John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1: 4)
The King James Version offers a very direct and economical translation of the text compared with the New International Version. Neither is inaccurate, but somehow the older translation manages to reflect the directness of the Baptist himself. Here is a man who is to be found doing God’s work in a difficult setting and in an unusual manner. Here is a man whose appearance is eccentric even by the standards of his own day and whose vocation seems to strike a chord with many of his contemporaries. The gospels record that John the Baptist drew many to a repentance of sin and the renewal of life which that implies.
So here is the Baptist,
‘clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey.’ (Mark 1: 6)
The directness of the biblical introduction to him implies that John is a man who knows exactly what he is doing. The only qualification the evangelists offer (and it is really more of an elucidation) is that he is fulfilling prophecy.
As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Mark 1: 2-3)
And this is not just any prophecy; it is the prophecy. The national hope was for the appearance of the messiah and it was Isaiah who was the prime voice in predicting it. It is unsurprising that most of our Christmas readings from the Old Testament come from his work; along with his writing on the Suffering Servant and his role in salvation it is the major part of his legacy.
The Baptist appears as a man who knows exactly what he is doing. He is where God has put him and he is doing what God has called him to do. St. John knows that he is a prophet and he knows that he is the forerunner for the messiah. The time has come and he has a job to do.
The Baptist is also a man who does not know what he is doing. Herein is a great irony and one that provides a model for the life of faith. We discover later in the gospels that St. John is uncertain about who Jesus is perhaps because of the things he is saying or just the way he is going about
proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God. (Mark 1: 14).
He has already proclaimed Jesus as the Lamb of God, but after the debacle with Herod and his arrest doubts begin the creep in. The man who knew what he was doing, who was so certain is now confused. He wants to ask Jesus whether he is really the messiah and sends his disciples to find out. There may also be a fear, a very human fear on his part, that his life’s work had been wasted; that a life of sacrifice and abstinence had all been for nothing. He must have asked himself whether he had been deluded; a man who had mistaken his vocation and peddled a false hope: the messiah had not come.
These thoughts may help us, as part of an Advent reflection, to think about God’s calling of us, to whatever tasks he has set us to do and whoever he has called us to be. God’s call is always very specific. He addresses us as individuals who are known to him by name and cherished as a precious child. This call is specific not just because it is addressed to us, but because it involves the present moment. Although we may trace our vocation over many years and entertain thoughts for the future it is really all about now. As the Baptist was called to make his proclamation at a particular place and time so we are called to live out our vocation here and now. In fact we are called to do so today and to do so without any distinct or reliable knowledge of what will happen tomorrow. The Baptist knew his task in the wilderness and he recognised the messiah when he came, but he did not (and could not) see what sort of man Jesus would be and how his ministry would work out. I suspect he does not grasp the humility of the Christ and would have baulked at the thought of Gethsemane and Calvary. It was just not what he expected.
St. John the Baptist had a special task to fulfil in his day and by analogy we have a special task for our own. Throughout the season of Advent we prepare in heart and mind to greet our Lord as the babe at Bethlehem and as our glorified redeemer and king. A daily time of quiet with Isaiah would be a good start in addition to any other disciplines we might have adopted. Day by day throughout our lives we have set before us Jesus’ teachings and commandments from the Sermon on the Mount to the great commission to evangelise. Some passages distil the expectations which are placed upon us:
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6: 8)
And then there are the things that are particularly required of us: the tasks God has set which he wants us to carry out. Reflecting on our vocations the example of the Baptist is instructive: don’t expect to know everything, don’t expect to see the whole picture, don’t expect to understand tomorrow – just do well today! Allow all your hopes and fears to be subsumed by the knowledge that the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is your constant companion and guide. None of us really needs to see the future and it probably wouldn’t do us much good to know. Today marks the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. I wonder if we would have been such a great saint if he had realised that he would end up as a Disney character on the side of somebody’s festive mug! Sometimes it really is better not to know!
The psalmist records a promise:
Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps. (Psalm 85: 13)
That is our guarantee that our faithfulness will bear fruit. Gird up your loins: there is a job to do!
Father Andrew Burton SSC
6th December 2020