He’s a shadowy figure, impressive but slightly perplexing. Everybody knows that John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. But some people think that he joined a type of separatist monastic community, the Essenes, who lived in the desert close to where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

They were a zealot group that was looking forward to the imminent coming of the Messiah who would once more set up the kingdom of Israel according to the promises that were made to their ancestors in the bible. Only those who adhered strictly to the Law would be part of this kingdom. If nothing else they were fundamentalists.

Certainly we do come across John in the desert, a strange character aged about 27, wearing a leather belt and camel hair tunic and living off locust and wild honey, and we know that he was preaching a message of repentance, getting people to be immersed in the waters of the River Jordan. Whether he was part of the exclusive Essene desert community we cannot say, but he converted many people and prepared the way for Jesus’ preaching. He told his own disciples to follow Jesus and he was beheaded in prison by Herod.

Many people refer to John the Baptist as the hinge between the Old Testament and New Testament prophets. The job of a prophet is to be a spokesperson for God. We may baulk at the thought of wearing a sandwich board and walking up and down the high street with Gospel messages. But because of our baptism we have each been called to be prophets, pointers, signposts and spokespeople for God and the Gospel.

Maybe John the Baptist stands as a reminder of how necessary this is in a world that seems to be looking for compass points.

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