It is interesting that no Gospel begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry without telling the reader of John the Baptist. Raymond Brown suggests that the Baptist’s preceding Jesus was “so irradicably fixed that in two of the three Gospels that begin their story before the public ministry with Jesus’ first appearance on earth, the Baptist is brought back to precede that appearance as well.”
In today’s Gospel reading from John, the priests and Levites ask John “Who are you.” John, after saying he was not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet, tells them he is “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'”, and further that “there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
And in those last words is what I find so compelling about John: John never thought it was about him; he always put the focus on Jesus and never thought he, John, should be the one taking center stage. John had a role – he was sent by God (in the words of the Evangelist John) to testify to the light – and he accepted and embraced that role. He never sought to make himself more important than he was.
When we are tempted to put the focus on ourselves, John should be our reminder that we too are messengers. We point the way to others by our words and our deeds, and we need to ask ourselves: do we point the way to Jesus as did John?
We might also remind ourselves John’s message was very counter-cultural (as is so much of Christianity). When John spoke of repentance and making straight the way of the Lord, he meant not simply remorse for sinfulness, regret for bad behavior. What made his message so difficult was a call to a more active or affirmative sense of repentance in his admonition to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Don’t just be sorry, change your ways, was John’s message. “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” as the priest says when we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. And believe in the Gospel means live it.