What was it that John the Baptist did that fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that valleys shall be filled, the mountains and hills made low, the crooked straight, and the rough ways made smooth?
There he was living a bizarre life style and offering water baths in the Jordan River that he said would open the way to a new life, free of the taint of sin, to any who would come to him. By what authority? There already was an established authority for doing that, so who did he think he was?
A well institutionalized system for becoming free from the taint of sin had been in place for a long time, a system clearly authorized in scripture that was available in the proper place for such things, the temple in Jerusalem. It may be that poor people living in the countryside, the sick and the maimed, and a slew of others whose ways of life were on the fringe of acceptability, were in a constant state of ritual uncleanliness that made it difficult, if not impossible, to take advantage of temple resources. Besides, it was’t cheap. One had to pay for the privilege. If you couldn’t? Too bad. All of that was irrelevant. The approved system existed, and there was no other.
So along came this disreputable mess of a so called prophet, who claimed to be of the priestly class, offering to ignore every requirement of temple ritual, indeed of the need for the temple at all. He provided a ritual bath that he said would clean them of sin, and set them on a new life in companionship with God. There was nothing subtle about it. If that was not making the rugged path to God smooth and straight, what was it? Moreover, he had chosen the Jordan River as the site for his water bath, the very river ancient Israelites had crossed over as they entered from wandering in the wilderness to occupy the new land God had promised them. The symbolism of that could not have been lost on those who came to John.
Still, the question remains; by what authority did he do it? Isn’t that what the Pharisees and temple priests asked when they came to see what was going on? John never did give them a good answer. But I think we get one when, a little later on, Jesus came to him to enter into the water bath of the Jordan. Jesus became the imprimatur when he recognized John’s authority by entering the water through which he left his old life as a carpenter and entered his new life as the Christ.
If it had ended there, the legitimacy of John’s ministry, even his sanity, would still be suspect. In fact, Jesus’ ministry would also be suspect. But it didn’t end there. The beginning of the end was experienced in Jesus’ death and resurrection through which all that went before was affirmed by God. It was the beginning of the end because we are still trying to figure it out.