Are you bothered because the famous biblical characters almost always seem to "have it all together"? Unlike ourselves, they know why they're here and what God expects them to do.

In Sunday's Gospel (Jn 1:6-8, 19-28), for instance, John the Baptizer quickly responds to the question, "Who are you?" He first clears away the wrong answers: Messiah, Elijah and "the prophet." Then he decisively declares, "I am `a voice in the desert, crying out: Make straight the way of the Lord!'" His ministry is so God-directed that he can even put his trademark action into its proper place in salvation history. "I baptize with water," he proclaims. "There is one among yo whom you do not recognize " the one who is to come after me " the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten."

Third-Isaiah is just as certain of his mission (Is 61:1-2, 10-11). In our first reading, he proclaims, "The spirit of God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God." The prophet obviously knows what's expected of him.

Sense at end

Yet scholars constantly remind us that a prophet's call is the last element to be included in any prophetic book. Only at the end of their lives do prophets really seem to understand their calling and mission. It's at the conclusion, and not at the beginning, that all the unconnected parts begin to make sense. In the middle of their ministry, they're probably just as uncertain and confused about God's plans as we are.

Even John the Baptizer fits this pattern. Since the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s, we've been able to piece together some important segments of John's historical background. Accustomed to reading about him only in the Gospels, we don't realize that he most likely had an existence and mission independent of Jesus of Nazareth.

Furnished, over the last 50 years, with a wealth of information about the people who produced those famous scrolls, we're beginning to see that John was probably a member of the Judean Qumran wilderness community, a group of people who had left Jerusalem a century before Jesus' birth because of a conflict with the temple authorities. They waited there, a few miles from Jericho, for Yahweh to come and rectify the horrible injustice they had experienced.

The people occupied themselves with Scripture and purification, continually studying, copying and commenting on God's word and going through frequent baptismal rituals geared to symbolize their total dedication to God's will. Only those completely open to what God expected of them would be worthy to play a role in God's re-establishing this sect's prerogatives.


John's ministry seems to fit into what we know about Qumran and the Dead Sea Scroll community. He preached a baptism of repentance, announced the imminent coming of God and gathered followers who, though not "official" Qumran members, carried on his teachings and practices. (There were still followers of John existing several centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection who held that John, and not Jesus, had been the Messiah!)

The early disciples of Jesus, knowing that John had created a reforming environment, saw that he had been their master's precursor. So when they described and quoted him in their writings, they depicted someone who knew exactly what his role was in Jesus' grand scheme. The only problem is that the historical John probably never knew any of this until he suddenly arrived in heaven one night. He, like us, simple went through life trying to do what he thought God wanted him to do at any particular point in time.

That's why the passage from I Thessalonians is so important (5:16-24). It contains Paul's practical suggestions for anyone trying to be a follower of God: "Do not stifle the spirit. Do ont despise prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good. Avoid any semblance of evil." Doing those things is the only way we know we're doing what God wants -- until we join Third-Isaiah, John and Paul in heaven on day and finally discover why we're really here.