John the Baptist has stuck out to me as a person of interest for as long as I can remember. I keep asking myself, ‘What sort of man lives like a hermit in the desert eating grasshoppers with wild honey and starts splashing water on people?’ Over my lifetime I’ve had a series of shocking realizations about him whether through a sermon, lecture, book, or conversation. For example, John was Jesus’ cousin, his miraculous conception mirrors those of Isaac and Samuel, and he was a Nazarite for life like Samson and Samuel. Even now as I write this I see just how deeply John follows the life of Samuel. In the same way that Samuel was the last of the judges John was the last of the prophets. They both had the ear of the people but decidedly laid down their prestige in order to prepare the way for a king.
For Lent, most people fast and pray like Jesus did when the Spirit led him into the wilderness for forty days after he was baptized by John. But Jesus was already on the edge of civilization because that’s where John lived in camel hair and a leather strap. That’s where droves of people, even the religious leaders, were coming to hear what he had to say. John was filled with the Holy Spirit before he was born and had the Word of the God come to him in the desert. He was legit. And he was a weirdo.
In mid 2005 I decided to take a Nazarite vow, which is about separating oneself in dedication to God and consists of three basic rules: Don’t drink wine or eat grapes (fine). Don’t touch dead bodies (ew!). And don’t cut your hair (easy). At first it was simple and a great conversation starter. But then I started to look ragged. People looked at me funny at the mall and in restaurants. Some friends and family (and future in-laws) didn’t always feel comfortable with it either. I was a bit of a weirdo. But I was also legit. People who spoke with me often assumed I was far more spiritual than I really was or that I’d joined some cult. The conversations became more intentional and deep on both sides. The most interesting thing that happened was that, without even trying, I began to downplay any prestige gleaned from the vow and talked more about Jesus and who God really is. I began to become a means through which God prepared the way for Jesus.
When my vow was complete, I shaved my head (as is the custom) and burned the hair (as is the custom) in my backyard with some friends (burnt hair stinks). The day was ripe with expectation but anti-climactic in reality. The times I have truly practiced Lent have brought similar experiences for me. At Lent we are reminded how limited our time is and that our fate could be the same as John the baptist. We use the season to recalibrate and set apart our hearts and minds. We become more aware of our place in the story and our role in God’s work of redemption. But when it ends, may we be like John and prepare the way of the Lord that he may become greater and we may become less.
Photo by Debbie Preuss