In this first quarter of the 21st Century, we have a new concept of what it means to be an ‘influencer’. An influencer is someone who is perceived as having authority or knowledge on a specific topic and who attracts the interest of large numbers of people. Today, we have ‘cultural influencers’, some of whom can claim millions of followers. Their endorsement of a product or a lifestyle choice can inspire a large tranche of their admirers to change their behaviour. For better or worse, social media influencers can be a powerful force in contemporary culture.
John the Baptist was perceived as having very specific knowledge and authority and he quickly attracted the attention of a very large number of people. His promotion of a lifestyle focussed on repentance before God and acceptance of his forgiveness inspired many to want to listen to him and share in his baptism of water. Within his own culture, John the Baptist was, by the most contemporary of definitions, an influencer of his day.
Leaving aside the immeasurable differences in styles of communication in 1st Century Palestine against 21st Century world, I want to highlight two key differences in the style of influence.
Firstly, there is the act of commitment of followers. Today, I can follow anyone I choose by simply clicking on a screen. Job done. To follow John involved rather more commitment. It involved travelling into the wilderness, facing dangers and difficulties which are beyond the experience of even the most experienced modern travelers. Yet people came. From Jerusalem. From all over Judea. Travelling, almost exclusively by foot through the hostile environment, often for several days or more. To find John the Baptist at his work involved determination, effort and commitment.
Secondly, the purpose of his message. Social media influencers are, for the most part, about self promotion. We can optimise our websites, manipulate meta data and tags, influence algorithms, and play a host of tricks to encourage people to follow us. There are exceptions, but most influencers are generally self interested. We live in a celebrity culture, where success is measured in ‘clicks’, ‘likes’, ‘follows’, and generated advertising income. Whatever the message of John was, it was not about self, but about someone else. The Gospel writers present him as a signpost linking the coming of Christ to the prophets of old. They also describe a signpost pointing towards the future. His message was to herald the arrival of one who was to follow him. One whose sandals John was not even fit to untie. The message was not about John. It was about Jesus.
Today, we may see influencers with followers in the million. We will never know how many followers John had, but it probably numbered a few thousands. Yet 2000 years later, the message of this influencer continues to resound through the ages. The prophetic voice calling in the desert, proclaiming ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’.