Today we celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist. It’s always June 24. This year it happens to hit Saturday and Sunday, and John is so crucial a figure in our Faith that it’s one of the few Saint’s feasts that preempts the regular Sunday Mass.
John is shocking and astonishing in a lot of ways, but ultimately he’s not complicated. He does one thing. He points to Jesus.
Everything else about him is just backing up that one thing. His shocking lifestyle and appearance, his attention-getting gestures, his powerful words of repentance and hope, even his geographic location just across the Jordan, outside the Promised Land, it’s all just backing up the defining moment when he points into that Promised Land and says “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
That simplicity should inspire each of us today in the Church, because that’s our job now. We point to Jesus.
We don’t point to a list of doctrines. We have a list of doctrines, and they are critically important because they’re from Jesus, and we aren’t going to deny His truth no matter how much the world hates it. But the doctrines come after we point to Jesus. They only matter because of Him.
We certainly don’t point to ourselves! “Hey, we’re Christians and just look how great we are! Why don’t you come be a Christian so you can be great like us?” Like John said, we must decrease, He must increase.
And notice John’s selling point. He takes away sins. Not “He fixes all your problems and makes your life go oh-so-smoothly all the time.” That’s not true. Not “His Church is always attractive and faithful with brilliant preaching and great music and everybody friendly and welcoming with excellent hygiene.” That’s not true either. Not even, “He makes you a better version of yourself.” That is true, but it’s not where John starts. He takes your sins away.
I admit there’s a first reaction, in my mind, like “that message was well and good back then but people aren’t going to go for it today.” But that thought is actually way off. I don’t think people in Israel 2000 years ago liked to think of themselves as sinners any more than we do today. People don’t change that much. And if you take a look at how John’s life went, you realize that people reacted to him the same way they react today when you call a sin a sin.
So why does he do it? If his job is to bring people to Jesus, not to push them away… why doesn’t the forerunner of the Messiah have better PR skills?
The people lining up to be baptized in the Jordan are the answer. John’s message reached them — the ones who got it, the ones who were ready. John said “Jesus can take your sins away,” and these people didn’t bristle, “how DARE you suggest that I am not a good person!” They said, “Baptize me. Please. Take my sins away.”
The world needs us to point across the Jordan today. To point to Jesus. The world is so sure, so confident, so arrogantly certain that we are so advanced and progressive and superior to our ancestors. But have we ever been more depressed, and anxious, and neurotic? We’re so proud of how connected we are. Have we ever been more lonely? We have all the information in the world on a glowing rectangle in our pocket. Have we ever been more confused?
Things aren’t all better, and neither are they all worse. In most ways they aren’t that different. The Romans watched bodies being destroyed in the Coliseum for entertainment and got rid of unwanted babies by exposure. We watch souls being destroyed in smut for entertainment and get rid of unwanted babies by abortion. We could drag out the list… some things get better and some things get worse and some stay about the same but our real problem, at root, is the same it’s always been and the answer is Jesus Christ… and nothing else.
And so still today there are people so ready to come to the Jordan. Many times they are the people who have sinned most severely and spectacularly… because they’ve given that a good hard try and they know it only brings more pain. And they know they can’t trust the world, which only tells them to keep embracing the very things that have hurt. They hear one voice saying what they already know to be the truth: “you can do better than that… you need to do better than that.”
To a Pharisee, to the self-righteous, that sounds like an affront and an insult. To someone who’s ready to meet Jesus, it sounds like the best news you’ve ever heard. And it remains good news for as long as you remain a sinner. I just went to confession last Saturday. Jesus took my sins away!
We should all be eager and zealous to make this a Catholic Church, and a Diocese, and a local Parish where people look at us and see us doing one thing: pointing to Jesus. Maybe you can make it even more personal. Maybe you can think of someone who needs you to be their John the Baptist. Someone in your life who needs Jesus… who will point the way? How are they supposed to know, otherwise, how are they supposed to find Him? Who will point the way, if you don’t?