The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord!'
That there will be a figure coming ahead of the Lord, one to prepare his way, is a theme of Isaiah's prophecy, and also Malachi 3 and 4. The New Testament sees John the Baptist as fulfilling this role. He is to prepare the way, to make things ready for the Lord when he comes, to prepare a people who are ready to receive him.
But who was prepared? Just a few, I suppose - there were those who followed John initially and then became disciples of Jesus. According to the fourth gospel, some at least of the apostolic band may have been amongst them. And maybe there was some sort of general preparation going on, some sort of shaking loose of some of the common assumptions of first century Judaism, perhaps a little expectation-raising. But in the end, even the prepared don't seem very prepared. The disciples fail to grasp the mission of Jesus until after the resurrection - arguably until after Pentecost.
Who was prepared, really?
John the Preparer stands in a curiously ambivalent light. There is the John who cries 'behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!', the first to acknowledge the identity and mission of the Messiah. This is the same John who is happy for his own reputation to be diminished, so long as the fame of Jesus is increased. He is the herald, the friend of the bridegroom, and as such the greatest born of woman.
And yet, even in that phrase, something else is said: the least in the kingdom is greater than John. The imprisoned herald openly questions whether this truly is Messiah. There is something odd about the fact that John continues to have a band of disciples even after Messiah has come. Ought not the forerunner to have completely given way? Biblically this tension isn't resolved until the apostle Paul baptizes some disciples of John in Ephesus, years later.
It strikes me that even the ministry of John, the Preparer, the one who makes ready - even his work by itself is a dead end, a kind of cul-de-sac, a preparation which leaves nobody prepared. It is only as Jesus himself pushes forward into the situation that the preparation of John has genuine light shone upon it. The preparation proves to be ineffective except where it is taken up by a new and special work of grace; a work of grace which shows itself to have no need of preparation at all.
I'm struck this morning that this is Christian ministry: preparing, making ready, clearing the way - and knowing all along that nobody will be prepared, and nothing will be made ready, and the way will remain blocked, unless Christ himself comes and makes our work effective.