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John the Baptizer: Elijah Cosplayer?

Why would anyone pay any attention at all to someone who looked like they were engaged in an overly serious Elijah cosplay? What on earth did John think he was doing, and what does it have to say to our world?

Sometimes the ancient world seems so similar to our own world. Sometimes it feels impossibly alien. This passage, in which a wild man from the desert, dressed in clothes which seemed weird even at the time, preaches and baptizes in the Jordan river, is definitely part of that second, remote category.

Let’s start with the John the Baptizer and how he presented himself. Why did he wear such odd clothes? And what was the deal with his diet? Was it all a sort of cosplay, taken to oddly dramatic extremes?

Here’s the thing: John was dressed in a way which would have reminded people of the prophet Elijah, who was “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.”[1] Or, perhaps, as the NIV translation has it “He had a garment of hair.” – the Hebrew doesn’t seem to be entirely clear. Apparently John and his contemporaries thought that Elijah dressed in a hair coat.[2] It also seems odd to specify the leather belt, but it was clearly distinctive.

He also had a strange diet – locusts and wild honey. This, too, marked him out as a prophet.[3]

One striking thought about his camel coat – perhaps, even when worn by Elijah, was a sort of reaching back to a distant past, before people learned how to weave. If we imagine a world before weaving, then people must have worn animal skins. So even when Elijah was prophesying and making himself unpopular in the 9th Century BC – i.e. almost a thousand years before John the Baptizer – he was already wearing a sort of costume – or perhaps a uniform. The same goes for the odd diet: locusts and wild honey are things available in the wilderness, not dependent on human cultivation.

Perhaps the point of the clothing and diet was to say that a prophet is someone who is directly dependent on God rather than on human technology and culture, but– and thus can hear directly from God.

We have equivalents in our culture. If you see a person standing up the front of a church wearing robes, or a black shirt with a white dog collar, you suspect that the person is a religious figure of some sort, and something religious is about to be said.

If we someone wearing khaki coloured clothes, a slouch hat on his head, her jacket decorated with small pieces of brightly coloured ribbon, we think to ourselves: oh look! A soldier. If they appear on TV dressed like that, we know we are about to hear some serious news – good or bad.

There is a well-known saying: dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and that captures the concept well.

John wanted the job of a prophet, and so needed to look like a prophet. He wasn’t some first century hipster engaging in a bit of overly serious Elijah cosplay, he was deadly serious about it.

Once we understand who John is, it clarifies the role of the famous bit of the prophecy from Isaiah earlier in the passage:

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight”[4]

This links John very firmly into the story of how God dealt with his people Israel.

Isaiah wrote in the context of the generational exile of the children of Israel in Babylon, and their return. The key point we take from the story of the Exile is that it never really ended. Sure, Jerusalem was rebuilt and the temple worship was restored and many Israelites returned. But they realised that the real exile – the exile of the heart – was still going on. The external situation was different, but the alienation from each other and ourselves which is the true exile was as real as it had ever been, with the additional complication that they could no longer place the blame firmly on the Babylonian oppressors.

Who would be able to liberate them from this self-oppression? Paul described the dilemma in this way:

I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me….Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[5]

And this, in turn, explains the first sentence in our reading, which describes the whole purpose of Mark’s Gospel, which is to tell the story of the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Let me summarize – starting at the beginning, rather than half-way through. Mark is writing to tell us the good news, which is that the long story of God’s dealing with Israel is about to meet its crux point in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This long story is unfolding precisely as the prophets said: here is John the Baptizer who represents Elijah, the archetype of the prophets, who was expected to return to prepare the way for the coming Messiah[6].

You may be thinking: That’s interesting enough in its way. But what does it have to do with me? I have no particular desire to be baptised by some crazy holy man in the desert, even if he does look a lot like Elijah. It all happened a long, long time ago, in a country a long way away. It’s historically interesting, I guess, but it isn’t of any particularly pressing importance to my actual life.

But is our world so different to the world of John the Baptist and all the people flocking to hear him teach and to be baptized by him? Are we not in a sort of exile from the self, just like John’s hearers were?

Our exile might perhaps be a different one. John’s hearers were acutely aware of their subject status and dreamed of a great leader who would throw the Romans into the sea and establish a rule of justice and peace. Unlike us, they knew that they were part of a story which had with the creation of the world, included Abraham and Isaac, the ancient patriarchs of Israel, and proceeded with lots of dramatic unexpected twists and amazing characters, including the crucial episode of the Exile and return, right up to the present day. They didn’t know exactly what God was going to do, or precisely when God was going to do it, but they knew the overarching story of which they were part.

We, however, live in a world where we struggle to find meaning. Events seem to succeed events without any particular purpose in mind. We have a sort of secular sense of progress – for us, Progressive is often a term of praise. But, at base, we know it is a human project. Science, the sort of knowledge we think of as being most reliable, doesn’t have any use for purpose or meaning. The whole universe just kind of is: it came into being for no particular reason, and will go out of existence also for no particular meaning. Human beings are a sort of cosmic accident – perhaps we are alone in the universe, or perhaps not. But, either way, it doesn’t really matter what we do. The sun rises and the sun sets and there is nothing new under the sun – it is all just so much pointless chasing after the wind.

So, what are we to do?

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God.” That is how our reading begins, and that is how the answer begins. The good news of Jesus Christ, which cannot be summed up in a quick catchphrase, which isn’t a particularly well thought through sentence. The Good News is that Jesus is the Son of God, and all that flows from that fact.

Again, that’s all very well, but what does that have to do with the crisis of meaning in our culture? The reading shows us at least part of the answer. Look at John: he dresses up as a prophet out of ancient history in order to get his point across. He is the fulfilment of prophecy: the one who prepares the way of the Lord.

To put it another way, he understands that he is part of God’s big story, which begins with Creation, which includes the patriarchs and the story of King David, Exile and return, culminating with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The story then broadens again – it becomes God dealing not only with Israel, but with the whole world – even the whole universe. As Paul puts it: “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”[7]

Far from a meaningless universe, we live in a cosmos packed full to overflowing with meaning. We are part of the great drama: rather than a dull inevitable unfolding of inevitable processes set in motion by an inhuman deity, we are parts of a story which is yet to be written, in which our parts big and small, have important consequences. We are part of a story where the end result is assured, where we can have confidence in the victory of the God of love, in which we are called to play our part.

One of the key things the gospel of Jesus Christ has to say to our listless, deracinated culture is this: you matter. Your choices, your life, your suffering and your joy – it all matters to God. It will all be taken up into the big story of God’s redemption of us and the whole created order.

So, this being Advent, we wait. We wait in hope for the coming of Jesus into history, and the fulfilment of all things. Living in the time between Jesus’ coming into history and his fulfillment of all things, the culmination of the greatest story of all, freeing us from our long exile from ourselves and one another, we can only say one thing.

Come, Lord Jesus.

[1] 2 Kings 1:8

[2] See also Zechariah 13:4

[3] See Daniel 1:8

[4] Mark 1:2-3, cf Isaiah 40:3

[5] Romans 7:14b-20, 24

[6] This also explains why it is Elijah and Moses who appear in the Transfiguration. C.f. Mark 9:2-13 where Jesus explicitly links John the Baptizer with Elijah.

[7] Romans 8:19

Image: Photo by Kashawn Hernandez on Unsplash

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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