“A voice of one calling prepare the way for the LORD. ” If asked to come up with some key phrases to express our sense of identity and mission, is this the kind of language we might use?
Author Phil Cooke defines a “brand” as something “people think of when they think of you, your product, or your organization.”1 He goes on to quote Wally Olins, the chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants:
[I]n a world that is bewildering in terms of competitive clamor, in which rational choice has become almost impossible, brands represent clarity, reassurance, consistency, status, membership-everything that enables human beings to help define themselves. Brands represent identity.2
This quote makes a person wonder what the “John the Baptist” brand represents. What does an identity described simply as “a voice” communicate? What about a mission statement that is not about establishing and protecting our own concerns? Who would be interested? What might the service or product look like?
As I think about Isaiah’s description of John’s ministry, my mind drifts back to the 1970s, when, as a young person still new to Adventism, I listened to the Voice of Prophecy radio program. Each broadcast began with the King’s Heralds quartet singing, “Lift up the trumpet and loud let it ring, Jesus is Coming Again.” At the appropriate moment, their voices would fade long enough for H.M.S. Richards Jr. to deliver a line that described the Voice of Prophecy’s ministry as “a voice calling out in the wilderness of these modern times, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
This was clearly an attempt to link the program’s identity and mission (as well as that of the Adventist Church in general) with that of John the Baptist. It is less clear whether or not the “John the Baptist brand” has always been at the heart of our concern about preserving the church’s identity and mission.
What if it were? What if we considered thoughtfully what it might mean, both personally and corporately, to assume the “John the Baptist” brand? Where might that train of thought lead?
As counterintuitive as it might seem, perhaps one of the first steps in exploring these questions might be to ponder not being the center of our own brand. We glimpse one possible answer as we watch John respond to those who pressed him to define his ministry in terms mostly about himself.
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” 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 desert, make straight the way for the Lord.” (John 1:1923 NIV)
We should not allow the unassuming nature of John’s response to mask its significance. John seemed to grasp that his ministry was not an end in itself, even if those who responded to his message did not. His mission was not to establish a group of people who had a unique “John the Baptist” identity. Rather, it was wrapped up in the task of pointing others to Jesus and preparing them to embrace a kingdom bigger than the movement he lead. However much those who followed him appreciated, or were shaped and blessed by his ministry, he would have been the first to point out the mistake of tying one’s primary identity to him or the movement itself, rather than to Jesus.
You yourselves can testify that I said, I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now completed. He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:2830 NIV)
What might it mean for Adventism to see itself less as the entity that people are called to join, and more as the friend of the bridegroom? Would taking this possibility seriously provide us with a more modest vision of the “remnant,” individually and corporately? Could we see it instead being comprised of scattered bits and pieces apparently left over, which gain their identity seeing themselves as part of a whole much bigger than themselves? Something to ponder!
The uniqueness of John’s message itself is as important as the way it was framed. For example, John invited his hearers (Jews and Gentiles alike) to consider carefully whether the ways in which they lived corresponded to those of God. According to John, the new kingdom is one in which people are defined less by nationality, pedigree, or theological purity, than by the justice and genuineness of their lives and the way they interact with each other. With the Kingdom of God on the verge of establishment, the people of John’s time had the opportunity to change course, repent, and embrace a new life.
Furthermore, John invited people to celebrate and express their decision through what appeared to be the new and innovative practice of baptism.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that people from the first century had some familiarity with baptismal imagery. In Babylon, the cult of Enki employed water ritually, and the Egyptians used it to remove blemishes from newborn children and prepare their dead for the afterlife. Other ancient religions used baptismal-like practices as initiation rites, which carried connotations of purification, regeneration, transformation, the reception of a special knowledge, and so forth.3 Sometime during the time of the exile, Jews also apparently developed a practice closely associated with purification rites for converts to Judaism.4
Thus, it appears that John and Jesus adapted ways that were known, and they infused them with unique Christian meanings when they invited people to be baptized. Perhaps they did this as a way to help hearers understand and celebrate what it meant to become a part of the Kingdom. Just as they issued a clear call to disengage from ways contrary to the life of that Kingdom (repent), John and Jesus also showed willingness to engage thought patterns in their culture. By adapting, changing, and infusing them with new meaning, they provided ways to understand more fully and embrace the message of the Kingdom.5 The voice that cried out in the wilderness had the ring of authenticity, yet it also showed willingness to be innovative in finding meaningful ways to redirect and infuse cultural patterns.
Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of John the Baptist’s brand was that not everybody received it well. John was arrested, struggled with questions of his own, and was ultimately executed. This raised questions among many about his ministry. However, Jesus declared, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist,” which reminds us that we need to be careful about how we measure significance and success (Matt. 11:11). Whether or not the movement John started continued to flourish under its own identity was not as important as whether it accomplished the purpose for which it had started.
These are some of the thoughts I have after reflecting upon the meaning of taking the “John the Baptist brand” seriously. For those who still consider themselves part of the voice calling out in these modern times, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” they are still worth pondering!
Notes and References
1. Phil Cooke, Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t (Ventura, California: Gospel Light, 2007), 11.
2. Ibid., 38.
3. Encyclopedia of Religion, 2d ed., s.v. “Baptism,” by Michel Meslin, 77980.
4. See Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (London: Yale University Press, 1983), 153.
5. The writings of Paul also reflect ways in which cultural imagery continued to be used to expand and explain the meaning of baptism. One example is the concept of being clothed in Christ (Gal. 3:27), which may draw from the toga virilis ceremony. See J. Albert Harrill, “Coming of Age and Putting on Christ: The Toga Virilis Ceremony, Its Paraenesis, and Paul’s Interpretation of Baptism in Galatians, “ Novum Testamentum 44, no. 3 (2002): 25356.
Ken Curtis is an associate pastor at the Calimesa, California, Seventh-day Adventist Church.