the Baptist and Jesus
expect to find a family resemblance among relatives. John and Jesus were
cousins. Not surprisingly, then, they were “look-alikes” in many
were at home in the wilderness, the venue of extraordinary temptation
and trial and testing, but also the venue of extraordinary intimacy with
preached out-of doors when they began their public ministry.
gave their disciples a characteristic prayer. John gave his followers a
prayer that outwardly identified them as his disciples and inwardly
welded them to each other. In no time the disciples of Jesus asked him
for the same kind of characteristic prayer, with the result that we
shall never be without the “Lord’s Prayer.”
John and Jesus lashed hearers whenever they spoke of God’s severity
and the inescapability of God’s judgement.
summoned people to repent.
discounted the popular notion that God favoured
with political or national pre-eminence.
were born through an uncommon act of God.
both died through having provoked uncommon rage among men and women.
insisted that the sole purpose of his mission was to point away from
himself to his younger cousin, Jesus. Jesus,
for his part, never uttered one negative word about John. Jesus even
endorsed John’s ministry by submitting to baptism at John’s hand.
Indeed Jesus said, “Among those born of women (that is, of all the
people in the world), there is none greater than John.”
and Zechariah named their long-awaited son “Yochan.” “Yochan”
means “gift of God.” This gift, however, didn’t come with the
pretty ribbons and bows and curlicues of fancy gift-wrapping. This gift
came in a plain brown wrapper.
of John’s appearance. He wore a camel-hide wrap-around, and it stank
as only camels can stink. (Jesus, by contrast, wore a robe fine enough
that soldiers gambled for it.)
there was John’s diet: wild honey. How many bee stings did he have to
endure to procure the honey? No doubt he had been stung so many times he
was impervious, bees being now no more bothersome than fruit flies. And
the locusts? There’s lots of protein in grasshoppers, since small
creatures like grasshoppers are the most efficient in converting grain
protein into animal protein. Grasshoppers are good to eat, as long as
you don’t mind crunching their long legs and occasionally getting them
stuck in your teeth. John was anything but effete, anything but dainty,
anything but a reed shaken by the wind.
habitat was noteworthy. The wilderness, everywhere in scripture, is the
symbol for a radical break with the posturing and the pretence, the
falsehoods and phoniness of the big city and its inherent corruption.
, hier shalem, describes itself as the city of salvation. But is
kills the prophets and crucifies the Messiah. By living in the
wilderness John contradicted everything the city represented.
of course there was John’s manner. He had relatively few tools in his
toolbox. When he saw that the truth of God had to be upheld and the sin
of the powerful rebuked, he reached into his toolbox and came up with
its one and only tool: confrontation. It wasn’t long before he
confronted Herodias, wife of Herod the ruler.
looked her in the eye and said, “First you married Phillip, your uncle
Phillip, no less. Then you ‘fooled around’ with the man who is
currently your husband. Then you allowed your daughter, Salome, to dance
like a stripper in order to inflame a crowd of half-drunk military
officers. You, Mrs. Herod, are incestuous, adulterous, and a pimp all at
once. It’s an abomination to God; you yourself are a disgrace; and the
stench of it all looms larger than a mushroom cloud.” Whereupon Mrs.
Herod had said, “I’ll have your head for that. Watch me.”
mustn’t forget John’s singlemindedness. Because his camel-hide
loincloth lacked pockets, John’s one-and-only sermon he kept in his
head and his heart. It was a simple sermon. The judgement of God is so
close at hand that even now you can feel God’s fiery breath scorching
you and withering everything about you that can’t stand the
conflagration. And in the face of this judgement, thundered John, there
are three things that cosy, comfortable people think they can take
refuge in when there is no refuge; namely, parentage, piety and
“Abraham is our parent. We are safe because we are descendants from
the grand progenitor of our people, Abraham our father.” We are
Abraham’s son or daughter only if we have Abraham’s faith, John
knew. In light of the crisis that God’s judgement brings on everyone,
we’re silly for putting stock in the fact that our grandmother was
once a missionary in China and our father once shook hands with Billy
“We are Israelites. Only last week we had our son circumcised.”
“We’ve been members of St.Matthew’s-by-the-Gas Station for forty
years. We had all our children ‘done’ there; we also contributed to
the repairs to the steeple.” Piety, said John, is a religious
inoculation. Like any inoculation it keeps people from getting the real
thing. For this reason piety is worse than useless: it guarantees that
what can save us we shall never want.
“We are the
aristocrats.” In 18th Century
an aristocrat was asked what she thought of John Wesley’s movement.
