Thunder in the Desert (John 1:19-28)

john_the_baptist

(This post draws upon Keith Dudley’s recent sermon at Renovatus Church – you can check it out here.)

So John the Baptist has arrived on the scene and he’s making something of a name for himself. Only no-one knows who he is; some think he might be the Messiah, others suspect he’s Elijah come back from heaven. John waves away each of these suggestions, but the people want a straight answer: “Who are you?!”

And he answers, not entirely helpfully, “I’m the voice of one calling in the wilderness.”

Now, it’s all a bit abstract but his answer does make sense – after all, we know John as the first evangelist, a preacher and a prophet calling people to repent before Jesus arrives. And he lived in the desert, baptizing people in the Jordan river. So far, so literal.

But here’s the thing – apparently the Greek word used for “voice” can also refer to “thunder”, which gives us a different image to play with. Because the voice of God himself is often referred to as being like thunder – this isn’t John speaking in his own strength, he’s entering into a prophetic tradition and proclaiming God’s perspective on the situation. John’s directly quoting Isaiah 40 here, and I guess I’ve always seen this as a very lonely image – someone crying out in the desert, echoing off the rocks and the silence, an approaching voice with few to hear him.

But it’s a more regal image than that. John’s an outrunner for a royal procession – clear the way, build a road because the king is on his way. He’s not a lone voice at all, he’s just running further ahead, building roads and tunnels and bridges of repentance, taming the wilderness before the arrival of the king.

But the double meaning of voice/thunder provides us with another metaphor – thunder in the desert is a promise, a rumble of anticipation that should make desert dwellers stop and look into the sky – hear the thunder, here comes the rain. And on a very basic, physical level, rain can be salvation – water to drink, fuel for the harvest: the promise of new life?

But wait, this isn’t a drizzle, a quick shower. No, there’s a storm coming. When God arrives in town it’s disruptive – you can’t go on as you were, things get shaken up; you might welcome the rain but you want to run for shelter nonetheless. People don’t always like storms – in this case, a herald gets beheaded and the king ends up on a cross.

And yet the rain still comes; water seeps into parched ground and the barren soil gives up a harvest.

Maybe we’ve lost something of that anticipation, that excitement – I know I have, many times. Life carries on as normal and we get too used to the silence of the wilderness.

And yet John is a reminder – there’s a rumble of thunder on the horizon, a voice crying out in the desert. The King is on his way; the rain falls in his wake and the desert bursts into life.

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