Nativity of John the Baptist
Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Gospel of Luke 1:57-66.80
St John the Baptist’s Life – Challenging us today! 
Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of the Good Shepherd - Singapore, on 10 June 2018

If we reflect on the life of John the Baptist, we can see that his most powerful witness is his commitment, first to proclaim the Truth of the need for repentance of our sins so that people can be reconciled with God. 

And second, and more importantly, for those who have been reconciled with God, and are open and willing to follow Jesus, John the Baptist will point out the Messiah for them to follow; a Messiah who offers everlasting Happiness and Salvation.  And through the powerful witness of the life that John the Baptist chose to live, we too are reminded that, we are also called to witness to the Truth of Jesus in today’s secular world that is filled with temptations that draw us away for this Truth of Salvation of Jesus. 

Let us begin our reflection on the life of John the Baptist as he indeed is a powerful witness of the mysteries of God who points people to Jesus, the Messiah.  This begins even before his birth.  We know and believe from the Gospel, that the angel Gabriel announced John the Baptist’s birth to Elizabeth, who was well beyond childbearing years.   His father, Zachariah was struck dumb for his disbelief.   Also as an infant, John, leaped in his mother's womb when Mary the Mother of Jesus visited his mother. 

Upon John the Baptist’s birth, as we heard in today’s Gospel, he is given not his father's name Zachariah, but rather the name, John, which means "Yahweh is gracious".  With the giving of this name spoken by the angel, John's father, Zechariah, recovers his power of speech. These miraculous circumstances surrounding his beginnings and birth give witness to a sacred and divine world - a world and a reality that is beyond time and space. 

Unlike our secular world of having the preoccupation with possessing the comforts and luxuries of life, as an adult, John bears witness to a different reality.  He chose to live in the most austere desert of the world, between the centre of Judea and the Dead Sea, and makes it his home.  He totally separates himself from the world in order to give testimony of another world.   Within the solitude of the desert, he is able to hear the voice of God.  

While our secular and materialistic world can attract and mesmerise millions and billions of people to the superficial and passing glamour and glory of popularity, power and pride in one’s possessions, John's manner of dressing bears a contrasting witness to such secular desires of life.  He does not clothe himself in the garments of the leaders of his day.   Through his garment of camel's hair, John shows how important it is to be simple and detached from the material things of this world. 

While our secular world gives much importance not only to the good food we eat, but also the exclusive quality of food we consume.  John's food also bears counter witness to such lifestyles.  The gospels tell us that he eats locusts and wild honey.  Like his living conditions and his clothing, his food is also simple, and as such crowds were also drawn to him through the witness of his austere lifestyle.  In other words, we can see that while many people can preach and speak about truths and ideals in their daily living, many do not live up to what they preach.  In contrast, John the Baptist not only preaches a message, he is the message.  Because his beliefs and his actions are one and the same, and as such people listen to what he says because of his authentic witness.  In short, it is not what we say that matters, it is the witness of the Truth of God, in our lives that truly matters.  John the Baptist is today, challenging you and I to reflect on this more deeply, sincerely and personally.

While our secular world is full of eloquent and impressive public speakers who are very persuasive because they have made their millions of dollars in their business ventures, John's preaching on the other hand is a witness of the truth about God.  His message is effective because he is completely empty of himself.  He does not preach about himself.  He points to someone beyond himself.  In the Gospel of Mark, 1:7-8 John says, "One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to undo the straps of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

While these successful and popular public speakers pride themselves and focus on their own capacity and potential for success, most of them hardly if at all mention about the reality of God in their lives and successes.  As such, without putting God at the centre of their lives and successes, their speeches are empty and illusory and cannot fulfil the deepest longings of our hearts for deep peace, true love and lasting joy and happiness. 

In contrast, John the Baptist is completely committed to God and absorbed by the divine Truth of the coming Messiah; the Son of God whom he proclaims.  For this very reason Jesus affirms John the Baptist and proclaims to the crowds: "I tell you, of all the children born to women, there is no one greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he"  (Luke 7: 28). 

More importantly, John the Baptist’s preaching on the Truth of Christ is able to offer the great crowd that have come to listen to him, the authentic Truth and deep consolations for the burdens of life that the crowds were experiencing.  And these are the burdens that were imposed upon them by their own leaders, the Pharisees, and the foreign leaders represented by King Herod.    Indeed, the human soul cannot be kept locked up in the body by repressive systems that continue to lie.  

And so, the message of John the Baptist is a message of True Hope for the crowd who were oppressed, that the Gospel of Luke, 3:4-6 describes him as, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God".

For those seeking the baptism that John offers to the people in the waters of the Jordan, God gives the multitudes an opportunity to repent of their sins.  John's baptism is a testimony of the baptism that offers Salvation that will eventually come through Jesus Christ. 

John's ultimate witness comes in his death.  John is a man who is one with his mission and his message.  His is incapable of denying either one.  In any age the Truth of the Gospel of Christ, and Salvation will always meet opposition.  Jesus makes this very clear to those wishing to be His disciples.   Jesus in the Gospels proclaims that in any age, there are those who hear only what they want to hear.  In any age, there are those who will do anything in order to continue living a lie - even kill.  King Herod personifies those human beings who from the beginning of time until the end of time, choose to live a lie, rather than the truth.  

Finally, from the depths of the dungeon, John's martyrdom is a testimony that every disciple of Jesus must never be afraid to proclaim the Truth.    Even as saint John the Baptist may be a difficult personage of the Bible to understand and perhaps even to relate to, it is very clear from the reflection of this homily today, that he is indeed still very relevant for us today.  He is a great witness precisely because he is the link between the Old and New Testaments.  He is the last of the prophets who announces the coming of the Messiah.  He is the first of the disciples who proclaims Jesus’, as we find in the Gospel of John 1:29 that says, "Behold, there is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world".  And, his life and message challenges us to live the fullness of the message of the Gospel of Jesus.

John the Baptist is relevant for us because as in any age, our age has an urgent need for disciples like John the Baptist.  Our world has an urgent need for witnesses, and as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist, and as I conclude, let us be reminded that you and I are called by Jesus to continue to be His witness of pointing Him as our Messiah and True Hope in our secular world, and this is very important, because our secular world has lost the sense of the Relevance and importance of the Need for God in our lives. 

More specifically, we must witness to and live the true spirituality of Jesus that dares to challenge the dominant secular culture of the world, that denies the need for God, and the reality of Eternal Life.

We must witness to the world that our traditions have great meaning for us.
We must witness to the world that the challenging commitments of following Jesus is not only true and real, but certainly worth living out to the ultimate consequences of our lives as John the Baptist have shown us.
We must witness that humanity’s seeking for lasting and indeed, everlasting happiness, can only be found in Jesus.  Jesus, our Lord and Saviour is the concrete way of striving for personal holiness, authenticity and integration.   And, our witness to this Truth of the Gospel cannot be lived in complacency, self-indulgence or hypocrisy.

To be a witness in this way is not an easy task.  We will surely stumble and fall many times.  However, the Lord will always be there to guide, strengthen and give us the needed wisdom to grow in our relationship with Jesus, and as such over time, transform our frail efforts into enormous accomplishments of His Kingdom that we have helped build as His disciples, and as inspired by the witness of John the Baptist; that with God’s graces, nothing is impossible.  We only need to be faithful, and leave the rest to God’s Providence, Care and Protection.
Adapted from: Fr James Farfaglia, Catholic  Online: www.fatherjames.org

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.

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