It may strike one as absurd that a day given to reflecting on peace revolves around that fiery wild figure that stormed out of the Judaean desert preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist seems an incongruous figure for what we imagine to be peace – serene narcosis wrapped in fluffy cotton wool where the daily grind can’t “get at us.”
Consider the elements of true peace however, based on the Semitic languages shalom (Hebrew) or salaam (Arabic and its derivatives), alluding to wholeness in relationship with self, others, the environment and the Divine. It seems to me that one has to navigate some conflict to achieve each of those summits.
Well known New Testament scholar Bill Loader, at the local Uniting Church commissioning service for their local minister, noted three surprises in Mark’s use of the John the Baptist episode to open his discussion of what the “good news” of Jesus was all about. I summarise and paraphrase, hopefully accurately, his points as I heard them. But go here for Bill’s online commentary on this passage.
First, there is the lack of apocalyptic judgement often associated with John the Baptist’s ministry. Change is in the wind, people are being called to change, but the use of Isaiah’s words are couched in the language and context of comfort and strength. The world is full of people bearing a heavy weight of oppression , poverty and injustice, but change is possible and imminent.
The second surprise is the universality of John the Baptist’s message. All are invited to the baptism he offers – poor and rich, sick and well, Jew and Greek, peasant and soldier. There is no particularity, the invitation to change is for all. It begins with “repentance”, literally “turning to face a new direction,” or we might think of starting again with a blank page. The word used by Mark is metanoia (Koine Greek) “renewing of the mind”.
The third surprise is the incompleteness of his ministry – forgiveness is a beginning, but completeness comes with one who baptises with the Holy Spirit and who demonstrates the presence of God’s reign amongst us through the ministry of the Spirit. Those who wear the name of Christ must get past acting as if it was only about forgiveness and get on with the Spirit ministry of teaching, reconciling, healing and helping build a world that is whole.
It sounded to me a little bit like shalom, salaam, peace.