Thursday, December 11, 2008

On John the Baptist

Every Saturday morning, I meet with a group of men at a friend’s house. Every other Saturday, we reflect upon the gospel for the following Sunday. Last week, we discussed Mark 1:1-8. This coming week, we will hear more about John the Baptist, so I thought I would share some of the points from our discussion (from my sometimes faulty memory).

The people obviously saw something in John. The crowds went out to hear him. Even the priests and Levites went out to him, asking if he was Elijah, the Christ, or the Prophet. Malachi 4:5 states, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” In Deuteronomy 18, a prophet (the Prophet) like Moses is promised. John is a bridge between the Old Testament and the New. The God of the prophets, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the same God who took on a human nature, walked among us, suffered, died, and rose, and established His Church.

What did John expect the messiah to be? His answer when questioned about his own identity was to invoke Isaiah 40. Isaiah should provide the context for John’s understanding of the messiah. Isaiah is rich in shepherd imagery and, of course, the Song of the Suffering Servant. Our salvation is from Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. While we must participate in politics, we must recognize that no political program can replace the personal encounter with Christ that leads to eternal life.

John’s message is not “Rejoice! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Rather, John preached repentance and baptism. His specific message to people seemed to be simply to do what is right and just for your state in life. It is almost as if everyone is corrupt and on the take. For us, the call to repentance requires a daily turning away from self and toward God. In our work and in our almsgiving, we must go beyond what is legally required to what is right and just.

John was dressed in camel hair with a leather girdle, and he ate locusts and wild honey. That must be significant. In 2 Kings 1:8, it is noted that the prophet Elijah wore haircloth and a leather girdle. Zechariah 13:4 notes that any future prophet will wear a hairy mantle. Leviticus 11:22 notes that locusts and grasshoppers are considered “clean” and may be eaten without violating the dietary laws. Deuteronomy 32:13 and 1 Samuel 14:25-27 both refer to eating wild honey. So the clothing is that of a prophet (specifically Elijah) and the food is what one would be permitted to eat if living off the land in the wilderness. In other words, John trusted God entirely for his sustenance. While it might not be practical for us to dress in coarse wool or eat from whatever the land offers us, we can live simply, trusting in God’s providence.

John was the first to recognize the Christ, when he leaped for joy within the womb of his mother Elizabeth as Mary approached following the Annunciation. Once Jesus begins his public ministry, John points others to him. John acknowledges that he must increase and I must decrease. He is much like Mary, who always points us to her Son. In our efforts to evangelize others, we must always ensure that we do not become the focus of attention. Like John and Mary, we always want to point others to Him.

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