The Moral Courage of John the Baptist

Although Advent is the season of anticipation of Jesus’ birth, most Christian churches include as part of early Advent readings several references to John the Baptist – who, in proclaiming the coming into ministry of Jesus at age 30, was anticipating not an incarnation but a full spiritual maturation. Yet either way, quite fittingly, the greater focus is on the Christ, not on His herald.

Let’s take a moment, though, to honor the remarkable figure of the Baptist – who was, after all, the first man ever martyred for, in effect, his service and testimony to Christ.

John must have been a man of remarkable charisma – attracting, as the Bible reports, throngs of people of “Jerusalem and Judea…and all the region along the Jordan,” all “going out to him” to be baptized. Yet he was described as the antithesis of what we would consider an attractive figure. He was a wild man, wearing odd clothes, eating odd things, living in the hinterlands. And, repeatedly, telling his followers that he himself was not the man, the leader, the messiah, they sought.

Rare indeed is the cult leader (for, by the standards of his day, that is what he surely appeared to be) who tells his followers that he is not the one who will be their deliverer. To carry the message that “I am not the one,” but to attract such a large following anyway, is astonishing.

John surely knew not only that he was soon to be eclipsed by Jesus, but also that he risked having his very life snuffed out. He knew that what he preached was a message considered dangerous by the authorities – and he knew that despite the crowds who followed him, he remained very singular, and in crucial respects very much alone.

Let us ponder, then, and honor, the courage required of one who is a voice in the wilderness. Let us consider the stifling and frightening loneliness of being the one person carrying a message detested by those in power of one sort or another.