The singularly most important male saint of Apostolic times is without doubt, the Holy Forerunner and Prophet, John the Baptist. It is his icon that adorns every temple screen next to the Saviour. It is his name that is mentioned in every Sunday benediction. It is he who appears first in those parts of the gospel narrative that deal with the work of Christ.
The pre-eminence of this last and greatest Prophet before Christ is due to his fearless yet self-effacing role. He it is who points to Christ and preaches His coming as the Lamb of God, the Messiah. He it is who, in fulfilment of ancient prophecy, “prepares the Way of the Lord.” He it is whose absolute humility magnifies Christ. He declares that he is unworthy even to untie His sandals. He must decrease [so] that He, Christ that is, might increase. The Forerunner is not at all concerned with himself. He just has an all-consuming zeal that the people, you and I, should come to know and follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ. Indeed, he declares his baptism to be inferior to that of Christ. He can only baptise with water for repentance. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not his to give. Only the Christ can pray the Father to send the Holy Spirit on the Church that He, the Father, will gather to Himself. The Baptist’s work on earth will be over when our Lord’s Kingdom work begins. The Forerunner will seal that work, of course, by his own sacrifice, martyred as with so many other prophets before him, by the vainglory of a king. Descending to the dead he will then preach what he preached on earth … that Christ has come in the flesh to take away the sins of the world.
In all of this the Forerunner is an excellent role model for every Christian. We are to point to Christ and not ourselves; we prepare the way for others to receive Him; we decrease that Christ might be glorified in and through us; we are zealous that all might know the Lord; we are content to give all, even to death, knowing that we have done what God requires of us. Or rather, this is what the Forerunner calls us to do with new commitment and determination. Our resolve to serve as he did needs to be renewed continuously as we often fall short.
The Forerunner also speaks to the whole Church in her prophetic task. The role of prophecy is much misunderstood by many people. It only occasionally has anything to do with clairvoyance. Foretelling the future is not the most distinctive mark of prophecy. Being God’s mouthpiece is. A prophet is someone who speaks for God. God gives him the words and he speaks. Like the prophet Jeremiah he finds divine speech welling up inside as a divine fire. He cannot hold it in. He must speak in the Name of the Lord. As he speaks his, or rather the Lord’s prophetic word it cuts and divides a response amongst its hearers. No one can listen to a true prophet without being challenged, without being cut to the quick. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes the Word of God as “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow …” (Hebrews 4:12a).
So, when the Forerunner preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, not all rush to the waters. He divides a nation and incurs the wrath of the establishment. Such is the nature of prophecy. If, then we are to be worthy of the mantle of the Forerunner in even the slightest sense we must be prepared to run the gauntlet of peoples’ reactions to the Word preached and lived. Some will respond readily and become our brothers and sisters. Others will hate and despise us and, perhaps, even seek to do us harm.
There’s no point in beating about the bush here; being a Christian is an exposed calling. Our Lord Himself taught His friends and disciples to expect persecution for His sake. He also taught them that their names were written in heaven and that no one could harm a true soul even if they destroyed his body. This is a paradox to the world … to live such a dangerous lifestyle and yet to be perfectly safe. And, thinking of the world, should we not say that this nation could do with a bit of prophecy? It could do with a bit of honest presentation of the Word of God. It could do with some prophets. How about you? How about each one of us? God is waiting for our answer. He will strengthen our arms and nerve our hearts. But, we have to say with Isaiah:- “Here am I, send me!”