How John the Baptist Listened
There were 24 priestly families. Zechariah was part of the eighth family, the priests of Abijah. The duty of caring for the Holy of Holies would rotate from family to family. On this day it was the order of Abijah who assumed the care of the inner sanctuary of the temple. Those in the family of Abijah drew lots and the lot fell on Zechariah. Only one man could enter the inner room and replace the incense. This space was considered so holy that no one dared enter except the one priest assigned to replace the incense. We do not know if Zechariah had ever had this privilege before. What we do know is that when Zechariah walked into that holy room, his life changed forever. An angel visited him and told him that he would have a son. And he was to name his son John.
I saw a friend of mine a few weeks ago. His name is also John and he is a priest. We had not seen one another in years. We were at a short conference together and I had the opportunity of sitting with John over dinner.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I am well,” he said. “In fact, I am more than well. Kate, can I tell you something?”
“Of course.” I said.
“I had an experience of God. It was such an experience that I find it hard to put into words. It is hard to explain and I wonder if people will think that I am crazy so I don’t mention it much. Can I tell you about it?”
“I would love to hear…” I said.
John proceeded to tell me of how he went to visit the Wailing Wall in Israel, the only wall of the temple still left standing in Jerusalem today. I’m sure that you have seen pictures of it if you have not seen it yourself. It is enormous and every crack and crevice is filled with the prayers of Jewish people and others who come to the wall to pray. Jews stand facing the wall, praying with their phylacteries and often swaying as they sing or speak their prayers.
John approached the wall and he felt the urge to reach out and touch it. The moment that his finger touched the stone, he had a vision. It was as if he was transported in time. He could see his own past. He could hear the prayers of people far away on the wall. He saw how he and all of humanity, how very frail and precious we were. It was overwhelming. He took his hand away, thinking that he had lost his mind.
The next day John went back to touch the wall again. “Maybe I was dehydrated,” he thought. “Maybe I was not in my right mind.” So he touched the wall again and the very same thing happened.
“Kate,” he said to me, leaning in as if to tell me a secret. “This experience has changed me and it has made me lonely. I have a hard time sharing it with people. It was so overwhelming. It was scary.
“I am afraid and alone and yet I am so grateful to have had this experience. It was like no other and it changed my life.”
John the Baptist was a priestly son, born into a tribe of Israel that was seen as the highest class. John was loved like no other child, for his parents were old when he was born and they thought that they would not be able to conceive. John was educated by the best priests and scholars. John had a good life.
John decided that his comfortable life was not enough. He wanted to listen for God, so he left everything behind: his education, his family, his career. He left everything to walk out into the desert and live as a homeless man. And it was there, in that quiet place that the Word of God came to John.
What is implied by this simple verse is something immensely important. The Word of God came to John and John was listening.
John was listening.
If John had a message to preach, why would he have moved away from people? Why not stay and spread the news of repentance right there in Jerusalem? I think that John thought that listening was even more important than preaching. And he knew that he could hear better in the desert, away from the crowds. He left to be alone.
It is scary to listen to God. You must be willing to silence the cacophony around you. You must be willing to make space in your mind. Have you ever cleaned up a very messy room? You have to lift clothes off the floor, take laundry baskets downstairs, sweep the floor. It is a lot of effort to make space, to clean things up, to make a path straight.
When you pray, if you chose to really listen, it is a forceful act. Your thoughts will rush at you like an oncoming train and you must constantly put them aside. “Yes, I hear you. Wait.” Let me clear a space in my mind for God. Let me clear a path, make a path straight.
John had the courage to really listen.
The scary part about listening is the potential for God to speak. God might tell you to move to the desert. To give away all your belongings, to preach in the streets. Most of us are scared to find out what God will ask of us, so we get busy and pretend that we cant really hear right.
It is painful to listen and it can be lonely.
There is no one who was more revered by Jesus, more honored, than John the Baptist. “Of those born of women, there is no one greater,” Jesus said. And John was alone.
At the end of his life, John is still listening. And the voices of darkness and doubt enter his mind when he is in prison. He wonders if he has made a mistake. He fears that maybe his entire life has been in vain. Maybe Jesus is not the Messiah after all.
John sends a message to Jesus just before he is killed. “Are you the One or are we to wait for another?”
Did I make a mistake? Was this all a big mistake?
John doubted at the end. He wondered if he had listened to the right thing. And this, more than any other part of his life, makes me admire him. John was listening so hard that he was even willing to admit that he might be wrong. He was willing to admit that his whole life might have been one big mistake.
I think the thing that scares me the most about religious extremism is the certainty with which they act. Not only do these Muslim extremists believe that God asks them to kill but they seem to be so certain. And holy men, like John the Baptist, have room to doubt. Holy men and women are always listening, always willing to admit that they might be wrong.
I wish I could thank John for what he did. The great messenger. He showed us what it means to listen to give your life to God. And he will be remembered until the end of time for his faithfulness.
- The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead