In this Sunday’s readings we celebrate the examples set by John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ in one shared sacramental act. We also witness two different styles of outreach in John and Jesus. In 21st century terms, these styles can be put in the context of social media. Although both men taught the importance of being baptized in the way, the truth and the life, in John we see how his dramatic preaching about end times was designed for viral messaging to the masses, while Jesus was more adept at exposing deeply personal truths, even beyond those encoded in volumes of metadata buried in today’s personal phones. In one quiet moment he could look into someone’s eyes and expose the truths of their entire lifetime—as he did in the apostle John’s account of the Samaritan woman who testified that “He told me everything I have done.” Isaiah characterizes the subtlety of this personal savior in this Sunday’s first reading (Is 42:1-4, 6-7):
“He shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.”
John the Baptist was devoted to getting the masses to accept this salvation, while Jesus dedicated his life to making each individual’s salvation acceptable to his Father. For both goals to succeed, we must face the secrets we’ve hidden from ourselves. Both the Baptist and the Christ shared the mission of exposing us to our own inconvenient truths. Those are things all humans have in common, no matter what class or nationality. Our guilt makes us all equals before God, and as Peter testifies in our second reading (Acts 10:34-38), we all have an equal shot at salvation:
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”
While their means of immersing people in the way, the truth and the life varied, the Baptist and the Christ both changed and saved lives. Still, John’s viral approach made many people think he was the way rather than just a bridge, as our gospel reading indicates (Lk 3:15-16, 21-22):
“The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, ‘I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
But John shared in the uncertainty of humanity, and even he came to question whether Jesus might be the Christ, as we read in Matthew Chapter 11. In the end even John’s own eschatological rhetoric wasn’t enough to convince himself that Jesus was the One. It took Jesus’ own personal approach to salvation to make John see the truth. While John was in prison for exposing Herod to his own ugly truths, Jesus sent disciples to answer John’s question about whether the cousin he baptized was indeed the Christ. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”
Drop your smart phone and pay attention to the truths your own baptism has made you eligible to face. The Holy Spirit will tell you everything you’ve ever done. The fact we can all still enjoy the hope of God’s saving grace is the same miracle John the Baptist made viral and came to accept for himself when he finally faced his own moment of truth.