When you think of John the Baptizer, what do you consider? His strange diet of bugs and honey? His wardrobe choice of camel’s hair? The fact that he did not become a priest in the Temple like his father and instead went out to the edge of the civilized world to preach?
If I asked you, what is the point of John the Baptizer; why does he exist? Maybe you would say “to point to Jesus”, which isn’t wrong, but is definitely not the whole story. John’s life is more than simply to tell people that his cousin is God’s chosen One. John’s existence has a complex purpose and reason for being, just like each of ours.
Consider what his father, Zechariah, says in the blessing that we read today as the psalmody (Luke 1:68-79): And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (vv. 76-79)
John’s purpose, besides bringing delight to his parents as a child of their old age, is to tell people that they have received salvation, a restoration of wholeness, through the forgiveness of their sins. The people must know that this compassion is part of God’s nature in order to understand who Jesus is when He comes.
Did you get that? Zechariah understands a concept of salvation, of reunion with the creator, of wholeness and hope- before Jesus is born. Additionally, it is this message that John will proclaim in the wilderness. He is not saying that the Messiah isn’t necessary. He is pointing to the fact that God is already loving, already forgiving, already compassionate, already merciful, and the coming of the Messiah is the telos of the nature of God, not an anomaly.
Telos is a fancy church word. The writer Rachel Held Evans describes it best in her latest and last book, Wholehearted Faith. I will read her words to you, rather than reinvent a wheel. Evans says:
“… Scripture reminds us, the end is never quite the end as we typically understand it; it’s only a beginning. One of the biblical words for “end” is telos, This Greek word doesn’t have the air of finality that the English word “end” has. In other words, it’s not a dead end. To the contrary, it’s full of life, because it has a sense of completion and contentment. It carries the satisfaction of doing what you know you’re called to do and the fulfillment of being who you were always meant to be.
The telos of an apple tree is to flower and to fruit, producing blossoms and apples and seeds that will propagate the next generation of tree. The telos of a honeybee is to collect pollen and produce honey, working in concert with other honeybees throughout seasons of plenty to store sustenance for seasons of lack. The telos of a surfboard is to help a surfer catch a wave. The telos of bread and wine is to sustain and to nourish, to delight the tastebuds and gratify the body until the next meal comes…
The telos of a human- your telos, my telos, our telos- is to love lavishly and indiscriminately, as our God has loved us. Love is what we were made to do. But even more than that, love is who we were made to be.” (Evans, Wholehearted Faith. p. 177f)
This telos, this end which is not an end, matters. When John goes out to the wilderness to preach about the nature of God, he is doing so because the message matters. If he does not proclaim this word, which likely burns in his chest and keeps him awake at night, he knows people will fail to perceive and to understand the One whom God sends.
The very same misunderstanding that John feared still happens today. Christians still tend to believe the God of the Hebrew scripture (Old Testament) is angry, vengeful, and in need of appeasement. No matter how many times we read in the psalms, in the prophets, and in the writings that God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”. No matter how many messengers proclaim, “Be not afraid”. No matter how many times we read about the Divine Being always keeping promises, covenants, and commitments. Still, still, STILL- people hold wrong ideas about God the Holy Parent and, when they do, they form wrong ideas about Jesus.
The telos of John the Baptizer was and is to remind people, even the worst people, of the merciful and covenant keeping nature of God who creates and preserves a welcome to all prodigals in all places, at all times.
He points to a God whose telos is to make all things new, not to make all new things. The incarnation, the coming of Jesus- as God- among us, is one aspect of that telos.
Which brings us to our own selves, our own vocations, our own telos. As Evans wrote, “The telos of a human- your telos, my telos, our telos- is to love lavishly and indiscriminately, as our God has loved us. Love is what we were made to do. But even more than that, love is who we were made to be.”
How do we be love? How do we live out this miraculous, hopeful, and holy way of being, doing, and resting in this life and into the life of the world to come with the help of the Holy Spirit?
My inclination is to tell you that first we must reject the aspects of our lives that do not conform to God’s love and will. However, even as I think and write that, I realize that it is wrong.
First, we must actually believe that God is love. We must lean into the gift of faith and believe that we have been made in God’s image- all of us and every person we know. We have to believe that God sees us as worthy of love, of compassion, of restoration.
When we dare to believe that this love is true, true for us, true for all people, then we will be open to the repentance that John points to. The turning away from division, the rejection of injustice, the spurning of habits and ways that cause pain and bring death.
The chief purpose of our lives has never been to make ourselves worthy of the gifts of God. Rather, the chief purpose is to grow in the understanding of those gifts and how God equips and calls us to use them, with the help of the Holy Spirit, for Christ’s sake in the world. Comprehension of our telos comes through leaning on the everlasting arms and knowing that we did not earn our place there but have been gifted it through Christ’s faithfulness.
In this season of Advent waiting and preparation, in thinking about the celebration of Christ and the promise of Christ’s return, I invite you to consider your own telos, the fullness for why you have been created. It is not merely for your parents, your children, or even your neighbors. There’s a reality for why you specifically have been made, a special way that you specifically can glorify God and imitate Christ, a specific way that you are called to live and show love among God’s faithful people and in the world.
We have been called to love because we have first been loved. We were created from love, and, in the end, we return to the source of love. This is not a new thing since Jesus’ birth, but the reality of who and how God- Creator, Word, and Spirit- has always been. Love made us, made all things. And it is our telos to love with our whole being- in all we do and say- every moment of our lives.
This is not impossible. It is very possible and even probable, if we are willing to believe the truth about the nature of God. The truth that has always existed. The truth that we heard from our brother, John.