“A perfectly horrid thing”, the Duchess of Buckingham had replied,
turning up her nose as if someone had just taken the lid off an 18th
Century chamber pot; “Imagine being told you are as vile as the
wretches that crawl about on the earth.”
was little wonder that those who found John too much to take eased their
discomfort by ridiculing him. Baptizein is the everyday Greek
verb meaning to dip or to dunk. John the dipper. “Well, Yochan,
what’ll it be today? Dunk your doughnuts or dip your paintbrush? Here
comes the dippy dunker.”
John have been deranged? His enemies said he was crazy. But the same
people who said John was crazy said Jesus was an alcoholic. Certainly
John was crude. Jesus admitted as much when he told those whom John had
shocked, “What did you expect to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A
feeble fellow smelling of perfume?” John lacked the polish of the
cocktail crowd. But he was sane.
of the family resemblance between John and Jesus they’re not
came to bear witness to the light. Jesus was (and is) that light.
pointed to Jesus as the coming one. Jesus pointed to himself as
the Incarnate one.
reminded the people of God’s centuries-old promises. Jesus was, and
is, the fulfilment of all God’s promises.
administered a baptism of water as an outward sign of repentance. Jesus
administered a baptism of fire as the Spirit inwardly torched his
this lattermost point we have highlighted the crucial difference between
John and Jesus. John could only point to the
, the all-determining reality that was to heal a creation disfigured by
the Fall. Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t point to it: he brought
it inasmuch as he was the new creation, fraught with cosmic
significance, the one in whom all things are restored. John’s ministry
prepared people for a coming kingdom that the king would bring with him.
Jesus’ ministry gathered people into that kingdom which was operative
wherever the king himself presided -- which is to say, everywhere.
not that Jesus contradicted John. Rather, Jesus effected within people
what John could only hold out for them. Because the ministry of Jesus
gathered up the ministry of John, nothing about John was lost. At the
same time, the ministry of Jesus contained so much more than John’s --
as John himself gladly admitted. In other words, the ministry of Jesus
was the ministry of John plus all that was unique to our Lord.
Ponder, for instance, the note of repentance sounded by both men.
John thundered. He threatened. There was a bad time coming, and John,
entirely appropriately, had his hearers scared. Jesus agreed. There is
a bad time coming. Throughout the written gospels we find on the lips of
Jesus pronouncements every bit as severe as anything John said.
Nonetheless, Jesus promised a good time coming too. To be sure, Jesus
could flay the hide off phoneys as surely as John, yet flaying didn’t characterize
him; mercy did. While Jesus could speak, like John, of a coming
judgement that couldn’t be avoided, Jesus also spoke of an amnesty, a
provision, a refuge that reflected the heart of his Father. Everything
John said, the whole world needs to hear. Yet we need to hear even more
urgently what Jesus alone said: “There’s a party underway, and at
this party all who are weary and worn down, frenzied and fed up,
overwhelmed and overrun -- at this party all such people are going to find rest and restoration, help,
healing and hope.”
like John, spoke to the defiant self-righteous who not only disdained
entering the kingdom themselves but also, whether deliberately or
left-handedly, impeded others from entering it; Jesus spoke to these
people in a vocabulary that would take the varnish off a door. Jesus,
however, also had his heart broken over people who were like sheep
without a shepherd, about to follow cluelessly the next religious
hireling -- the religious “huckster” of any era who exploits the
most needy and the most defenceless.
John’s message was the penultimate word of judgement, the mood
surrounding John was as stark, spare, ascetic as John’s word: he drank
no wine and he ate survival rations. Because Jesus’ message was the
ultimate word of the kingdom, the mood surrounding Jesus was the mood of
a celebration, a party. He turned 150 gallons of water into wine – a
huge amount for a huge party. He is the wine of life; he profoundly
gladdens the hearts of men and women. His joy floods his people.
his laser vision Jesus stared into the hearts of those who faulted him
and said, “You spoil- sports with shrivelled hearts and acidulated
tongues, you wouldn’t heed John because his asceticism left you
thinking he wasn’t sane; now you won’t heed me because my partying
leaves you thinking I’m not moral. Still, those people you’ve
despised and duped and defrauded: your victims are victors now;
they’re going to be vindicated. And their exuberance in the
celebrations they have with me not even your sullenness can diminish.”
