Who was John the Baptist? He was a cousin of Jesus and came from a line of priests. His father Zachariah and was a Priest who offered sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Although John had the privilege of becoming a traditional priest he in a way gave up that privilege and decided to follow the prophetic tradition.
When we look at the life of John the Baptist he was a combination of priest, prophet, and ascetic. Over and above he was a radical. I am aware that some people are scared of the word radical. What is the root meaning of radical? The root meaning of the word radical comes from the Latin word radix. Radex means roots. Therefore the true meaning of a radical is a person who goes to the roots. John the Baptist encouraged people to go to the roots of their issues.
How did he do this? He asked people to repent. Before he requested people to repent he went to a desert and led a very simple and basic lifestyle. In a way, he renounced all earthly comfort and asked people to be close to nature and God.
To understand the ministry of John it is necessary to have a sound understanding of the context of the society in which he lived. During his time this area was under the Roman Imperial Government. Therefore Jews expected a Messiah or a savior to come and redeem them from the Romans.
In that society, many Jews expected a glorified Messiah who would defeat the Romans and bring liberation to Jews. Their expectation was that by killing their enemies they would enjoy freedom. But John invited the people to repent and wait for God’s Kingdom. In a way John wanted people to get ready to accept the Messiah by developing the concept and philosophy of Avihimsa.
What is this Avihimsa? This is to nurture nature and understand the true nature of human beings to enjoy freedom. By inviting people to repent, John directed people to understand the true nature of their lives.
In all these things the uniqueness of John was that he always emphasized that he was not the Messiah. Because during this time there were many people who claimed to be the Messiah. To stress this John said that even he was not fit to untie the sandals of the Messiah.
As we commemorate the life and ministry of John the Baptist, let us ask what is the way in which we should prepare ourselves to accept the coming of the Messiah. Let us look into this important concern as individuals, families, a church, and a country. To prepare ourselves we have carol services; we do charity, color wash our houses and etc.: as a country after the war, we are concerned about many material things.
I don’t deny the fact that these things are necessary for human beings. Do you think that these things alone will bring us lasting peace, prosperity, and freedom?
Some time ago I attended a consultation convened by the institute to discuss a research report on the development of the Eastern province of Sri Lanka. In the course of the conversation, we discussed the infrastructure facilities such as roads, schools, and hospitals. But then gradually we realized that the main issues were the relationships and interactions of people in the area.
Still, people are unable to repent and understand the true nature of their lives. They are not willing to renounce at least certain things for the growth of others. Everybody wants to be winners. We have a huge responsibility in this regard. Some of you would have heard of the Truth and reconciliation commission of South Africa where people came forward and openly accepted all the killings and atrocities done by them. If they did that they were pardoned. This became a very effective exercise to start the reconciliation between the blacks and whites in South Africa.
This is an important lesson for us in Sri Lanka. When are we going to start a process of this nature? What is our responsibility in this regard?