If you /I think we know all about John the Baptist - who he was and in what his mission consisted - then we are mistaken. All we have to go by are our Christian Scriptures, and they speak only of John in relation to Jesus of Nazareth. Everything else about this man - how John would have looked at himself and his ministry is a mystery. But then in the late 1940s there was the discovery of the first five Dead Sea Scrolls. They allow us to be better able to place John in his actual historical environment, because John seems to have been a member of the Qumran community which produced the scrolls.
That community consisted of a group of Jews who left Jerusalem in the century before Jesus' birth and settled in an area overlooking the Dead Sea. The reason for setting up their community was because they became convinced that they had been terribly wronged by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, they departed to this remote area. There they adopted a self-sacrificing lifestyle. They also read and copied the Scriptures. John's ministry dovetails with Qumran. Among other things, he announces the imminent coming of Yahweh; he prepares people for that event by administering a 'baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins'. And it is important for us Christians to note that an obscure carpenter from Nazareth is one of those attracted to the message of John, and who took over John's ministry when John is arrested and killed.
Did John realize who Jesus really was? Probably not. That would be one of his surprises when he entered the 'pearly gates'. So when John was executed he probably thought his mission was a failure: few Jews had repented; Yahweh hadn't come. He could identify with the sixth century BC Isaiah who on reflecting on his ministry wrote, 'I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength'. But Isaiah eventually began to understand,'My reward is with Yahweh, my recompense is with my God'. Isaiah's failure to convert the Jewish exiles in Babylon was actually one step towards opening the faith to the 'nations' - the Gentiles. Followers of Jesus would eventually regard John as the 'precursor' of their leader; his ministry as the preparation for Jesus' ministry. John's name will forever be joined to that of Jesus. Even his birth - as in to-day's gospel - put on a par with Jesus' birth.
Yet when we look at the historical John - not the 'gospel John' - we discover deep significance. Thought it's good to hear how his life fitted into God's overall plan of salvation, we presume he died not realizing what we hear in to-day's second and third readings. Like many of us, he thought he never accomplished the things God had planned for him. On many levels he failed.
We can only see one small part of God's plan. And most of the time we are not even conceiving of that plan as God conceives of it.
Like John and Isaiah, we can only do what we think God is calling us to do. What we eventual accomplish, or how we fit into God's plan, we also only discover at the 'pearly gates'.