There’s an old legend (2nd or 3rd century) about John the Baptist’s early days. Since John and Jesus were so close in age, there was a question about what happened to John during Herod’s terrible Massacre of the Innocents—the attempt of Herod to eliminate the child Jesus, referred to in Matthew 2. The legend goes that on learning of Herod’s plans, Elizabeth fled to the hill country with her baby, but could find no place to hide. So she called out to God, who opened a cave in the hillside for them. She and John are sheltered there, protected by an angel, basically until John begins his ministry.
There are a lot of legends that grew up around Biblical characters, some of them pretty far-fetched. This isn’t to discount the miraculous, but there’s a reason these stories are not in the Bible. This particular legend seems like more of a way to explain a couple blank spots in the narrative—the problem of how John survived Herod’s purge, and the problem of where John was before he shows up along the banks of the Jordan—than it does an account of something that actually happened. But since we’re looking at blank spots, let’s take a look at John’s early life.
In the last verse of Luke 1, we see this: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” This verse contains the gap that the legend tries to fill. The next time we see John, he’s preaching in the unsettled regions around the Jordan. His message is pretty consistent—repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s saying that people are going the wrong way, and need to turn around. They are thinking the wrong things and need to get their heads straight. When the crowd asks him for more specifics, he says they should be more concerned with the poor, they should share what they have with those who do not, they should live lives of integrity and contentment. We can assume that if this is what he is telling them they should do, it’s a safe bet they are not doing these things—they are selfishly looking after their own interests, while they take advantage of others through deception and graft, always striving to put themselves forward.
So, where does John get this message he was proclaiming? After all, according to Luke 1:80, he’s been off the grid for 30-odd years. There’s so much that is left unsaid in the Gospels, I can understand folks in the 2nd or 3rd century speculating about what was going on in John’s early life. But I’m more drawn to the way he was spiritual formed in what appeared to be such a desolate setting. Apparently, John’s early years were spent in relative isolation. Luke says he lived in the wilderness, so we can assume that he didn’t get a normal education. His parents were of priestly lineage, and so we can assume they had some theological wisdom. But since they were old by the time he was born, it may be that they were unable to share much with him. Luke says he was strong in the spirit, but the reality is that we don’t really know how John came to this particular message of repentance, other than to believe that God gave it to him.
It is certainly true that God has directly given people messages. It’s a well-attested Biblical principle, the defining characteristic of prophets—those who have received the word of God. Theologians call this sort of divinely inspired message (from God direct to the recipient) “special revelation.” And so, John didn’t need to have any particular formational experience to have something to say—God gives the prophet the word they need. But I also think that John may have been in a unique position, literally—one that may have shaped the special revelation God had given him. John’s wilderness pulpit may have given the message a sharper edge.
We need to listen carefully to those on the margins. While receiving the word of God is one prophetic characteristic, being on the margins is another. Even though he circulated at the highest levels of society, Daniel—as a Hebrew in the court of the Babylonians—was an outsider. Those on the margins have a special perspective that can allow them to see things that we who are enmeshed in the middle of things might miss. John was not from town. He did not hang out in the Temple, he wasn’t a regular in the synagogue or the marketplace. John stood off at a distance—he’d done so for years—and so maybe he was able to see things about the way people were acting that they themselves could not. Maybe the folks in the crowd who had more than enough shirts and food felt they deserved that little bit extra. Maybe the tax collectors had learned that the only way they were going to provide for themselves was to charge more than was required. Maybe the soldiers believed that their position gave them the right to do whatever they wanted. Maybe all of them were too close to the problem to see it.
Like all the prophets, John’s message was a mixture of what God had revealed to him, shaped by his life experience. And John’s life experience—brought up in a wilderness, out on the margins—may have allowed him to see the deeper truth of God’s call to “turn around.” When God told him to preach repentance, he could see from his place on the outskirts of society the troubling things the people needed to turn from. Unfortunately, his place on the margins may have tempted some to dismiss him as a crack-pot, a crank from the sticks. Hopefully we would not do the same. There may be many voices coming from the margins of our settled and comfortable lives, calling us to repent before it’s too late. We need to be careful not to ignore the voices of those calling in the wilderness.