“[John the Baptist] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
We’re very lucky to have many beautiful works of art in our church and we need to cherish them. These works of art are not mere decorations, they help to convey the gospel message. For example, up behind the high altar there are statues designed by G.F. Bodley. In the centre is the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. On left side, Isaiah holds his book of prophecies foretelling the birth of Christ. Isaiah stares directly at us and is stern and realistic. However, on the right side, the statue of John the Baptist doesn’t give us a realistic image of this fiery prophet. You can’t imagine him denouncing anyone as, “You brood of vipers!” He looks like a big girl’s blouse. What’s wrong with our statue of John the Baptist? Why doesn’t it accurately show this man and his message?
John the Baptist was a real person with an urgent message for his people and for us. In today’s gospel reading, Luke pinpoints John the Baptist at a precise moment in history. Luke names those who ruled over John the Baptist, and shows which authorities governed his people. The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote, “When everybody turned to John — for they were profoundly stirred by what he said — Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising (for the people seemed likely to do everything he might counsel).” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, 5, 2, 116-19. Quoted in Wink, W. John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (Cambridge: CUP 1968) p116.) John the Baptist is important to us for three reasons. First, he is the last of the prophets of the Old Testament. His coming announces “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. John the Baptist links the time of God’s promises with the time when God fulfilled His promises of salvation. Secondly, John the Baptist’s life had important parallels with Jesus’ life. By looking at events in John the Baptist’s life we can understand more clearly how Jesus’ life was affected by the political situation in his day. And thirdly, looking at John the Baptist’s life leads us to consider what his message may mean for our own lives. So let’s imagine how we might redesign this statue of John the Baptist to represent more realistically the man and his message. What would this new statue look like?
The first aspect of John the Baptist we would want to show is his connection with the prophets of the Old Testament. Our statue has a blue and gold cloak, possibly as a reference to Elijah’s mantle. But the real John the Baptist was a prophet coming from the wilderness and that blue and gold cloak is far too elegant and comfortable for a man who’s been living rough. So let’s do away with his blue and gold cloak.
This statue wears a camel hair tunic. We’ll keep that shaggy garment. Mark tells us, ‘Now John was clothed with camel hair with a leather belt around his waist.’ This connects him with the Bible’s description of Elijah as, “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1.18). John the Baptist’s leather belt would have been plain and sturdy, not gilded as on our statue. The description of Elijah as “a hairy man” would also have been true of John the Baptist. Before his birth the angel ordered that John the Baptist was to be dedicated as a prophet with the spirit of Elijah. He was never to touch strong drink, perhaps as a Nazarite vow, which also meant not cutting his hair and beard. So this statue’s neatly combed hair and tidy beard will have to grow out. Given John the Baptist’s Semitic genes, it’s unlikely that he had the blond hair on our statue. He probably had dark hair, or even fiery red hair. John the Baptist may even have looked like one of those Indian holy men, sadhus, who never cut their hair or beard, which grow into long tangled lengths, like dreadlocks.
We’re told, “he ate locusts and wild honey.” Some paintings show John the Baptist holding a basket of locusts and a comb of wild honey. He foraged for simple food in the wilderness. (You’ll be reassured to know that locusts are kosher. See Leviticus 11.22) John the Baptist quotes Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” John the Baptist was in the tradition of prophets who withdrew to the wilderness to receive God’s words. Some scholars have speculated that John the Baptist may have had a connection with one of religious sects at the time who withdrew into the desert to lead a strictly pious life.
Look at the position of the statue’s arm. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, John the Baptist warned the people: stop — think again about what you’re doing. To think again is literally “to re-pent”. John the Baptist warned about God’s anger to come. He promised God’s forgiveness, “a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins”. So let’s raise the statue’s arm higher to forcefully emphasise his message: Stop and think again; beware of God’s anger; repent and receive God’s forgiveness.
John the Baptist is the last of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus called him, “A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'” Through his message of repentance, John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. Luke shows how events in John the Baptist’s life were similar to events in Jesus’ life.
Angels foretold the miraculous births both of John the Baptist and of Jesus. So, as we redesign our statue of John the Baptist, let’s keep the angels beside him. We’ll also keep his walking staff. Like Jesus, John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher, who travelled over a wide area to spread the word of God. John the Baptist proclaimed his message loudly and clearly, so everyone could hear him. Therefore the mouth of our statue should be open wide, ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’. John the Baptist was outspoken and fearless. He denounced Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. This enraged Herodias, who took her revenge by having her daughter, Salome, dance for Herod. Then she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Some paintings of John the Baptist’s life do show his head on a platter. I think we’d better leave that gruesome image out! Like Jesus, John the Baptist was killed by the authorities. That’s why his staff has a cross on the end. Sometimes this staff and cross are made of reeds to recall the reed holding a sponge of vinegar which was offered to Jesus on the cross. A lamb often appears in pictures of John the Baptist because he proclaimed, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The lamb represents innocence and sacrifice.
What does our redesigned statue of John the Baptist look like? He’s a strange man with long unkempt hair and beard, wearing a shaggy tunic and carrying a long staff with a cross on the end. He wanders around our neighbourhood like a demented street person, disturbed and disturbing. He confronts us with his demands. We feel threatened so we cross the street to avoid him. But we can’t avoid him. He demands that we think again about ourselves. John the Baptist demands righteous deeds, not idle words, because we must prepare for the coming of Christ.
Our realistic statue of John the Baptist is not very appealing or very attractive. And if we were to design realistic statues of ourselves, many things about ourselves wouldn’t be very appealing or very attractive either. Yet John the Baptist does bring us good news. We can think again. We can change. We can prepare. God’s forgiveness and God’s salvation have come through Jesus Christ. God’s promises have been fulfilled: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Amen.
Copyright (c) by Roberta Berke 2015. All rights reserved.