Hear me, O coastlands,
listen, O distant peoples.
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother's womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
In those days, Paul said:
"God raised up David as king;
of him God testified,
I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart;
he will carry out my every wish.
From this man's descendants God, according to his promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
and as John was completing his course, he would say,
'What do you suppose that I am? I am not he.
Behold, one is coming after me;
I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.'
"My brothers, sons of the family of Abraham,
and those others among you who are God-fearing,
to us this word of salvation has been sent."
When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child
she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her,
and they rejoiced with her.
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child,
they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply,
"No. He will be called John."
But they answered her,
"There is no one among your relatives who has this name."
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name,"
and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed,
and he spoke blessing God.
Then fear came upon all their neighbors,
and all these matters were discussed
throughout the hill country of Judea.
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying,
"What, then, will this child be?"
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit,
and he was in the desert until the day
of his manifestation to Israel.
It’s almost impossible to imitate biblical saints, mainly because our sacred authors rarely portray them in ways that can be imitated. Since these unique writers depict these saintly people against the background of faith, they traditionally emphasize some characteristics and completely omit others. We’re left hanging in mid-air, convinced there’s nothing in their lives that pertains to mine. John the Baptizer provides a classic example.
How can we imitate someone who’s been set apart from all eternity to be the precursor of the Messiah; his birth announced by an angel, his mission in life determined by God before his conception? Reading today’s gospel and second reading, it’s clear that John, unlike ourselves, never had the slightest doubt of what he should be doing in life. Day by day he just had to step up and fill in the blanks.
Yet historians and Scripture scholars tell us that ideal picture isn’t the actual John. It’s the image which Christians gradually formed a generation of so after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not everyone in first century CE Palestine shared that image. There were still disciples of John centuries later who believed he, not Jesus, had been the Messiah. If the historical Baptizer had said the exact things the evangelists claimed he’d said, how could there be any doubt about who the Messiah was?
Obviously Jesus’ disciples looked at John from a different perspective than most others looked at him. For them, he was Jesus’ precursor; the person who plowed the field this Galilean carpenter would later plant. Christians put John in a category most of the people he actually encountered never noticed.
That’s why, as far as imitation goes, today’s Deutero-Isaiah pericope is “where it’s at.”
Today’s first reading is the second song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh; a reflection by the prophet on how he personally looks at his own ministry. It’s completely unfiltered. I have no doubt John the Baptizer could have easily identified with this 6th century BCE prophet.
The song begins with Deutero-Isaiah stating his belief that he had totally failed at the mission he presumed Yahweh had given him; to bring the Chosen People back to their God. “I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength.” Though convinced Yahweh had called him “from his mother’s womb,” given him unique gifts, and sent him to the depressed Jews in exile, he was never able to fulfill God’s trust in him.
But much to the prophet’s surprise, Yahweh rewards him for his failure! “It is too little for you . . . to raise up the tribes of Jacob; . . . I will make you a light to the nations (Gentiles), that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Instead of getting punished, he’s given a promotion!
I presume, just before his beheading, the historical Baptizer must have also thought he failed. He certainly didn’t convert Herod, nor did he turn huge numbers of Israelites back to Yahweh. Knowing nothing about his role in Jesus’ ministry, he simply presumed he’d screwed things up. The followers of one of his disciples eventually gave him a promotion he could never have imagined.
Rarely do we succeed in the work the risen Jesus gives us. Usually we’re not even certain what that work consists in. We simply plod along day by day, discovering what God expects of us on that particular day. Just as John only discovered the part he actually played in God’s big picture, so we’ll probably follow the same path. There’s a lot we can’t imitate in his gospel life, yet the most important aspect of John’s life – his dedication to God in thick and thin – is right down our alley.