I remember my childhood heroes. They included Superman, Spiderman, The Hulk, but my ultimate favorite was Batman. I loved his uniform, his mask, and his car. I admired his ability to lose a fight to a nemesis and then rebound, allowing good to overcome evil.
Over the years, my heroes changed from mythological action heroes to real people like football and hockey stars. Then I realized they, too, were cloaked in a degree of myth. Their identities became focused on how many touchdowns or goals they could score. Their heroics on the gridiron or the ice lasted as long as one’s memory, and left fans only wanting more. When they couldn’t deliver what fans wanted, they drifted off into retirement and leaned on their glory days.
As I developed as a Christian, my definition of a hero changed from the superficial trappings of make believe and the glamour of highlight reels to the spiritual reality of those who point to something more indelible. In other words, my heroes point and draw me closer to God who Creates, God who Redeems, and God who Inspires, God who offers eternal life. As we remember the Beheading of John the Baptist today, we may take some time to reflect on his legacy as a Christian hero and martyr. So, what makes John the Baptist the righteous hero?
In my view, John, when he called people to the wilderness, drew people closer to God. He offered a baptism of repentance and as a result, he gained many disciples at a time when people desired a messiah. Consequently, many people believed he was the messiah. However, he avoided the temptation of accepting such a mantle. When he sees Jesus walk by him, he proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” John doesn’t become territorial. In matter of fact, he pointed his own disciples toward Christ, who God sent into the world so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
John knew his place within God’s plan to bring salvation to all people. John welcomed his role as the harbinger of Christ and moved aside when Jesus started his ministry. John’s ambition did not undercut Jesus’ ministry or God’s will to grant salvation to believers. Rather, John gave his own life so that the world could experience the saving grace of Jesus Christ. For John, the purpose of his work became more important than the work itself. John’s decline and Jesus’ rise allowed God’s will to unfold in our world. John possessed the courage to say, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John drew people toward himself not to glorify his legacy. He drew people toward himself, so he could reveal the light of Christ. John persuaded people to look at the light shining in the darkness which the darkness could not overcome.He built a foundation, so his ministry would lead people to experience Jesus’ teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection as an ever-present reality in our own guaranteed salvation.
John the Baptist is one of my heroes because he pointed to Christ. I often wonder when are the times I point to Christ? I also often wonder when are the times I fail to point to Christ? John the Baptist never had to wonder. He knew his purpose was simply to lead people toward salvation and to bring people within reach of the savior.
As Christians, how can we live into John’s example? We can be assured that we won’t have to die for our Christian convictions. However, we may suffer ridicule, resentment, rejection, betrayal, and isolation because of our willingness to point to Christ, especially as our culture becomes more and more secular. Therefore, where do we find the resolve to live our Baptismal Covenant? How do we support one another as we face the temptations to allow our ministry to improve our social standing instead of glorifying God? How do we teach our children to navigate the lack of civility in our society with the call to respect the individual dignity of every human being? In the end, looking to the Cloud of Witnesses may offer a road map to following Christ not as a fan but as a true disciple. On this day, as we remember the Beheading of John the Baptist, we realize John is a righteous hero not due to his death but due to how he lived.
[Image Credits: Adam West as Batman, Public Domain via Flickr; Wayne Gretzky, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]