He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'” (Luke 3:3-4 NIV)
One of the tasks of youth is to find our identity, to work out who we are. My children are all teenagers just now and I see them wrestling with this question, though not always consciously. Friends who are parents of teenagers see the same thing happening in their own children. I look back to my younger days and realise that I went through the same process in my teens and twenties. Indeed, sometimes I think that I am still trying to understand who I really am, why I am here, what my life means. Life is confusing and we search for understanding. But how do we find such understanding? How do we interpret our lives?
John the Baptist is described with these words from Isaiah 40 in all four of the gospels. The prophecy is quoted as an answer to the question of who John the Baptist was, a question that seemed to be very important to his contemporaries. John was a rough sort of man who lived in the wilderness and preached fiery sermons. It would seem that many came to hear him; something about what he said and how he said it attracted people, though he seems not to have always spoken kindly to those who came to listen. He was confrontational and must have offended many. People who heard him, and also people who only heard about him, asked the question, “Who is this man?” “What authority does he have to say these things?”
But how did they end up connecting the prophecy of Isaiah 40 with him? The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all include variations of the Isaiah text by way of explanation of who John the Baptist was. But who made the original connection?
It all started, no doubt, with John’s father, Zechariah, who once he had been restored from the temporary muteness that affected him during his wife’s pregnancy, related an extraordinary story of an encounter with an angel. These are the words that the angel spoke to him about the son his wife would bear:
He will be great in the sight of the Lord… he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:14-17 NIV).
At some stage in his childhood John would have heard this story, and as he matured through adolescence and grew into adulthood it would have been a strong influence in how he understood himself. John would have been taught the Old Testament: his father was a priest, his mother was also from a priestly family. His heritage would have strongly influenced his understanding of who he was, his search for identity. And the words his father told him that the angel had said must have made him wonder.
At some stage he would have also learnt the words of Isaiah 40, and one day it must have dawned on him that those words were about him. In John’s gospel we see how he had incorporated these words recorded hundreds of years previously into his self image, his understanding of himself. He was interrogated by the Jewish leaders, and John records his response:
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him,“Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'” John 1:19-23 NIV
How do we come to an understanding of our own identity? How do we define ourselves? There are many ways, and it is exciting to listen to people’s descriptions of themselves and explore the way their families and their experiences have shaped them. There is no doubt that the things that are said about us can profoundly affect the way we see ourselves. This can have both positive and negative effects. It is often easy for us to remember things that have been said about us even when we were little children and though sometimes these are helpful as we try to find our identity and our path in life, sometimes they are destructive.
What shaped John’s identity, and what ideally should shape ours, is what God says about us. Few of us have parents who relate the kind of experiences to us that John’s parents related to him. Few of us come from priestly families. But those of us who have had the privilege of learning and studying the words of God recorded in the Bible have the same opportunity as John to come to an understanding of ourselves in the context of God’s plans for the world and the people in it. For me, personally, the words of that great prophet Isaiah have had a strong influence on how I understand myself, not in precisely the same way as for John, but in ways that God’s Spirit has made alive for me. But my understanding of myself is not limited to Isaiah – I have had the benefit of the whole Bible. And I have had the benefit of other believers speaking God’s words into my life, much as John’s father did for him. In addition I have had the “still, small voice of God” whispering his words of affirmation and love into my ears.
There is much we can learn from this as we navigate life’s journey. If we are trying to find out who we are we need to read the Bible, we need to spend time with the people of God and allow them to speak God’s words into out lives, we need to ask God, listen to his response, meditate on what we hear, and incorporate these truths into our lives, not just intellectually but actively. We need to act on what we hear, be who we are. Sometimes we need to go through a cleansing process to get rid of negative words or experiences that have shaped our lives, that come not from God but from his and our enemy, the one the Bible calls Satan. Only once we are saved from such evil can we be rebuilt into the ones God intended us to be.
If we have already found our identity in God, and understand who we are, we have a responsibility to help others on the same journey. This is as true for us Christian doctors as it is for believers in general, and as doctors we have a unique opportunity to speak into people’s lives, people who we don’t know, have never met before, and may never meet again. We should not take this privilege lightly. We may not speak in religious terminology, we may not refer to God in our interactions with people. But we need to be constantly asking ourselves the question, who is this person that I have before me, how does God see them, and what does God want to say to them to help them on their way to healing and restoration. We need to understand that we can be God’s voice to the people we meet, and we need to act on that knowledge.
John knew that he was “the voice of one calling in the wilderness.” He knew what he had to announce, he knew what he had to say. We need to know the same things about ourselves. We can find that understanding and wisdom in God.