manners top ten list. With hair untouched by scissors he’ll never be hired by a Fortune 500 company. And with a wardrobe consisting only of camel’s hair he’ll never make the cover of GQ. Yes, indeed, John is uncivilized. He makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t he? He’s the kind of person you think you have to make apologies for: “Oh, yes, John, he is a bit eccentric, a little off-the-wall, not your run-of-the-mill biblical figure. You just have to look past a few things, that’s all. I’m sure deep down he’s a very normal person.” But—to twist an old country song—mamas don’t want their babies to grow up and be John the Baptists; let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such.

Why does John make you uncomfortable?  You know.  It’s not just the clothing; it’s not only the hair; it’s not even really the diet.  John the Baptist is uncivilized--that’s the problem.  He doesn’t live in an air-conditioned, three-bedroom house with a white-picket fence and a two-car garage.  He didn’t marry his high school sweetheart and raise two lovely children.  He doesn’t buy his clothes at Dillard’s and his groceries at United.  John didn’t even hold down a job.  Turning his back on both city and village, John lives in the wilderness, the Judean wild country his unwalled bedroom.  Although entitled to the priesthood, John’s temple is the desert, his altar the Jordan River, his vestments animal hides.  Although he is the culmination of the OT prophets and--as Jesus said--the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7:28), John spits in the face of flattery, deeming himself unworthy even to touch the shoestrings of the Messiah with his sinful fingers.  John is everything that civilized sinners don’t want to be.

“Who are you, John?”  That’s what the civilized priests and Levites want to know. “I am not the Christ,” John emphatically answers. “What then, are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” “No.” “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us?  What do you say about yourself?” Humble John has nothing to say about himself, so, thankfully, Isaiah the prophet has already spoken for him: “I am ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’”

John is the forerunner, the one who trots ahead of the Messiah to announce His coming.  He is the advent man, the preacher who prepares you for Christ.  John is what the psychiatrist would call a monomaniac--someone with an excessive interest or irrational preoccupation with one subject.  A monomaniac about Christ--yes, that fits John to a tee.

“Who are you, John?”  “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.”  Why in the wilderness, John?  What’s so important about the desert?  Why not build a church in the civilized section of the country or at least erect a pulpit on the street corner?  Good grief, John, why not just get half an hour of religious T.V. broadcasting so we could sit in our living room recliners and ponder your message?  Why must we travel out to the wilderness?

But John the Baptist is unrelenting: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”  John beckons you away from that place called civilization where civilized sinners are all too easily duped by the demons into believing the lie.  Leave that place where you are easily tricked into believing that your job is your life, your family is your life, your possessions are your life.  Leave that place where trivial pursuit is not just a game but a way of life.  Leave that place where death masquerades as life, where the person who is “living it up” has made pleasure into a god, where the person who is said to have lived a “full life” may never have been baptized, where “real life” has nothing to do with Christ but just getting by in a dog-eat-dog world.  Leave that place where people think they have civilized sin, but where, in fact, sin has transformed them into savages at heart.

There is part of us that is uncomfortable with . . . no, there is part of us that hates John the Baptist.  The ugly Old Adam in us hates to be stripped naked and made to stand ashamed in the front of the mirror of the law.  So he loathes John.  For John lays bare how comfortable we’ve become with our love of mammon, how adept we are at blaming others for our shortcoming, how easy we are on ourselves. This preacher’s sandpaper words are much too abrasive for our civilized hearts.  His preaching grates on our modern sensitivities.  But John will preach no Walt Disney version of the law.  He is “calling you to repentance, that you might escape from the wrath to be revealed when Christ comes again in glory,” (Proper Preface for Advent).

So John beckons you out of civilization into the wilderness of repentance.  To live a life of repentance is to sit at John’s feet in the desert sand.  And what do you see in this wilderness of repentance?  Barrenness stares blankly at you; the hollow eyes of death peer into your soul.  When you go to St. John in the desert, into the painful stillness where you are utterly alone with the law of God, there your eyes behold with clarity the desert of your own heart, filled only with the wild monsters of your sins.  Sit in the dust of this wilderness; pick up a handful of dirt, watch it trickle between your fingers.  Behold your origin and your end.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  There, in the wilderness of repentance, where the pride of life is absent and the humility of death pervasive, there confess what you see: “I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most.  My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered.  I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed.  There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I failed to help.  My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin,” (Liturgy for Private Confession/Absolution, Lutheran Worship, p. 310).

John calls you out into the wilderness, into the barren desert, where the only life is where there is water.  St. John the Baptist, we call him.  He’s the water-man.  John beckons you out of the civilization of sin, into the wilderness of repentance, to lead you ultimately to the river of life.  And once he’s got you to the water, he’s done his job.  For there, standing in the oasis of the Font, is your Savior, Jesus Christ.  John points and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away your sin.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who gives you the life of absolution in the water of Baptism.”

Ever since the day John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, our Lord has been found in the water.  He locates Himself there for you.  Flowing through the desert of repentance is this liquid of life.  There, your conscience which burns with the heat of sins committed, finds the soothing coolness of sins forgiven.  There, your heart, which is dried and cracked under the blazing sun of the law, finds shade and refreshment in the shadow of the cross.  There, your mouth, which is parched from the confession of sins, is filled with the sweet drink of the compassion of God.  Our Lord is found in the river of absolution.  Come to Him.  Drink of Him.  Bathe, swim, soak in this fountain of immortality.

Your Lord has been baptized in blood, sprinkled on the Font of the cross by His own sliced veins.  A soldier braced himself and thrust his cruel spear upward into the side of our blood-bathed God.  That spear opened the fountain of His flesh and out flowed a river of blood and water, one fork filling the chalice, the other the Font.  So when you desire forgiveness, you go to the blood, for without blood there is no forgiveness.  The life of God is in the blood of His Son and that life-giving blood is in the Chalice, the Font, the Absolution.  Go there for forgiveness.  Go there for life.  Go there for God.

The only true and lasting life is in the wilderness of repentance for there alone flows the Jordan River.  Only in the water to which Christ has tied Himself is there life.  Here the penitents truly “live it up,” really have the “full life,” and live the “real life” in Christ.  Here the trivial is not pursued but the eternal is found.  Here the shame of sin is removed by the name of the Forgiving One.  Here uncivilized John places us into Christ’s keeping, where He makes us citizens of the heavenly fatherland.