Remember the Brad Dexter character in the classic western film "The Magnificent Seven"? He's the one who constantly asks Yul Brynner, the leader, "Why are we here?" He can't figure out why he and the other six are risking their lives to defend a village of Mexican peasants who can't even begin to pay for their services.

In a sense, John the Baptizer would have been comfortable playing Brad Dexter's role. Though we Christians know exactly why he "was there," scholars believe the historical John never shared our certitude.

The authors of the Christian Scriptures have an advantage over the people about whom they write. By the time they put stylus to papyrus, they were narrating incidents that took place almost 50 years before. The interval between the actual events and our authors writing about them supplies a perspective that those who personally experienced the events never had.

Essenes

The historical John probably had little to do with the historical Jesus. As a member of the Dead Sea Scroll community, he was actually preparing people for Yahweh's arrival, not Jesus' coming. Along with other Essenes, the Baptizer was expecting God to bring long-awaited justice to his community.

He preached a baptism of repentance because he believed the frame of mind that such a bath symbolized would hasten Yahweh's coming. John's ministry made sense even if it had no relation to Jesus' ministry.

But, Luke, writing in the 80s, sees John from a different perspective (Lk 1: 57-66, 80). This wild, prophetic character fits perfectly into the overall picture of Jesus' ministry. Believing John's preaching created a receptive environment for Jesus' preaching, Luke calls John Jesus' precursor.

Such a theology makes the question asked at John's birth purely rhetorical. Luke's readers already know who this child will be: the persona who prepares the way for Jesus.

This Christian view of John permits Paul to say (Acts 13: 22-26): "John heralded (Jesus') coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel." Though we have no tape recordings of John's sermons, commentators are doubtful that his statement -- "One is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet" -- originally applied to Jesus. In Christian writings, John's ministry is always filtered through Jesus' ministry.

Why me?

That's why it's good to have Deutero-Isaiah's Second Song of the Suffering Servant as the first reading (Is 49: 1-6). Though the prophet is convinced that both his call and ministry are in God's plan, he, like John, is not too certain how God is using him. He knows "the Lord called me from birth, from my mother's womb he gave me my name." Yet he also believes, "I toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly spent my strength."

Like all God's disciples, Deutero-Isaiah eventually understands that "my reward is with the Lord, my recompense is with my God." When he reaches this point, the prophet breaks through the boundaries restricting all ministry. Deutero-Isaiah's failure in preaching to his fellow Jews simply opens a door to a wider audience.

"It is too little," Yahweh says, "for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth."

In the long run, we don't have to know anything about Brad Dexter, "The Magnificent Seven," or even John the Baptist. We need only reflect on our own call. Those who say "Yes!" to God never know where that "Yes!" will take them. They're never absolutely certain why they're here. Only God can and will answer that question.

(06-21-01)