Friends, today’s Gospel reflects on the absolutely pivotal figure of John the Baptist. It’s fair to say that you cannot really understand Jesus without understanding John, which is precisely why all four Evangelists tell the story of the Baptist as a kind of overture to the story of Jesus. John sums up Israel, and without the Israelite background, the story of Jesus becomes opaque.
The story of John’s birth brings his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, into focus. Both are strongly priestly personages. Elizabeth is a descendant of the family of Aaron, the first priest of Israel, and Zechariah was a practicing Temple priest.
What’s important for our purposes is that John was of very priestly stock. So why, when we first hear of him in his adult life, is he out in the desert and not in the Temple? Well, there was a long prophetic tradition that criticized the Temple for its corruption. In John’s time, the Temple was mired in very messy, vile, and violent politics. So what is he doing in the desert? He is offering what the Temple ought to be offering but wasn’t, due to its corruption, namely, the forgiveness of sins.