Friday, January 12, 2007

The Cry of the Herald

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
"A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' "

John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River...

... Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." Matthew 3:1-6, 13-17

In days of old, monarchs would oft-times be preceded by a well-dressed young man crying, “Here comes the King! Make way for His Majesty - the King!”, or some other such cry depending on the title and gender of the individual monarch. The reason this was done was to make sure the people realized the rich-looking person coming down the road was not just another member of the nobility, but the actual, for real, King in the flesh.

You see, most common people rarely got to see the King for themselves. Even the number of people who could recognize the local nobility was likely fairly small. This was largely due to the fact that class distinctions were very well drawn and unless you had business that brought you in direct contact with the ruling class, you were not likely to have reason to recognize them. In some jurisdictions this was of great concern because the penalty for failing to show proper respect for the monarch was death, and no one wanted to pay the ultimate price just for being inattentive!

Thus we have a man with the large voice coming down the road before the King making sure everyone was paying proper attention. This person would have been known as - the King’s Herald.

Enter - John the Baptist. Like the subjects of earthly kingdoms, those seeking the kingdom of heaven also needed help in recognizing their monarch when he arrived. It had long been foretold that the prophet Elijah would arrive before the Messiah to announce his coming. Anticipation of Elijah’s arrival led to the setting of a place for him at the Passover table. When John appeared on the scene dressed in camel hair with a leather belt (like the Old Testament prophet), preaching the message of repentance, people would have naturally made the connection. Every king must have a herald and with one foot firmly planted in Israel’s past and the other stepping out towards it’s future, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, certainly fit the bill.

But his role doesn’t stop there. John has another task to perform, a task which has largely gone misunderstood. Since the days of Saul and David, the prophets of God have also held the responsibility of anointing Israel’s kings. It is a role John is reluctant to perform recognizing that Jesus is no ordinary prince. How can a person who has committed no sin receive baptism for the remission of those sins. But he accepts the role when Jesus reminds him that it is required in order “ to fulfill all righteousness.”

This may well be one of the most misunderstood statements in the Gospels. To understand its significance we first need to understand that John was not the first baptist (immerser); they had been around in Israel for many years. The mikveh is a ritual immersion required by the Law of Moses for a number of reasons. The job of the “immerser” is to ensure that the individual is fully submerged beneath the surface of the water. The most significance place where this ritual could be performed is in the Jordan River. Among the many reasons for the mikveh ritual is the preparation of the High Priest before he entered into service in the temple.

For a Jew in the first century, fulfilling righteousness meant fulfilling the Law of Moses. Jesus is not only our King, he is our High Priest and must fulfill all the requirements of that role, including the Mikveh. In the Jordan River Jesus is immersed by John not for the remission of his sins, but in preparation for service in the heavenly temple. When the Spirit descends upon him, Jesus is anointed as our High Priest. When the heavens open up and God the Father pronounces this man Jesus as his own “beloved Son”, Jesus’ coronation as Heir Apparent is complete. The rightful heir to the throne has returned and made himself known, his Herald has proclaimed him to the populace and all now have the opportunity to recognize the King as He walks through the land.

As a story teller, I find myself identifying with John the Baptist. Each time I tell the stories of God I am proclaiming His majesty to the people. I stand as a witness to Jesus’ rightful claim to the throne of the Kingdom of God. But not everyone is ready to accept this claim. As is often the case with earthly kingdoms there is one who would challenge Jesus claim. We’ll look at that event in our next episode.


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