June the 24 is the official date on which we commemorate the birth of St John the Baptizer, or in common parlance, St John the Baptist. Unlike what some of our Baptist brothers and sisters believe, he was not a “Baptist” as in the denomination, but one who baptizes. In our Acts lesson we see St Paul talking about that hallmark of John’s ministry, “John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” Under John, baptism was a way to mark a fresh start. The rite of ritual washing that was already in Jewish practice became baptism as Gentiles began to convert to Judaism. But John took that practice a step further. By applying it to repentance, John was essentially saying, “Your sins have made you no better than a Gentile, so you need to come clean before God like a Gentile and be baptized.”
Of course, Christians added another layer of interpretation on baptism after Christ, seeing it as the means by which we are united sacramentally to Christ in his death and resurrection, as well as participating in his obedience when he undertook John’s baptism in the River Jordan. So John gave us the seed of that sprouted into the Christian sacrament of baptism, wherein we rejoice in God’s initiative in rescuing us from sin and death.
John was also known as the “Forerunner”—the one who prepared the way for Jesus. We see this Paul’s words in Acts, but also in the Song of Zechariah recorded in Luke. Zechariah lacked faith, but when the angel promised his wife Elizabeth and he would bring forth a child in their old age, he was struck dumb. But God fulfilled his promise nonetheless. Mercifully, God restored his speech when he named his son John, per divine instruction. And then Luke records Zechariah’s momentous song, which is Canticle 4 or 16 in Morning Prayer, depending on if you prefer Rite I or Rite II. And in that song, Zechariah prophecies, “You my child will become the promise of the Most High, to go before the Lord to prepare his way.” John set the stage for Jesus’ ministry.
Many Christians wonder why John gets as much fanfare as he does, seeing as he pretty quickly seems to disappear from the scene once Jesus gets his public ministry started. But even John realized, “he must increase and I must decrease.” Perhaps we could take a page from John the Baptist, doing what we can to prepare the way for Jesus to touch the hearts and lives of those around us, and then graciously stepping back to allow our Lord and Savior do what we could never do anyway. We can only summon people to repent and point to Jesus as the way to escape their bondage to Satan, sin, and death. Jesus is the Savior of the world, not us!