Acts 19:1-8; John 1:29-34
In one way or another, we all struggle with the temptation to be self-centered. Even helping others can become primarily a way to draw attention to ourselves or to meet our own emotional needs. Many view religion in this way, trying to use even God to help them get what they want. That, of course, is simply a form of idolatry.
Today we commemorate someone who completely rejected such distortions of the faith: the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. We do so immediately following the day of Theophany, for it was St. John who baptized Jesus Christ. As the Lord came up from the waters of the Jordan, the voice of the Father proclaimed “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well-pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. (Mat. 3:16-17) In the context of the Savior’s baptism by John, the Holy Trinity is revealed, thus making clear that Christ is truly the eternal Son of God, the Light shining in a world darkened by sin and death.
When people asked John if he were the Messiah, he clearly declared that he was not. He said of himself that he was simply “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.” (Jn 1:23) When Pharisees asked why, then, he was baptizing people, John responded that One was coming “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” (1:27) The coming Messiah, he said, “is preferred before me, for He was before me” as the eternal Son of God. John “came baptizing with water” so that “He might be revealed to Israel.”
Obviously, John was not focused on himself or achieving any worldly goals. He apparently had quite a following as Matthew’s gospel states that “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mat. 3: 5-6) His message had a wide appeal and attracted even Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, and soldiers. He certainly did not tell those powerful groups what they wanted to hear, as he mocked the religious leaders as “a brood of vipers” and asked “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Mat. 3:7) He told the tax collectors and soldiers to stop abusing their authority by taking advantage of others. (Lk 3:12-14) He told his Jewish audience not to rely on their descent from Abraham, but actually to repent. (Lk. 3:8) Given his fearlessness, it is not surprising that John was ultimately beheaded by the ruler Herod Antipas for denouncing his immorality.
He was obviously a charismatic figure who knew how to get people’s attention. The Forerunner, however, did not use those skills for his own glory; indeed, he directed his own followers to become the first disciples of the Lord. As he explained to some who seem to have viewed Christ as a competitor to himself, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30). The Baptist compared himself to the bridegroom’s friend at a wedding. The friend is happy for the groom, but he is hardly the center of attention. (Jn. 3:29)
This great prophet was a truly humble man who, instead of focusing on his own agenda, was completely dedicated to fulfilling the calling that God had given him. His vocation was so important that Luke begins his gospel by telling us of his conception by the elderly, barren couple Zechariah and Elizabeth immediately before describing the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. As the Archangel Gabriel declared to doubting Zechariah, John “will…go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Lk 1: 17-18) When the pregnant Theotokos visited the pregnant Elizabeth, the not-yet-born John leaped in the womb as his mother “was filled with the Holy Spirit” and proclaimed to the Virgin Mary “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Lk. 1:41-42) The Theotokos responded with The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior…” (Lk. 1:46ff.) These passages show that John was obviously going to play an extremely important role in revealing Christ’s salvation to the world.
It would not be easy for any human being to fulfill such a high calling, which is surely why John grew up in the wilderness and devoted his entire life to strict asceticism. For example, he famously wore a simple garment of camel’s skin and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Through decades of humbling himself through self-denial before God, he gained the strength to resist whatever temptations he faced and to calm whatever passions beset him. That was how he gained the humility to see that his gifts were not for his own glory, but to enable him to serve God. That was how he acquired the vision to see the Holy Spirit descend upon the Savior as a dove at Christ’s baptism. That was how he developed the spiritual clarity necessary to speak prophetically in bold, outrageous ways, even to the point of laying down his life.
John the Baptist fulfills Old Testament prophecy as an angelic messenger of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Unlike all who went before, he lived to see the One Whom he proclaimed. Through his life of radical obedience, he became a fitting vehicle for the manifestation of the Trinity when he reluctantly dared to baptize the Son of God.
We learn from the Forerunner’s example that it is no small or easy thing to bear witness to Jesus Christ. If we seek to use our faith to get what we want in this world on our own terms, no matter what that is, we will have nothing in common with John at all. If we refuse to fight our passions, guard our thoughts and words, and put others before ourselves, we will never gain the strength necessary to decrease in self-centeredness so that Christ’s healing presence will increase in us. If we are not fully present before God in prayer each day and united with His Body, the Church, in worship on Sundays and feast days, we will lose the ability to serve God instead of ourselves. If we do not deliberately prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives, then we will be of no use in pointing others to the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.
As we continue to celebrate Theophany, we must follow the example of St. John in order to become epiphanies of the salvation that the God-Man has brought to the world. By becoming one of us and lowering Himself into the waters of the Jordan, our Savior has sanctified the entire creation, making it possible for us to be restored to the ancient glory of His sons and daughters as we put Him on like a garment, a robe of light, in baptism. The revelation of the Holy Trinity through Christ’s baptism shows that every dimension of our life in this world may become radiant with the divine glory. The blessing of water demonstrates that every bit of creation, and of ourselves, may be set right and brought to fulfillment according to God’s gracious purposes.
In order to find a model of how to prepare ourselves to embrace the full meaning of Theophany, the Church directs our attention today to the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. He was not powerful in a conventional sense in his time and place. He did not tell anyone what he or she wanted to hear. He did not embody what was popular or easy. But through his humble, obedient life of self-denial, he acquired a holy strength that not even death could destroy. That strength was not his own creation, but a quality of the Lord Whose divine glory shone brilliantly from the dark waters of the Jordan.
John prepared the way; now we must continue on the straight path in our own lives. The more that we follow the Baptist’s example, the more open our lives will be to the healing of the God-Man Who was baptized in the Jordan for our salvation. If we have put Christ on in baptism, then we must live in the world each day as those who have died to sin and risen up in Him to a new life of holiness. That is how we too may become epiphanies of God’s glory.