The Prophetic Witness of St. John the Baptist
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
In our society today, how often do we compromise the “Truth,” whether consciously or unconsciously, in order to appease public opinion? How often do we allow opinion polls to sway our understanding of right and wrong, instead of relying on the unchangeable truth of the Gospel and the Church? For example, polls show that 60% of the American public believe abortion should be legal, but simply because a majority believe this, does it make it true in God’s eyes? In the United States today, 40% of babies are born outside of marriage, and many in the younger generation question the importance of marriage and choose to live together before getting married. Does that make it something good, or right, or true in the eyes of God? Unfortunately, many people adjust their attitudes according to what is supposed to be politically correct according to surveys and polls.
Public opinion polls even drown out serious and mature debate on crucial scientific or health issues. The media focuses on the public’s passions and emotions, and turn issues into utilitarian debates, instead of wrestling with any moral or ethical implications. As Christians, we must welcome and encourage the advances of modern science, while challenging judgments based solely upon utilitarian benefits from the moral and ethical perspective.
As Orthodox Christians, and as the Church, we need to proclaim the eternal truth of the Gospel whether the message is popular or not, whether it makes people comfortable or uncomfortable. Remember, more often than not, the Truth is not something comfortable and easy to hear. The Gospel constantly challenges our fallen worldview and our often egocentric lifestyle. The Orthodox Faith rejects the popular utilitarian approach to life, where people say that “the greatest good for the greatest number of people should be the main consideration in making a choice.” We need to base our choices on God’s will, on God’s plan of salvation, on God’s understanding of what is holy and pure and sacred and right. And when society deviates from this path, then the Church needs to act as a prophetic voice in speaking for the Divine, even when people prefer to ignore this voice!
Today we celebrate the memory of St. John the Baptist, “the greatest man born of woman,” who during the time of Jesus Christ helped prepare the way of the Lord by calling out to all, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Repent, “metanoite”, means “to turn around,” or “to change the direction” you are presently going and return back to God’s path. St. John the Baptist preached to people who had forgotten eternal truth and who had compromised or found justifications to live according to society’s norms. Thus, he boldly proclaimed, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”
St. John captured the attention of huge crowds in the deserts of Judea precisely because people realized that the prophetic voice of God once again spoke in their lands. Israel had not seen an authentic prophet for centuries, and here came a man living in the desert, living a life of poverty, asceticism and self-denial, while communing with God and proclaiming His word! Although today’s society would probably look at such a character as strange or crazy at too fanatic, precisely because he rejects and stand in contrast to the self-centered, narcissistic, materialistic life we know, still in ancient Israel the people had the sense to realize that John was a prophet, a man who wholeheartedly devoted his life to God, and thus acted as His messenger and mouthpiece. The emphasis of St. John as God’s messenger can even be seen in the iconography of our Church, where you’ll notice that sometimes John has wings like an angel, which symbolizes John’s role as God’s messenger.
Well, today as we commemorate St. John, we should reflect upon His witness and message pointing to what truth is, a message as relevant for us in our contemporary society as it was in preparing the way of the Lord in Israel 2000 years ago.
St. John prepared the people to receive the Christ by simply preaching the truth, by getting everyone to realize the lie and deception they lived under, and to return once again to the ways of the Lord. He did not believe in compromising the message of the Gospel in order to attract crowds, or to make people feel good or comfortable about themselves. To the contrary, he often offended people who did not live according to the truth. He understood that he acted as a mouthpiece of God, and thus, he never based his preaching on public opinion. He knew quite well that the eternal message of the Lord and the truth of the Gospel stood on its own, whether people liked it or not!
St. John the Baptist clearly reminds us that eternal and divine truth is not determined by people’s opinions. The internet, social media, television, music and today’s superstars bombard us with messages that utterly contradict the Good News of Jesus Christ. Just because someone is famous or rich or in an influential place in society doesn’t mean their opinion is more important than anyone else
Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Sins do not become virtues by being widely practiced. Right is still right even if nobody is doing it, and wrong is still wrong even if everyone is practicing it.”
By following our own standards, and forgetting about Divine Truth, people in society have become confused as to what exactly right and wrong is, and have thus fallen away from the straight and narrow path that leads to salvation. How many people today live confused lives filled with a false pursuit for superficial entertainment and temporary happiness that will supposedly fill their lives with excitement, yet in the end realize their lives remain meaningless and empty. The Lord invites us to walk a very different path. When we strive to walk according to His divine truth, even though it may be a difficult and challenging path, we discover a life of meaning and purpose, of divine love and joy, of inextinguishable peace and hope.
Our Lord Jesus promised, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Each one of us has been created for greatness in God’s eyes. St. Paul says “if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). St. Peter tells us how God invites all believers to become “partakers of his divine nature” (2 Pet 1:5). St. Luke describes how God made “known to us the ways of life, and he will make us full of gladness and joy” (Acts 2:18). By walking this narrow and straight path of Truth, contrary to the world’s deceptions, we discover the fulfilling lives that God desires each of us to experience!
May we renew our commitment to live life and walk according to the Truth proclaimed by our Orthodox Christian faith. Let us re-examine the priorities, goals and direction of our lives and re-orient them towards Jesus Christ and His Good News. Today as we celebrate the memory of St. John the Baptist, remember how he tried to warn the us not to be deceived and misled by the opinion polls of the world, and not to follow their deception and darkness, but instead to repent, to turn back towards God, to listen to His Divine Truth and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven here and now!