Once upon a time this is how everyone but the seriously wealthy made a personal phone call – from a public telephone box or kiosk. As a student at University in the 1970’s I would ring home once a week using something similar. No emails, no internet, no texts, no tweets, no Skype. Nada. Nothing. Outside the workplace in that pre-digital world the choice was either snail mail letters or the phone box.
Modern mobiles such as the BlackBerry and iPhone have revolutionised the way in which we communicate. Nowadays its all so comfortable, convenient and easy. As long as you have a signal you can be in touch however, wherever and whenever you want. And as long as your phone is charged up and switched on anyone else can be in touch with you too.
So today this public telephone is a curio, a throwback to a time when being in touch meant effort. Whatever the weather you had to go to where the nearest phone box was. Often you had to wait your turn to use it. You had to make sure you had enough coins to make the call, or be prepared to ring the operator and reverse the charges. How old-school, uncomfortable and inconvenient that now seems.
Yet this is exactly the parallel I have in mind as I recall that people had to physically get up and go the distance into the desert in order to be in touch with John the Baptist’s message. It didn’t come to them on their terms where they were. It was the very antithesis of nice, easy and convenient. Baptism wasn’t available by pressing the # key. Redemption was not a mouse-click or keystroke away. It required determination, effort and a real commitment to take your private life into a public space.
And this is the key: encountering John the Baptist was a very public act. It demonstrated intention. It was a time to nail your colours to the mast and stand up and stand out for what you believed. The faith that took shape was that of a movement of people inspired and energised by a common message. Those who returned to the cities, towns and villages were not the same stream of disconnected individuals who had journeyed from them to find John. Shared identity and common purpose had been forged.
God was calling in the desert, and you had to make the journey in order to pick up the meaning. Perhaps the very public context was part of the message. Out there, gathered together in the desert, the public nature and intention of faith would have been obvious. This message was about the transformation of society and the world. The responses of individuals to God’s message took on a collective meaning in the public space of the desert and on the banks of the Jordan. Here, represented in hundreds of individual acts of faith commitment, was God’s preparation of communal good news for the poor. All that remained was for Jesus to stride out of that same wilderness as the embodiment of the message. And then it really would become in your face and personal.