Can you know Jesus without encountering John the Baptizer?

Poet John Shea would say an emphatic, “No.” Listen to a few stanzas of his poem, “The Man Who Was a Lamp,”

Jesus came out of John

as surely as he came out of Mary.

John was the desert soil

in which the flower of Jesus grew.

John was the voice in the wilderness


Can you know Jesus without encountering John the Baptizer?

Poet John Shea would say an emphatic, “No.” Listen to a few stanzas of his poem, “The Man Who Was a Lamp,”

Jesus came out of John

as surely as he came out of Mary.

John was the desert soil

in which the flower of Jesus grew.

John was the voice in the wilderness

who taught Jesus to hear the voice from the sky.

John would push sinners beneath the water

and Jesus would resurrect them on the waves.

John was the fast

who prepared for Jesus the feast.[i]

Stories are told in snatches; according to themes or motifs. If you want to understand the Jesus revealed in the Gospels, you gain a great deal from piecing together many fragments, pondering them, until you feel the narrative as lived story.

The prequel to Jesus is John. Jesus’ ministry did not come out of a vacuum; its genesis required John capturing the imagination of a whole country. Crowds came day after day to hear this strange hairy man preach repentance and to be baptised by him.

Just as every Canadian knows something about Toronto’s Rob Ford so every Jew in Israel knew about John, the son of Zachariah, the peasant priest. Unlike his quiet father, John thundered the script that must be followed.  He determined to build a road to prepare the way for Jesus even if it required the demolition of many other scripts: military, consumerist, religious, or just plain selfish scripts. But the real target is you. Listen again to Shea’s poem.

You 
are the mountain 
his sunburnt muscles 
are slamming to cracked rock. 
You
are the valley 
his tattooed arms 
are filling with broken earth. 
He will trowel you to smooth, 
and when there is no impediment, 
when there is nothing in you 
which would cause a child to trip, 
you will yearn for someone to arrive 
and ask the question that guards the cave of Christmas, 
“Are you the One Who Is to Come?” 
So do not go fearfully 
into John’s wilderness, 
beaten from civilization by others 
or driven by your own self-loathing. 
Go simply because it is the abode 
of wild beasts and demons 
and, given all you are, 
you will most certainly feel at home. 
Wrestle with the rages of the soul, 
talk to the twistedness.[ii]

I admire John. He stood against everybody and trumpeted the unpopular truth that brought many to their knees in tearful repentance and then into the cleansing water of baptism. John stripped away all the things that were wrong without doubt so that your vision was clear. “Repent! Stop your excuses and change your sinful practices. Now!” Listen to Shea’s guide on how to best encounter John.

Try no tricks on him. 
Parade no pedigree. 
Who you know will not help you. 
If the children of Abraham and stones 
have equal standing in his eyes, 
you will not impress him 
with anything you pull from your wallet. 
Also do not ready your brain for debate. 
He is not much for talk. 
He has washed his mind with sand. 
Injunctions are his game. 
If you have two coats or two loaves of bread, 
share them. 
Do not bully, 
do not exploit, 
do not falsely accuse. 
Do not object that these actions are 
economically naive, 
culturally inappropriate, 
insufficiently religious. 
Just do them. 
Afterwards, 
you will be unencumbered, 
yet lacking nothing, 
freer to move, to bend. 
The entrance to the cave is low. 
John’s desert is the place between slavery and promise, 
out of Egypt but not yet in the waters of the Jordan, 
Your sojourn there will burn away 
the last marks of the shackles 
and you will stand unfettered. 
You will be between the castle and the crowd, 
between fine garments and reeds shaken by the wind. 
You will not lord it over others 
and you will not be pushed around. 
Prophet? 
Yes, and more. 
But in the thrill of freedom 
it will take you a moment to notice 
what that more is. 
In the emptiness of John’s desert 
you will find yourself waiting, 
like a bowl that waits for wine, 
like a flute that waits for breath, 
like a sentinel that waits for the dawn. 
You are a highway ready for traffic, 
and here comes One 
who seems also to have been waiting, 
waiting for the construction to be complete. 
The more is arriving, 
and there is only one question, 
“Are you the One Who Is to Come?”[iii]

Now, after your life has been demolished and flattened by John, your vision is not so cluttered that you miss Jesus, when he does arrive. I have had a few Johns in my life who prepared me to see Jesus. I still love them for taking me out behind the woodshed and wounding me with the truth of the damage of my sin. Repentance cleared my confusion and then I became free to receive the healing love of Jesus and to grow spiritually.

  I believe that it is next to impossible to receive Jesus without the shattering presence of a man like John. But who has the courage to be John? Oh, don’t mishear that question. Many are ready to change the world through a revolution of their own making.

In John’s day there were many revolutionaries. Radical fringes proliferated under Roman exploitation. Most of them did more harm than good. John exposed every script that was not ready to receive Jesus. The important thing is not your agenda or revolution but whether there is room in your life for Jesus. John gets our attention and then announces Jesus. Few radicals will step aside, as John did, to let God, in this case through the incarnated Jesus, to speak life giving words to those who would receive them. What a treasure John is! Unappreciated, undervalued, misunderstood but essential. Jesus said there was none greater born of women, when he assessed John’s life. I wonder why we perennially overlook John?

I know that I am not John. I know who I am. I am a simple man who feels like he is in a spiritual wasteland and hears many radical voices who want to reform the church. The reformers are legion and they end up splintering the church. Left and right, conservative and liberal, emergent or established, missional or discipleship focussed, house church or mega church, ethnic or Canadian born…the list goes on and on.  When I look at the church, I wince, because it is hard to find the highway through the wilderness for Jesus to travel. I long for a John to blaze a way through the today’s spiritual swampland.

John teaches us that repentance is the bulldozer that prepares the way for Jesus and His Words. Before Jesus speaks one word, you’d be better off to repent of whatever you already know is not right in your life. John points to obvious things that keep you from God. You know what those things are. Repent! Knock those mountains into the valleys. Change your ways. Start doing what is right. Enjoy the cleansing waters of repentance and then you will be ready for Jesus words!

When Jesus comes into your life and speaks often and regularly, His words will require much of you – much more than John’s call to repentance. Jesus will call you to a death and very few will follow Him on that road. The admiring crowd quickly becomes the crucifying mob. Even His chosen Twelve wavered and scattered like scared chickens on “Good Friday.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that John is the harsh prophet and that gentle Jesus is easier to follow. Jesus shows us the unfathomable depths of His Father’s love, given in tender mercy but like any priceless gift given, there are huge consequences. Like inheriting the famous Mona Lisa painting would permanently alter your life so receiving Jesus and becoming a child of God indelibly destines you to the sort of life that Christ, your Brother, lived.

John, the man who is a lamp, disappears when the true light comes. Jesus does not come to correct John but is the source of the light that shone through John’s lamp. Follow John’s light. Let him be a map that takes you into the brilliance of Jesus!

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