Those who think they know all about John the Baptizer - who he was and in what his mission consisted -probably know very little about him. If we're using our Christian Scriptures as the definitive source for his life and ministry, we're employing writers who are interested only in how he related to Jesus of Nazareth, their mentor, not how John would have looked at himself and his ministry.
Since the discovery of the first five Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s, we're better able to place John in his actual historical environment. John seems to have been a member of the Qumran community which produced the scrolls; a group of Jews who had left Jerusalem in the century before Jesus' birth and settled in an area overlooking the Dead Sea. Convinced they were terribly wronged by the religious authorities, they presumed Yahweh wouldn't leave such a blatant injustice unpunished. God would triumphantly appear, fight alongside them to defeat their enemies and put their "Teacher of Righteousness" in his proper leadership position.
To demonstrate their sincerity, they faithfully read and copied their Scriptures, gave themselves over to a rigorous, self-sacrificing lifestyle, and underwent frequent baptisms - symbolically washing away anything on their part which would delay Yahweh's arrival.
John's ministry dovetails with Qumran. Among other things, he announces the imminent coming of Yahweh, the Lord, and prepares people for that event by administering a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." For Christians it's important to note that an obscure carpenter from Capernaum is one of those "turned on" by the Baptizer, eventually taking over his ministry when John is arrested and killed.
Scholars presume the historical Baptizer never realized Jesus was Yahweh. (That was one of the surprises awaiting him at the pearly gates.) When, during that fateful night, he was forced to put his head on the block, he probably thought his life had been a failure. Few Jews had actually repented; Yahweh hadn't come. He could certainly identify with Deutero-Isaiah's reflection on his own ministry. "... I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength "
Yet, this unnamed sixth century BCE prophet eventually began to understand, "My reward is with Yahweh, my recompense is with my God." His failure to convert the Jewish exiles in Babylon was actually one step toward opening the faith to the "nations" - the Gentiles.
Followers of Jesus would eventually regard John as the "precursor" of their leader; his ministry, the preparation for Jesus' ministry. As we hear in today's Acts pericope, our evangelists expressly have him revolve his ministry around the imminent arrival of the "... one coming after me." John's name will forever be joined to that of Jesus; his birth - as in today's gospel - put on a par with Jesus' birth.
Yet, when we look at the historical, not the gospel John we discover deep significance. Though it's good to hear how the Baptizer fit into God's overall plan of salvation, we presume he died not realizing what we hear in today's second and third readings. Like many of us, he thought he never accomplished the things God had planned for him. On many levels, he failed.
We can only see one small part of God's plan. And most of the time we're not even conceiving of that plan as God conceives of it. Like Deutero-Isaiah and John, we can only do what we think God's calling us to do. What we eventually accomplish, or how we fit into God's plan, we'll also only discover at the pearly gates.