It’s very hard to see what John the Baptist gets out of his witness to Jesus.
As we meet John at the beginning of the Gospel accounts, he is at the height of his fame. He has a great number of disciples in his own right and people flock to hear him preach and to be baptised by him.
He says what God gives him to say, under all circumstances, and without softening his message to suit important ears. He’s not afraid to rebuke King Herod for his immoral lifestyle.
The religious leaders of the day are clearly impressed enough by John to wonder if he could be the Messiah. John comes from a priestly family and his birth is surrounded by miracle and prophesy.
What’s more his powerful message of judgement and repentance are exactly what the religious authorities would expect their idea of the Messiah to say.
All the prophets of old had told the same thing, repent of face God’s anger.
John was fearless in the face of authority and they assumed he would be willing, if necessary, to take on the hated Roman occupiers and free the Jewish nation.
It’s completely understandable that they come and ask John, to his face, “Who are you?”
We do not know quite how John prepared himself for this time, though tradition has it that he lived a life of severe self-discipline and abstention before starting his ministry. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he wore cloths of rough camel hair and lived on locusts and wild honey, all of which would seem to bear out the testimony of his self-denying lifestyle.
But whatever he has been doing in the preceding years, it has honed his vocation to this point, the moment at which he can say, forcefully, “I am not the Messiah”
A far as the Gospels are concerned, when John baptised Jesus and recognised Him and witnessed to Him, his work was done.
For us perhaps it is hard to see what satisfaction John could get from his mission. A life of self-denial brutally cut short; an influential ministry, remembered only in context of someone else’s far more important work, hardly the epitaph most of us would like.
John was doing this for which he was born; he saw what all the prophets had longed to see, God’s Messiah to bring justice and peace to all the earth.
John’s calling is unique. He was born to stand on the cusp between the old world and the new creation in Christ. He was born to point forward to what all the rest of us can now receive. Thanks, at least in part, to his faithful witness, we do not have to wonder if Jesus id God’s fulfilment for us. We know.
But now we have to take up John’s mantle and bear witness to Jesus. John did it alone, and when no one else recognised Jesus, but he did what we are all born to do.
He saw who Jesus was and is and he told the world. Now it’s our turn.