John the Baptist – Entrepreneur
Readings – Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
As an economist, it’s natural for me to see the world, heaven and earth, through the lens of economic models, markets, incentives and categories. This economic approach also applies to reading ancient theological texts.
I want to suggest today that John the Baptist was an extraordinary entrepreneur and more than a match for Jeff Bazos, Richard Branson, James Dyson, Lord Sugar, Karren Brady and the rest.
As far as we know, John the baptizer never started a business or pitched an idea to investors in a Dragon’s Den but this gap in his CV does not in fact disqualify him as an entrepreneur. For it would be reductionist to restrict entrepreneurship only to commercial enterprise and profits. Entrepreneurship has a much wider semantic range. It can equally apply to religious enterprise and prophets and John the Baptist ticks all the boxes for that.
Fundamentally, of course, an entrepreneur is an initiator: who seeks to make something happen, to make an impact, to be a change maker, to transform lives; who takes risks to achieve goals and dreams; who looks for opportunities to make a difference, to innovate and create new value for others; who scans the horizon and looks to the future.
Most entrepreneurs fail and fail often. To succeed they need to be passionate, motivated, dedicated and resilient, persevering in the face of challenges and obstacles.
It is in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, read to us by Jacob, that we meet John the Baptist. He enters the story abruptly in the wilderness of Judea, in the region around the river Jordan and the Dead Sea. He’s started up a new venture, a prophetic ministry among his Jewish compatriots. His innovation might be categorised today as behavioural transformation or a lifestyle makeover.
“Repent”, he thunders from the desert, “the Kingdom of Heaven is coming”
Every entrepreneur needs a value proposition – a statement to summarise what the new venture has to offer. What John is offering is first of all news, information. In this case, a dramatic, disruptive announcement. The Kingdom of Heaven is on its way. God is coming to reign, to be with his people, to exercise his sovereign rule. This news is the reason for John’s command to repent. The imperative is to be ready, to prepare for the dawning of God’s kingdom
For those readers not well-acquainted with first century Jewish religious beliefs, hopes and expectations, Matthew explains that both John and his announcement are fulfilling an ancient prophecy from chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah promises that someone would come shouting in the desert calling the people to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight. According to Matthew, John is that prophet spoken of by Isaiah. The time for the fulfilment of the prophecies of old has arrived. The Kingdom of Heaven, long awaited, long expected, and much longed for is near.
The passage read to us by Rosalind from Isaiah chapter 11 provides a picture of what this means. The coming king will bring in a new age of righteousness and justice, a new creation where the animals live peacefully together and the earth is filled with the knowledge of God.
And so John announces that this Kingdom is drawing near, there is urgency to be ready, to repent. It’s not that the people were necessarily more faithless or idolatrous than any other generation. It’s just that the time had now come to get their house in order. Repentance means action, turning to God and living in harmony with the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.
John’s unpromising start-up
As a start-up, John’s new enterprise does not appear at first sight to be particularly promising. For one thing, there is an issue of credibility. Why should anyone believe him? Not only that, he suffers from a lack of resources and finance. There is no sign of an interest-free bank loan, venture capital or seed funding. It’s well known that adequate financing is important to entrepreneurial success.
The Baptist’s solution, following the prophetic tradition, was to cut his costs by living off the land as best he could. We might want to question his choice of location: a hot and dusty desert is not the most hospitable ecosystem to set up an office and incubate a new venture.
Wearing camel’s hair clothing and a leather belt, he did not dress to impress. Consuming a diet of locusts and organic honey, he was a bug eater with a sweet tooth, his lifestyle was frugal and austere but commendable for its environmental sustainability.
There is no evidence in the text that John had prepared a business case or accessed a network of experienced mentors who could provide guidance, advice and market research. He had no intention to charge for his prophetic services. He had no strategic plan for the future except to herald that the future is about to change radically.
John started up on his own in a harsh and precarious environment with nothing but his courage and his conviction that this was a truly climactic moment in the history of God’s people, indeed in the history of the world. The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. God was coming to establish His reign, to be with his people. And it paid off. Even in the absence of social media, news of John the Baptist and his message went viral.
Confession of sins and baptism.
This is despite John’s awkward and uncomfortable image. He’s not the kind of person everyone would want as a Facebook friend or colleague in the University. Still, his proclamation was powerful and clear and generated considerable excitement. His impact was enormous. Crowds flocked to hear him and responded to his message. The response John was seeking was not just “Wow” but also “Woe” – the confession of sins. And as they confessed their sins, John plunged them into the water of the river Jordan. Baptism was, of course, John’s signature practice. For the people, immersion in the river was a public declaration, a symbol of repentance, a step of faith and hope as they prepared for the coming of God’s kingdom. As a member of a Baptist church, for whom believers’ baptism is also a signature practice, I must admit that I find myself very impressed by John’s theology.
But not everyone was so impressed. Among the crowds were some of the religious leaders from Jerusalem, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Doubtless John’s exploits were stepping on their toes for they were the dominant supplier and regulator of religious activities. They might have seen him as a threat or a market rival or simply leading the people astray.
The disrespect was mutual. John only has harsh words for the religious leaders. He denounces these adversaries as a “brood of vipers”. It’s not the kind of invective which would hit home to us today but we can feel the intensity of his hostility as he chastises them. John’s objection seems to be to their religious pride and arrogance. Their lives and attitudes were not consistent with their pious words and religious status.
With great boldness, he gives them a prophet warning that God’s judgment is coming. And on that day they cannot rely on their spiritual heritage, their ancestry or privileges of birth. He challenges them to genuine repentance. “Bear good fruit” he urges. John foresees a day of severe judgment coming for those who ignore the call to repentance. He gives a stark warning that they will be thrown into the unquenchable fire. In Economics, this is what we call an incentive, a deterrent, a threat of sanctions designed to modify behaviour.
Points to Jesus
So how do we evaluate John’s entrepreneurial adventure? There can surely be no doubt that his prophetic ministry yielded extraordinary returns. Jesus himself was baptised by John. He saw in John not just a distinguished prophet but the greatest of all prophets. And in his own preaching, Jesus repeated John’s announcement, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is arriving”.
This programme for spiritual preparation started local but went global as it cascaded through history. It has proved breath-takingly transformative for millions of people down the centuries and across continents.
John the Baptizer was extraordinary but he was also humble and he had a lot to be humble about. His message was that he was preparing the way for one more extraordinary, one more worthy, one more powerful, one who would baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in all four gospels, John’s role is to introduce the ministry and story of Jesus. John is the forerunner who points to Jesus, calls our attention to welcome Him, the Messiah, God with us.
This advent season is a time when we look back and celebrate the coming of Jesus. It is also a time when the church looks forward in eager anticipation of His glorious return. Let us prepare ourselves to be ready to welcome Jesus, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.