John the Baptist and Jesus

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 John the Baptist and Jesus

Matthew 3:1-12

  We expect to find a family resemblance among relatives. John and Jesus were cousins. Not surprisingly, then, they were “look-alikes” in many respects.

  Both were at home in the wilderness, the venue of extraordinary temptation and trial and testing, but also the venue of extraordinary intimacy with the Father.

  Both preached out-of doors when they began their public ministry.

  Both 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.”

  Both John and Jesus lashed hearers whenever they spoke of God’s severity and the inescapability of God’s judgement.

  Both summoned people to repent.

  Both discounted the popular notion that God favoured Israel with political or national pre-eminence.

  Both were born through an uncommon act of God.

  And both died through having provoked uncommon rage among men and women.

  John 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.”

 

I: Elizabeth 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.

  Think 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.)

  Then 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.

  John’s 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. Jerusalem , hier shalem, describes itself as the city of salvation. But is it? Jerusalem kills the prophets and crucifies the Messiah. By living in the wilderness John contradicted everything the city represented.

  And 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. John 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.”

  We 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 prestige.

  Parentage. “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 Graham.

  Piety. “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.

  Prestige. “We are the Jerusalem aristocrats.” In 18th Century England 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.” 

  It 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.”

  Might 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.

 

II: -- Regardless of the family resemblance between John and Jesus they’re not identical.

  John came to bear witness to the light. Jesus was (and is) that light.

  John pointed to Jesus as the coming one. Jesus pointed to himself as the Incarnate one.

  John reminded the people of God’s centuries-old promises. Jesus was, and is, the fulfilment of all God’s promises.

  John administered a baptism of water as an outward sign of repentance. Jesus administered a baptism of fire as the Spirit inwardly torched his people.

  With this lattermost point we have highlighted the crucial difference between John and Jesus. John could only point to the kingdom of God , 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.

  It’s 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.”

  Jesus, 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.

   Because 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.

  With 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.

  I’m 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.

  Malcolm Muggeridge accompanied a film crew to India 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 for God.

  John 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.

 

  There’s 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.

  Abba 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 saccharine.

  We 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.

  We should note that the written gospels show us that Jesus used this word in Gethsemane; Gethsemane , 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.”

  The 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.

Victor Shepherd                                       St.Bride’s Anglican Church, Mississauga                                                 Advent 2007