JOHN, A GIFT OF GOD
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [Is 49:1-6; Ps 139:1-3, 13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80 ]
One of the most important events in a parent’s or in a person’s life is the naming ceremony. This is because the person would be carrying that name for the rest of his or her life. However, names are not just names. Every name given to a child will mark him or her out to be what he or she is named after. This is why most cultures and families would consider carefully the names they want to give to their children. Names have great significance, not just to the person but also to the community. We are named according to what our parents desire us to be. Different people are given different names because the name designates not just the character of the person but also determines his or her purpose in life. In the scriptures, whenever a person is given a new mission, he is given a new name, such as Abram was renamed Abraham, Simon as Peter; and Saul as Paul.
When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s only child was born, they called him John. This was against the customs of their time when a child was normally named after the father so that their family line could be preserved. When their relatives and neighbours heard about it, they were surprised. They said, “But no one in your family has that name.” In truth, in calling their child, John, they wanted to give praise to God for “God is gracious.” At their age, they did not deserve to be parents. It was something unimaginable. It was indeed a miraculous birth. No one thought that the old couple could bear a child in their lifetime. So John was truly and appropriately a gift to Zechariah and Elizabeth.
But this gift of God is for all of humanity. He was not given just to the couple. Indeed, parents must never forget that their children are not their property. They belong to God. They came from God. Their destiny is to be with God. They find themselves by giving themselves to God in serving His people. Parents are entrusted with the responsibility of helping their children to respond to God’s call by choosing the vocation God has for them. Every person is called to be like John the Baptist by being a gift of God to the whole world, beyond just his immediate family and loved ones, and lesser still, to live for himself.
Unfortunately, many of us think our life is ours, or others’ lives are ours. We can do what we like with our life as if we are the owner and the creator of our life. That is why many of us live for ourselves. Parents think that they own their children and so they are meant to serve them, work hard, earn lots of money, provide them with security and a luxurious life. Children are seen as a kind of investment for them. Then there are others who live their lives irresponsibly, idling away and making a nuisance of themselves to society. They live for themselves.
The truth is that life comes from God. We cannot do what we like with our life, otherwise, we cannot attain fullness or be happy. We are all created for a purpose and for a role on this earth. If we fail to realize the purpose that God has created us for, we fail to attain self-realization. Unless we become what we are created for, we live a deficient life. We find ourselves incomplete, dissatisfied because we have not expended ourselves completely. But if we give ourselves completely to the service of God and our fellowmen, living for them each day, exercising our potentials to the fullest, growing through giving of ourselves, and becoming more and more the person we are meant to be, this is what self-realization and finding fulfillment is all about. Each one must live and stretch himself to the fullest so that he finds life always dynamic, challenging, enriching and interesting. Those who have lost meaning in life often do so because they have lost direction and purpose. The value of life is in living for God and for others.
Indeed, this was truly how John the Baptist gave his life as a gift to God and his people. He was not called to be the Messiah. It did not matter what he was called for. What was important was that he did what he was created to do. He was asked by God to be a forerunner, the precursor of the Savior. He was contented with that role. He did not envy his cousin, Jesus, for taking the bigger role. Before John ended his career he said, “I am not the one you imagine me to be; that one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal.” He was happy simply to be the friend of the bridegroom. When they asked him whether he was the Messiah, he protested, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:28-30)
So how did John fulfill his role as the precursor? Firstly, he proclaimed the Word of God. He fulfilled the role of the suffering servant as prophesied in Isaiah. “He made my mouth a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of his hand. He made me into a sharpened arrow, and concealed me in his quiver.” Indeed, John the Baptist was a great preacher of the Word of God. He did not mince his words. He was not afraid to reprimand King Herod and Herodias for committing adultery. They all knew he spoke the truth. Even Herod knew he spoke the truth and liked to listen to him. “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mk 6:20) Even the Jewish leaders knew that the authority of John the Baptist came from heaven as the people “all regarded John as truly a prophet.” (cf Mk 11:28-33) John the Baptist was preparing the path for Jesus, the Word of God in person to call all to repentance of sins and obtain forgiveness from God.
Secondly, John the Baptist was a servant of God. He not only preached the Word of God; his lifestyle exemplified all that he taught. This was what made him credible, unlike the other religious leaders. “You are my servant (Israel) in whom I shall be glorified; while I was thinking, I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing; and all the while my cause was with the Lord, my reward with my God. I was honoured in the eyes of the Lord, my God was my strength.” John was fully dedicated to God. We read that from young, “the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew up and his spirit matured. And he lived out in the wilderness until the day he appeared openly to Israel.” His life was lived for God in communion with Him. He sacrificed his life and allowed God to make use of him in any way God wanted. He was a gift from Him and his life and death were his gifts to God. In this way, John the Baptist, as a precursor, anticipated the servanthood of the Messiah. Jesus “emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7f) He came as a servant to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. Jesus told the disciples, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:43-45)
Finally, John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ to be the light of the nations. “And now the Lord has spoken, he who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, to gather Israel to him: It is not enough for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel; I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” By being a precursor of the Messiah, his task was limited to calling Israel back to the Lord. But it will be our Lord’s task to restore Israel so that Israel can be the light of all the nations and salvation be extended to all. St Paul said, “To keep his promise, God has raised up for Israel one of David’s descendants, Jesus, as Saviour, whose coming was heralded by John when he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the whole people of Israel.”
Indeed, like John the Baptist, we too have been called in our mother’s womb. “The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.” Like the psalmist, we must thank God for the wonder of our being. “You mark when I walk or lie down, all my ways lie open to you. For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb. I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation. Already you knew my soul, my body held no secret from you when I was being fashioned in secret and moulded in the depths of the earth.” May our lives be a blessing to God and to others. In this way, like John the Baptist, we will never live our life in vain.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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