People old enough to have been adults during the turbulent ’60s will remember how controversial Martin Luther King, Jr., was at the time. It was said that he and his people had no right to stir things up with all his confrontational tactics. In the South they said he didn’t understand the negro’s place, nor the way Southern society had to be structured. But in 1966 – toward the end of his career – when he led a March in Cicero, just outside of Chicago, he ran into a maelstrom of white hatred every bit as angry and violent, and he got just about nowhere. Even clergy in Northern churches were very hesitant to speak favorably of King. His “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” were meant to win them over.
In those days it would have brought on laughter and derision among most Americans to be told that King would become the greatest Christian prophet of 20th century America, and that a national holiday would be declared in his name.
Obviously, we’ve gone through a national period of reflection and re-evaluation; many minds have been changed as well as the social structure and culture of this county because of Martin Luther King.
This change of heart and culture toward King is a useful example regarding the man whose birth we observe today: John the Baptist, someone who appeared strangely out of the wilderness wearing something woven out of camel’s hair, living on a diet mostly of bugs and wild honey.
And John the Baptist must have had a big voice and a powerful message about the Kingdom, because we are told that Jerusalem and all Judea emptied out and came to hear him: large crowds getting themselves baptized with a baptism of repentance. And he wasn’t afraid to speak out, calling soldiers and tax collectors not to abuse their offices, calling the more pious people – scribes and Pharisees – a “brood of vipers,” for a false religiosity, and noisily embarrassing King Herod for marrying Herodias, the divorced wife of Herod’s half brother. John the Baptist was put in prison for that, and Herodias saw to it that John lost his head.
Jesus’ public ministry doesn’t really begin until after John’s martyrdom. And when the crowds begin to follow Jesus for his teaching and healing powers, before long Herod gets wind of it, and feels thunderstruck that maybe this guy is John brought back from the dead, a prophet that not even the king can suppress.
Reading between the lines, one can form the strong suspicion that what we have in John the Baptist is a very powerful and commanding figure, one who – like Martin Luther King – requires some time and reflection to sort out his true significance.
Indeed, he may have seemed – for a time – a rival to Jesus’ own ministry. John had followers who persisted with his ministry. We are told in the Book of Acts that Paul ran into a group of people out on a mission in Asia Minor who had been baptized into repentance, but had no knowledge of baptism by the Holy Spirit. Among them was a figure of considerable esteem who knew the Bible and could speak very persuasively of his faith. Once baptized in the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name, he was a powerful advocate and apostle for Christ.
Thus we see a kind of merging or reeling in of what might have become a different offshoot of Judaism, a religion founded on John the Baptist. This reeling in occurs, for example, when some disciples of John, loosely wondering after John’s martyrdom, come up to Jesus and ask, “Are you the One, or should be wait for another?”
But before seeing how Jesus answers this point-blank question “Are you the one?” suppose we pause and reflect on the example of how it was that we managed eventually to appreciate the full stature and significance of Martin Luther King. It took some time, some reflection on his speeches, his writings, his nonviolent strategies, the real changes that came cascading forth in our society, and the hope for things yet to come, because of him.
Yes, Jesus was baptized by John, and John witnessed to Jesus’ stature as not being worthy even to tie Jesus’ shoes. But it appears that John’s magnetic force was so powerful his followers couldn’t see beyond him to his real significance.
Jesus answers the question “Are you the one?” in an operational way:
“Go tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them.”
He then goes on to speak of that rough-hewn man in the wilderness they all went out to see: a prophet and more than a prophet, a forerunner. And Jesus quotes from Malachi using the very last sentence of our Old Testament: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.”
It is the prophetic expectation of Elijah come back to prepare the way for the Messiah.
But the final appreciation for the significance of John the Baptist comes from the portrait given us by the Gospel of Luke. Here we find John comes from a priestly family. The angel Gabriel appears to the father, Zechariah, saying that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, though advanced beyond child-bearing years, will have a son whose destiny is to play the role of the forerunner Elijah. Zechariah, being doubtful about this, is struck speechless until the child is circumcised. Then he speaks the words of the hymn we know as the Benedictus Dominus Deus, very likely a hymn of the primitive church to express their veneration of John. The hymn closely follows the Magnificat of Mary, expressing the promise that the covenant of God with his people is carried forward by John with the promise of salvation of the lowly and protection from enemies, offering forgiveness of sins, light from darkness and the guidance of holiness of righteousness.
Furthermore, we are told in Luke that Mary and Elizabeth were kinswomen, related, and rejoiced in companionship over their pregnancies.
In this way, by couching it in his birth, the gospel of Luke brings to full fruition the stature and significance of John the Baptist.