Reading the Canticle of Zechariah this morning, I found myself wondering once more about John the Baptist. How would the story of Jesus be different without the presence of John the Baptist?
From a historical angle, we could simply note that there just WAS a pre-existing movement out of which Jesus emerged as a leader. And since there were and still are disciples of John the Baptist (Sabaeans), the gospel writers took pains to depict Jesus and John as cooperative rather than competitive — and to clarify that John himself believed he was preparing for and pointing to the Messiah to come after him.
But the historical facts aside, would anything vital be missing if Jesus had simply appeared solo, forming his discipleship network without a predecessor?
I find myself thinking of some undergraduate senior papers I read yesterday as part of an evaluation of an interdisciplinary liberal arts major. Many of the papers were proposals for projects on environmental sustainability or promoting health and well-being in a particular local community. In the reflections that accompanied these proposals — some written by non-traditional students with families — the authors often pointed out that they were troubled to learn about the extent of pesticides in our water supply in the Midwest, about how 1/3 of youth in our region are obese, about how hard it can be in rural areas without grocery stores to access fresh produce. So some proposals were for playground equipment in very small towns that lacked them, and for middle school and community gardens. These were proactive, doable steps — acts of repentance, of a sort — even as some of the authors of these proposals confess that they had wanted to ignore or deny the extent of environmental degradation and the dangers of flooding the land and waterways with chemicals that disrupt living beings and ecosystems.
The experience of these students seems something akin to going out to hear John the Baptist preach in the wilderness, pointing out how much is wrong, but also pointing to a path of repentance.
So, to ask my question in reverse: why isn’t John the Baptist enough? Why aren’t the prophets enough — with their stark call to turn back to God before it is too late, to address systemic economic and social injustice, to resist the pull of idolatrous temptations of all sorts?
Perhaps the prophets are enough to set some on the road to addressing our shared concerns as earth’s inhabitants. I can think of many secular friends with an evangelical environmental mission, and surely God takes note of them.
But many of us need more than a prophetic awakening. We also need healing from our wounds, and forgiveness for our wounding. We need a way to handle the spiritual whiplash of recognizing social ills in which we’re complicit. And for those of us joined with Christ in baptism, our journey after prophetic awakening is in step with the one who called forth communities of those on the margins, of the ill, of the well who are nevertheless in search of a deeper vocation in life.
The criteria of such communities are universally recognizable, if eternally challenging: forgive one another; love one another.
Without a prophetic backdrop, the teachings of Jesus — and the gift of his own life for us — wouldn’t stretch and challenge us enough. We’d not see the gravity and extent of the ways we have failed to keep covenant with God and with the needs of the earth. We’d be tempted to think Jesus’ ministry of the Kingdom of God is all about the after-life, about escaping this earth, when it is very much about bringing the perspective of the eternal — in judgment and forgiveness — to bear on the shapes of our lives now.