For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (From the Third song of Isaiah, BCP 86)
John the Baptizer, the cousin of Jesus, the one who must fade so that the true Messiah can rise. Two miracle babies, cousins, born within months of each other. One from a woman too old to have children; the other from a virgin teenager. Two babies born by the direct intervention of God, and for God’s purpose for humankind.
This begs the question about free will and God’s control of human history. We can’t hide from God. We can say no, but in fear of God, who wants to refuse to obey our Father, who also made us and everything else, and whose wisdom is greater than ours. When God chooses you, you pretty much are volunteered. John’s life wasn’t a easy one. We suspect Jesus was brought up pretty normally. His earthly father wasn’t a rabbi, but a middle class artisan, although Jesus was interested in religion, which was not uncommon amongst Jews (“My son, the rabbi.”). But John’s life seems to have been one of depravation and hardship. No harmless drinking parties with his buddies. Lentils, scratchy clothes, and the desert for our John. No wonder it is the water of the river Jordan that calls him. Not that there isn’t water in the desert. There is. Oasis, and great underground reservoirs. But mostly it is dry and hard, and life must be tough to survive. Perfect conditions to breed a prophet, an Elijah to proclaim the Messiah. Or a crazy itinerant preacher. A man whose father was struck dumb for nine months or so for lack of faith, for lack of instant obedience to God. A man who now cries out in the wilderness, preaching repentance, and awaiting the one who will displace him. This is not an easy life.
John makes me uncomfortable. Almost a sort of failure. A sad life. Perhaps John was truly holy enough, touched by the Spirit, to not dwell on his limited role, but something in him must have recognized this. He had power. People came to him, to confess, to weep, to wade into the river and be baptized, to hear the whisper of the Spirit, a foretelling of Pentecost, and rejoice. But all the while he knew. And for a while he was part of this story, the righteous cousin awaiting his King. But then did it grow cold as his followers turned to the other? But he did not turn and follow Jesus. John still had followers, and to this day still has, but eclipsed by the Christ who came in the body of Jesus, his baby cousin Jesus. John took on temporal power. He took on Herod, and his marriage, a particularly bad thing to do, go after a man’s wife. And he died at a dinner party. Jesus preached and gave heavenly power, and died on the Cross.
While the Revised Lectionary and the lection for the evening office use most of the passage from Luke 1 on John’s miraculous birth, the lection for the Daily Office Morning Prayer is taken from the Gospel of John (3:22-30) and Evening Prayer from Matthew (11:2-19). Taken together these two passages give a more nuanced and certainly more complex picture of John as a prophet and as a messenger. Total immersion (tvilah) in living water of a spring or river or in a ritual bath fed by a spring (mitvah) was practiced by Jews as part of initiation and purification. When John is credited for baptizing for repentance of sin (Mk 1:4, Mt 3:11, Lk 3:3) it can be suggested that the sin was straying from the Covenant of the Law. All three synoptic gospels spell out that he is awaiting the Messiah. John 3:22-30, however, clarifies the issue when the Baptizer says that one can only gain what is given from heaven, and he is not the Messiah. He can cleanse by baptism, offer atonement through confession and repentance, but not remit sins, nor bestow the Spirit. Moving to bride-bridegroom imagery, John says that he is the bridegroom’s friend and joys in his friend’s marriage. He ends by saying, “He [Jesus] must become greater; I must become less.”
While John’s gospel quotes the Baptizer in that his joy is made complete in witnessing this holy marriage, a passage in Matthew complicates the relationship between these two cousins. Matthew 11:2-6 describes followers of John sent to Jesus to ask him if he is the Messiah, a point which we had assumed was settled for John. Jesus answers citing the many works of power he has performed to heal the sick and succor the poor. Jesus goes on to praise John, but adds, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” But Jesus was also born of woman, Mary. Here Jesus seems to be speaking with the wisdom of the Christ, saying that those who follow him, even the least, will surpass John and his followers in the coming Kingdom. Perhaps we can suggest that this is to clarify what Jesus the Christ’s baptism promises as compared to that of John.
As Elijah, John fulfills Old Testament prophesies of a messenger. Two cousins taking true joy in enacting God’s fulfillment. Even in the womb, John greeted Jesus, that first bond of koinonia, abiding love. But if John truly knew the peace of God in his fulfilling his role, John’s disciples must have felt slighted that their master was only a short lived herald of the real Messiah. I suspect those that continued to follow John’s teaching, watching the crowds around Jesus grow, had twinges of jealousy, even anger.
How much of this is our life? In the church, business, academia, how many of us reach to answer the call and feel we have failed? Sometimes we reach too high. But sometimes it isn’t our discernment, but the mistakes or needs of others. Look to John the Baptizer, Elijah, but not Messiah. And we are not in control. Perfect faith in God is not ever easy. God, through the Spirit and through community, still intervenes in our lives. And sometimes that call from God can be terrifying. All we can do is say, “Here I am,” and discern and pray and obey, and accept. We cannot know the mind of God, but we know God loves us, and we are his. John’s short and hard life was for the great purpose of announcing that God had given himself to a human life and terrible death for the salvation of every one of us. I pray that our lives serve God’s purpose for us as fully.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.