The Lord’s Sandals
2 January 2018
John the Baptist presented a conundrum to the religious authorities of his day. A powerful and compelling preacher, he commanded a high level of respect among faithful Jews. Lots of people were going out to the Jordan to see, hear and be baptised by him. There was no doubt, religiously speaking, that he was influencing many for good. The question was, how exactly did he fit into the religious and political landscape?
Messianic anticipation was running at fever pitch in Israel early in the first century. Oppression by a foreign power can have that effect. The Romans did not entertain political dissent and had a reputation for brutality. It is no wonder that people were looking for deliverance. When would he appear, this yearned for the Messiah? And what would he be like when he came?
A ‘prophet like Moses’ was one school of messianic expectation. A ‘son of David’ to restore the glory days of Israel would also have been welcome. The return of the great prophet Elijah, whom they believed would reappear before ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord’ (Malachi 4.5), was likewise prominent in the thinking of faithful Jews. And after all, here was John, preaching and baptising at the Jordan, the very place where Elijah was said to have ascended in a whirlwind into heaven riding a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire (2 Kings 2.11).
The way the evangelist John tells the story when questioned by the priests and Levites, John declared that he was not the Messiah, not the Prophet and not Elijah, but rather
‘a voice that cries in the wilderness:
Make a straight way for the Lord.’
This text from Isaiah 40.3 comes from the opening verses of one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, Isaiah chapters 40 – 55, a soaring prophetic vision of restoration, healing, divine encounter and commissioning for the people of Israel who were at that point mired in the misery of exile and captivity in Babylon.
It was what God was going to do next that excited the prophet in Babylon, and it was what God was going to do next that excited John the Baptist. It was so close he could feel it: the revelation of the glory of the Lord was at hand (Isaiah 40.5). He announced to the priests and Levites that ‘there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’
There may be times when we feel like we’re exiled in Babylon, under the thumb of Roman oppression, or just bogged down in the struggle of life, but there is something about being people of faith that is inherently optimistic. We are people of hope. The coming of the Messiah is always at hand. As we continue to celebrate the Christmas season, let’s welcome among us the presence of Him whose sandal straps we are unworthy to untie.