John the Baptist comes across as such an extreme, uncompromising kind of man. To live rough in the desert, subsisting on foraged wild food, is a lifestyle demanding courage and perseverance and strong belief.
He recognized and identified Jesus as the messiah, yet, held captive in Herod’s prison, his faith falters. It must have been exceptionally hard for John to endure prison life. Used to wandering and climbing, walking, eating wayside herbs, knowing which mushrooms and berries to pick safely and where to find wild honeycomb – this is not a soul who could ever accept confinement. And alone in the prison, doubts and uncertainty creep into his spirit like rising damp. Jesus… he wonders… is he really the one? Had that recognition been accurate? Was the great kingdom really at hand? Or was it all an embarrassing and costly mistake?
Jesus does not rebuke this uncertainty. He sends back the messengers with confirmation that the work of salvation really has begun. This is it, now. That’s all John would need to know. The kind of man he was would have been able to bear the incarceration, the execution, just as long as he knew it wasn’t all for nothing. He was, as Jesus said, a soul of great stature, a prophet of singular calibre.
But Jesus adds, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” For the greatness of the kingdom is not in the magnificence of its members, but in the love and truth and peace that constitute its reality. It is for anyone and everyone, and whoever partakes of it can draw freely and fully on its upwelling fountain of life.
Does John the Baptist inspire you? Does his ministry and way of life strike a chord with you? Could you see him as a role model? Or does he seem too wild and dangerous to you – intimidating and alienating?
When he was held in prison, John’s certainty and vision came under attack. Can you think back to times in your life when you felt so sure and full of faith and conviction – and then a change of circumstances left you feeling wobbly and empty and unsure?
Every strand of the Christian faith community has its spiritual giants – household names to be spoken with reverence in one church denomination while completely unknown in the others. Do you feel we ask too much of our Christian leaders? Are we inclined to admire and respect them excessively? Or do we take them for granted – should we respect their authority more than we do? And what place and recognition does our own church give to the ministry of prophets? How is it discerned and affirmed?
O God of truth and power, mighty God, you called and anointed John the Baptist, that great and wild soul. May your fire and zeal inspire our souls too, so that like John we may have the courage to live and speak in simplicity and without compromise, bringing in your kingdom in the context of our everyday lives. For we ask it in Jesus’ holy name; Amen.