Sunday 15 September 2019
If I was to ask you who is the most prominent person in the gospels after Jesus, I wonder what your answer might be. Some might think one of the apostles, Peter, James, or John. Others might think it is Mary, the mother of Jesus. If you thought it was one of those, then you would be wrong.
By quite a long distance, the person we hear most about in the gospels after Jesus is John the Baptist.
Consider these facts:
1) We know his parents. We saw Zachary and Elizabeth mentioned in today’s gospel reading.
2) We even know what their circumstances were. We are told that they had not been able to conceive a child and that John was born when they were on in years.
3) We know what John’s father did. He was a priest of the order of Abijah.
4) We know that his mother, Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron.
5) We know how his birth came about. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zachary as he ministered in the Temple.
6) We know where he carried out his ministry; at Bethany, across the Jordan.
7) We know when he preached; in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was Governor of Judea.
8) We know the message he preached; Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.
9) We know what he did: he baptised those who repented in the waters of the Jordon River.
10) We know what he wore: camels hair and a leather belt.
11) We know what he ate: locusts and honey.
12) We know who he became involved with: King Herod Antipas for one.
13) We know how he died; beheaded by the same Herod.
14) And we know what Jesus thought of him: Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.
John was clearly a monumental figure in the Jesus movement and he was accorded special rank by all of the source traditions feeding into the written gospels. In the Acts of the Apostles, we even have an account of Saint Paul coming across a dozen people, probably twenty or thirty years after the event, still holding as precious their baptism at the hands of John.
What I think this tells us is that John had every reason to think that he was someone very special in God’s plans. By the way that his memory has been retained from the period, it would be fairly safe to assume that many Jews at the time thought that he was the messiah of God.
In fact, there is clear evidence of it in the gospels themselves. It is fairly clear that John the Baptist went to some trouble to ensure that his audiences knew that it was Jesus who was the long-awaited Messiah. Recall how when Jesus came for baptism, John says to him that he needs to be baptised by Jesus and yet Jesus has come to him. The gospels also record John saying that the one who is more powerful than him is coming after him and that he, John, was not worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals. And in the Gospel of John, we have John the Baptist’s words that he (Jesus) must increase and I (John the Baptist) must decrease.
Despite all of the acclaim and apparent “success” of John the Baptist’s ministry, it seems that he never lost the true perspective that he was the precursor of the messiah, not the messiah himself. In other words, we could say that he never got carried away with his own publicity. He always remained firmly grounded in his mission as the herald of the messiah. At no time is their any evidence that he got too big for his boots so to speak.
Plainly, in his prayer and study of the scriptures, John had worked out precisely what his role was in relation to the true Messiah who he had determined was Jesus of Nazareth.
When you think about it, that is exactly what we should be attempting to do in our prayer and scripture study as well – working out what our true relation is to Jesus, the Christ. Of course, none of us has the problem of thinking that we are so effective in our work for God that maybe we are Messiahs. But we do have to come to terms with Jesus and what his messianic role means for the way that we live our lives.
Just as for John Jesus is central to everything that he does and says, we too should be aspiring to give Jesus that place in our faith lives. It is only when we make him the centre of our lives that we can live authentically and with integrity in the light of our baptism. It is only as he increases and we decrease that we can become the disciples that we are called to be. Let us pray for the grace to see Jesus as John the Baptist saw him, as Paul saw him as he wrote in the letter to the Colossians: He is the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen