John the Baptist walks out of the Judean wilderness, just like the great prophet Elijah, and he even dresses like him. No one would mistake John for anyone but as Elijah returned. That meant one thing, announcing and preparing for the arrival of the Messiah. So, John is a disturbing figure who cannot be ignored. We will see this in next week’s Gospel reading, as a delegation from the chief priests in Jerusalem comes to interrogate John to find out what he is up to? They were concerned that John might be the Messiah.
John exhibits two apparently contradictory qualities; humility and fearlessness. His courage is seen in his fearless preaching repentance and purification to the people. To be gathered in readiness for the appearance of God through his Messiah. He is courageous because no one has a hold on him, – he has no wife, children or land. Even his right to be priest, like his father he has put aside – so no one owns him and he owns nothing. The only thing than can be taken away from him is his life and he is prepared to give that away too!
So where does humility fit into this courage? His courage is in his confidence and trust in being the appointed forerunner of the Messiah – in this task he is single-minded and intrepid. Yet he also knows he is a servant of God and of his Messiah. Before God, he is humble. This humility is not a grovelling but an awareness of who he is and Whom is Lord – the Lord of and Master of his life.
This humility is seen in the saints. Saint Francis is a good example of this mixture of courage and humility that comes from the Kingdom of Heaven. We see it also in the young girl who will be the Mother of the Christ. Mary as young teenager has the courage to say “Yes” to God. That yes could have ended her life if Joseph declared that her Child was not his. Like John she has a confidence that she has been called to be the servant of the Lord. Yet she describes herself in her prayer of praise addressed to God as “the lowly handmaid”.
We need to seek this double quality of the Kingdom for ourselves. We are the Lord’s brothers and sisters, redeemed by his love and compassion – yet we are also his servants now and for ever.
O God, who didst send thy messenger, John the Baptist, to be the forerunner of the Lord, and to glorify thee by his death: Grant that we, who have received the truth of thy most holy Gospel, may bear our witness thereunto, and after his example and aided by his prayers, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord…
Collect for the Passion of Saint John the Baptist