Whereupon our Lord turned from the scornful snobs that religion forever
breeds and welcomed yet another wounded, worn down person who wouldn’t
know a hymnbook from a homily yet knew as much as she needed to know:
life in the company of Jesus is indescribably better than life in the
company of his detractors.
always moved at our Lord’s simple assertion, “I am the good
shepherd.” What did he mean by “good”? Merely that he is a
competent shepherd, as any competent shepherd can protect the flock
against marauders, thieves and disease? There are two Greek words for
“good”: agathos and kalos. Agathos means
“good” in the sense of upright, proper, correct. Kalos, on
the other hand (the word Jesus used of himself), includes everything
that agathos connotes plus “winsome, attractive, endearing,
appealing, compelling, comely, inviting.” I
am the fine shepherd.
Muggeridge accompanied a film crew to
in order to narrate a documentary on the late Mother Teresa. He already
knew she was a good woman or he wouldn’t have bothered going. When he
met her, however, he found a good woman who was also so very compelling,
wooing, endearing that he titled his documentary, Something Beautiful
was good, agathos. Many people feared him and many admired him.
Jesus was good, kalos. Many people feared him, many admired him,
and many loved him. Paul speaks in Ephesians 6:24 of those who
“love our Lord with love undying.” Did anyone love John with
love undying? If we’ve grasped the difference between agathos
and kalos, between what is good, correct, upright and what is so
very inviting and attractive as to be beautiful, then we’ve grasped
the relation of John to Jesus.
another dimension to Jesus that carries him beyond John. It’s
reflected in the word he used uniquely at prayer, abba,
“Father.” Now the Newer Testament is written in Greek, even though
Jesus customarily spoke Aramaic. In other words what our Lord said
day-by-day has been translated into another language. Then why wasn’t
the Aramaic word, abba, translated into Greek? The word was left
untranslated in that Jesus had first used it in a special way, and to
translate it would seem to sully its distinctiveness.
was the word used by a Palestinian youth to speak of his or her father
respectfully, obediently, confidently, securely, and of course
intimately. It wasn’t so “palsy walsy” as to be disrespectful.
Neither was it so gushing as to be sentimental. It was intimate without
being impertinent, confident without being smug. Abba was
trusting one’s father without trading on the father’s
trustworthiness, familiar without being forward, secure without being
must be sure to understand that when early-day Christians came to use
the word abba in their prayers they weren’t repeating the word
just because they knew Jesus had used it and they thought it cute to
imitate him. Neither were they mumbling it mindlessly like a mantra
thinking that if they kept on saying it, mantra-like, whatever it was
within him that had given rise to it would eventually appear within
them. On the contrary, they were impelled to use the word for one
reason: as companions of Jesus they had been admitted to such an
intimacy with the Father that the word Jesus had used uniquely of his
Father they were now constrained to use too, so closely did their
intimacy resemble his. When Paul writes in Romans 8:15 that Christians
can’t help uttering the cry, “Abba, Father”, any more than
a person in pain can help groaning or a person bereaved can help weeping
or a person tickled by a good joke can help laughing; when Paul reminds
the Christians in Rome that this is normal Christian experience,
“normal” means being introduced by the Son to the Father in such a
way and at such a depth that the Son’s intimacy with the Father
induces the believer’s intimacy. Abba.
should note that the written gospels show us that Jesus used this word
, of all places, when he was utterly alone at the most tormented hour of
his life. I understand this. William Stringfellow, Harvard-taught lawyer
and self-taught theologian who went to Harlem in a store-front law
practice on behalf of the impoverished people he loved; Stringfellow,
ridiculed by his denomination, suspected by the Kennedys and arrested
finally by the FBI for harbouring Daniel Berrigan (a Jesuit anti-Viet
Nam War protester); Stringfellow wrote in a little confirmation class
book he prepared for teenagers, “Prayer is being so alone that God is
the only witness to your existence.”
day comes for all of us when we are so thoroughly alone we couldn’t be
more alone. And in the isolation and torment of such a day we are going
tofind that God is the only witness to our existence. But he will
be witness enough. And because it’s the Father who is the only
witness to our existence, we shall find ourself crying spontaneously,
“Abba.” Surely Jesus had this in mind when he said, “There
has never appeared anyone greater than John the Baptist. Yet the least
in the kingdom is greater than John.”
We all need to be shaken up by the wild man from the wilderness,
the grasshopper-eating, hide-wearing prophet whom no one should have
mistaken for a reed shaken by the wind. Yet as often as we need to look
at John, we find fearsome John pointing away from himself to Jesus, the
Word Incarnate, the lamb of God and the Saviour of the world; someone no
less rigorous than John to be sure, but also so much more than John –
someone so very winsome, compelling, inviting as to be beautiful.
St.Bride’s Anglican Church, Mississauga