Prophets have a difficult job to do: they tell people uncomfortable truths. People don’t like hearing such things: it makes them feel uncomfortable. Being told that you need to repent from your sinful ways and return to the Lord your God isn’t exactly going to make you popular. People prefer to feel comfortable, nice and warm and fuzzy, God loves you, everything is fine, no need to worry! It isn’t surprising that prophets are often ignored, mistreated and killed. They tell people not what they want to hear, but what they NEED to hear.
This morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a Messianic future — it points to Jesus, who He is and what He does, and that is exactly what John the Baptist, His cousin will do. He will be the Voice crying in the wilderness, who will prepare the way of the Lord who by his preaching of the Kingdom, and calling people to repent and be baptised ushers in the public ministry of Jesus, who will tend his flock like a shepherd, because He is the Good Shepherd.
John is not interested in glory, or riches, or drawing attention to himself. All he wants to do is to point to Jesus, the Messiah. He speaks to a Jewish world which has a corrupt religious establishment, which is so bound up with following the Letter of the Law of Moses, that it has forgotten about the Spirit, that needs to come back to God, and repent of its sinful and foolish ways, which has made following the teaching of rabbis an idol in itself. He will bear witness to the truth, even at the risk of his own life: he will be killed to satisfy the whim of corrupt and sinful rulers. He has a vocation, to call people back to God, to point out where people are going wrong, and show them the right path. Not only is he a prophet, but also the fulfilment of prophecy: In Malachi 4:4:5-6 we find the following, ‘“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”’
John comes from a priestly family, his father Zechariah is a temple priest, his mother Elizabeth, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cousin, also comes from a priestly family. They’ve tried to have children for years, and finally their prayers have been answered. When Elizabeth meets Mary, the child in her womb leaps for joy. Even before John is born he announces that God is with us, he is a prophet from his conception. His father cannot believe that they’re going to have a baby, and when the Archangel Gabriel tells him, he fails to trust God, and is struck dumb as a result. But in this morning’s Gospel Elizabeth announces that her son’s name is John, meaning ‘God is gracious’ not Zechariah, after his father. “‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him” (Lk 1:66 ESV). He will be the last of the prophets, the forerunner, the one who points to Christ, who baptises Him, and who through his proclamation of Baptism and Repentance helps to bring about the movement which Jesus started, which we now call the Church. He recognises that Jesus is the Lamb of God, pointing to His Death, for our sins.
He is the only saint — with the exception of the Virgin Mary — whose birth the liturgy celebrates and it does so because it is closely connected with the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, from the time when he was in his mother’s womb John was the precursor of Jesus: the Angel announced to Mary his miraculous conception as a sign that “nothing is impossible to God” (Lk 1:37), six months before the great miracle that brings us salvation, God’s union with man brought about by the Holy Spirit.
(Pope Benedict XVI Angelus 24.vi.12 http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20120624.html)
John recognises Jesus, that in Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has become human, like us. It is this wonderful mystery which lies at the heart of our faith as Christians.
John the Baptist was the forerunner, the ‘voice’ sent to proclaim the Incarnate Word. Thus, commemorating his birth actually means celebrating Christ, the fulfilment of the promises of all the prophets, among whom the greatest was the Baptist, called to ‘prepare the way’ for the Messiah (cf. Mt 11: 9-10)
(Pope Benedict XVI Angelus 24.vi.07 http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20070624.html)
We honour John because he points to Jesus, because he proclaims Him, Jesus the Messiah, the fulfilment of all prophecy, the Word made flesh, and the Lamb of God, who dies that we might live. He points the way for us to follow as Christians, so that we can be close to Jesus in Word and Sacrament, and so that we might proclaim Him in our lives. We need to have the same level of commitment as John, and the same depth of love for God.
That is how we live out our faith in our lives, and that is how we can become saints:
Perhaps the chief mark of sanctity is an utter simplicity in the face of the divine will, and of divine promises. Such was the attitude of Christ himself.
We think of seriousness as something which needs to be forced, or put on. Whereas to genuine faith, seriousness is just naked simplicity; it is non-hypocrisy, non-evasiveness, non-sophistication, in the face of the normal environment of the believing soul, which is the ever-present will of God. To be serious, you have only to open your eyes; a man driving on a mountain road does not relax attention to the hairpin bends, and a Christian finding his way in the will of God does not lose sight of the way-marks.
Sanctity is never out of date; and sanctity is nothing but entire simplicity towards God.
Austin Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, London 1976: 153-4
So let us be inspired by the example of St John the Baptist, and love and follow God with simplicity, and encourage others so to do, so that all the world may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.