John the Baptist as Public Theologian

Feast of St. Eustratios the Wonderworker

John_the_Baptist_Square_2.jpegHE MAY have stunk from the river water. Surely he was a bit repulsive, with locust legs stuck between his teeth. His hair, disheveled; his wardrobe, camel’s hair and leather; but his voice—oh, his voice was that of a prophet, “yea, more than a prophet” (Mt. 11:9)—if you are willing to accept it, is that of Elijah, the promised messenger who prepares the way of the Lord (Mal. 3:1; 4:5), and makes straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isa. 40:3). “He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light…and he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ’” (Jn. 1:8, 20). This is John, the Forerunner, the Baptist.

As a “public theologian” he didn’t fit the bill. He was neither a reed shaken in the wind, nor a king in soft clothing. He wasn’t pretty. He wasn’t smooth. “He came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He hath a devil’” (Mt. 11:18). He called a thing like it is. And he ended up with his head on a platter. That’s what you get as a “public theologian.” But for John, that’s okay.

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It started with a visit from the Angel Gabriel while Zechariah tended the lights and incense in the Temple. His prayers were heard and the Lord gave Elizabeth a child. And once his lips were freed again, Zechariah hymned the Benedictus canticle:

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:

for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways;

to give knowledge of salvation unto His people

by the remission of their sins,

through the tender mercy of our God;

whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,

to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Lk. 1:76-79)

It began there, with prophetic birth, Nazirite vows, and consecration unto the Lord’s preparatory service. It ended in a prison cell “for Herodias’ sake . . . for John had said unto Herod: ‘It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife’” (M.k 6:17-18). In between it was a life in the wilderness, at the Jordan, “preaching the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1:4).

“And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mk. 1:5). Notice how inclusive and encompassing is the “all.” You don’t get more public than that. And his theology? “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). Where is that kingdom? And what is it? So that there’s no doubt, no uncertainty, no mistaking the truth of his word:

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is He of whom I said, ‘After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for He was before me…’ I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon Him” (Jn. 1:29-30, 32).

Make no mistake: John preached Jesus. And he did so publicly. He preached Jesus to the Pharisees and Sadducees—that brood of vipers (Mt. 3:7). He preached Jesus to the crowds, who asked him: “What shall we do then?” He answereth and saith unto them, ‘He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise” (Lk. 3:10-11). He preached Jesus to the publicans, the tax-collectors, saying, “Exact no more than that which is appointed you” (Lk. 3:13). He even preached Jesus to the soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (3:14).

This is to say, John preached Jesus to all. And to each, depending on what was needed to be heard, it required a unique word from the Lord. So it is for us. A public theologian is nothing more—nor anything less—than preaching Jesus to each as is uniquely needed. John couldn’t hide away in his particular community, keeping the good news of Christ hidden. Nor could he withhold it, even from the king himself. To some, the preaching of Jesus was sweet consolation, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” (Isa. 40:1); to others, it was “an axe . . . laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Mt 3:10).

What would it be like if we were more like John? If preachers preached to all of the country of Judea, and all of Jerusalem, and all of Wichita, and all of the United States of America—would there be fruits keeping with repentance? Yes, most certainly. Would there be heads served on silver platters? Yes, most certainly. But if such a fate was okay with John, who was not offended in Christ, but whose certainty rested in Jesus as the Coming One—for “the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Mt. 11:3, 5)—should it not be okay with us, too? For if our theology is that of John the Baptist—the preaching of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—then such a preaching is worthy of being heard publicly by the world;

And take they our life,

Goods, fame, child, and wife,

Though these all be gone,

Our vict’ry has been won;

The Kingdom ours remaineth (Lutheran Service Book, 656:4).

Fr. Geoff Boyle is Pastor of Grace Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran Churches in Wichita, KS and serves on the Board of Directors for Eighth Day Institute.


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