Prophet? Rabble-rouser? Jesus’ Cousin? Elijah’s Ghost?
Yes, John the Baptist is all of these things and so much more.
Like the story of the Jesus, though, the Story of John the Baptist is broad, varied, and not collected in a single volume. Each Gospel author (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) has their list of John the Baptist tales and each uses their personal cache of stories for a specific purpose related to exactly they think John the Baptist really is and what role he plays in the spread of the Good News.
In this Sunday’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist appears from the mist (or, more likely, dust) of the wilderness as an adult. He is fully formed, fully armed, and reciting ancient prophesies about the coming Day of the Lord. With no stories about his parents, his (genealogical) relationship to Jesus, or his birth, John, very literally, serves as a sign-post to the ministry of Jesus, which will begin in its own fullness immediately after John’s introduction.
In some respects, I like this minimalist John the Baptist best of all. Absent the details of the other Gospel accounts, the power and the punch of his message can sink in more fully. “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” is a clear instruction for all the faithful no matter who it comes from.
End of Story.