The work to which John the Baptist was called had long since been established. As far back as the prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel had been waiting for a JBap. They didn’t know when he would come, what he would look like, how he might sound, or if and what kind of bugs he might eat, but they knew that someday, one like John the Baptist would find his way into the wilderness in order to prepare the way of the Lord.
As much as they knew about this person who was to come, it seems to me that their might not have been much consensus about what it meant to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Certainly, they didn’t expect someone to literally come with shovel in hand, or, later, riding on a bulldozer, to level the valleys and flatten the mountain tops. What is it they were expecting?
Given the response to John’s preaching, echoed in all four Gospels, the crowds knew something was up with this John the Baptist character. His location helps. Isaiah is clear that the one who is to come will be found in the wilderness. If you can say anything about John’s geography, it was certainly out there. Beyond that, it seems that maybe the promised prophet for whom they waited would have a surprisingly popular unpopular message.
Mark puts John’s task this way. “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance is pretty unpopular in 21st century American Mainline Christianity, but I have to think it has never really been a hit. Nobody really likes to hear that the way they are living their lives is out of touch with God’s dream. Nobody is keen to be told how to live. Never has this been the most popular topic on the Best Seller list. Except, of course, when it comes to John the Baptist. For some reason his message of repentance, of turning from the old ways and toward a new vision of the Kingdom, brought crowds. Huge crowds.
Even if “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” is hyperbole, it wouldn’t be put this way if fifteen people had come to see John. This message of repentance was bringing them out in the thousands. As his popularity grew, it became increasingly clear, this was the one who was to come, the one who would be sent to prepare the way. Well, it became clear for John, at least. We do hear, however, that he felt the need to clarify his role. He was not the Messiah, but rather, there was one who would be coming after him.
Hearing the story of JBap as often as we do, it can be easy to forgot how incredible it is. How long it had been since prophecy was heard. How eager the people were for a Messiah. How popular his unpopular message was. And how humble he was to continue to point toward someone else. His job was to prepare the way, and he did it with grace and humility.