My rascally son, at the age of two and three, had a creative way of engaging in Sunday school lessons. Once when the class was asked what Jesus song they'd like to sing, J offered, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and in his unusually low baritone, sang it with gusto, all the other turtle-loving rascals joining in. Another time when the teacher was trying to tell the class about Elisabeth and J indignantly told her, "Elizabeth does not have a baby. I know because she's my sister!" When he didn't understand the Trinity (and who really does?), that sister tried to explain it to him by saying, "Jesus is God's nickname", which satisfied him and wasn't too shabby an explanation, actually. And then there was the time at lunch after church when he announced that they'd talked about "John the baddest!"
Since then, "John the baddest" is always how I think of Jesus' wilderness-loving, locust and honey eating cousin, who dressed in camel's hair and leather, the one who had come to "prepare the way of the Lord (if baddest is indeed the idiom it's become in our culture)." John was the first 'fire and brimstone' preacher, calling the pharisees and Sadducees, and even the entire crowd (according to Luke) down at the riverside, "You brood of vipers!" Not exactly sweetness and light for those whom he baptized. I imagine being drawn to that river, pulled by the strange talk coming from the strange man. I imagine him talking about baptism, something I'd never heard of before. Being dunked in the cool water, and coming up with my hair dripping in my face. "It isn't enough to simply be the heirs of Abraham. After all, if He wanted to, He could even turn stones into heirs. No, for humans, there must be repentance, and a life that shows fruit of that." If there's no fruit, or if the fruit of your lives is rotten and stinky, not only the fruit but the whole tree of your life will be cut down and burned. That's what John told them. As I say, not exactly sweetness and light. Sometimes I'm surprised that there was any crowd at all.
But I think the people swarmed John because he told them something new, gave them something to do that would bring health to their spiritual lives. There's something about truth-tellers that draw us to them. And something about being an active participant in our lives that energizes us.
So John's working the crowds, holding people while God washes them clean in the Jordan when his cousin walks up. I've sometimes wondered if this is the first time those cousins had met, or if they'd been childhood playmates. Less than a year apart in age, I imagine them together as children. But children don't notice nuances. It's possible that John had never recognized a difference between Jesus and himself. I don't know if this is true, if John's recognition of Jesus as Messiah is the revelation to him because he'd always known his cousin. Or if he saw Jesus for the first time that day at the river and instantly got that this man was something special. Either way, it's profound for John.
John reacts in humility. I've said before that a revelation of Jesus Christ is often (always?) accompanied by a sense of one's relative smallness in the face of Him who is God. "I am not worthy to carry His sandals," John declares. He's shocked by the understanding that Jesus means to be baptized just like regular folk. "No way," John protests, hardly ready to even touch such a man, let alone dunk him. But Jesus brushes aside John's protests, so we see them standing together in the water, the lesser lowering the greater beneath the surface. When Jesus broke the surface on the way back up, the surface of the sky was also broken open, the Spirit (in the form of a snow white dove) flying down to land on Him. And then, from the rent in the sky, came a voice...the very voice of God! Saying in a baritone most melodic than my little boy's, "This is my Son, whom I love and am pleased with. Listen to Him!"
I imagine John--and all the others gathered at the river--being struck dumb by the voice of God, by the dove of the Spirit on Jesus' shoulder. To hear the actual resonant voice of God. What a thing, a once in a lifetime happening. (I'm sitting in a hospital room next to my sleep-talking mother, and oddly, profoundly, she just said in a loud voice, "Just imagine!" Then she grew silent again.) Yes, Mom, just imagine.
John seemed to know Jesus when He stood in front of him. That's often the case. When we glimpse that He's right there, the certainty overwhelms everything. But a while later, John began to suffer for his message. He angered a king, telling the truth about his poor choice in a spouse. The door was slammed shut, the key thrown away. And sitting in that dark prison, doubts overtook him. "Are you the One, or should we look for Him elsewhere?" he sent his followers to ask Jesus. Jesus doesn't answer directly, but gives a litany of His already performed signs and wonders. "Don't stumble on account of me," He tells John. John's disciples aren't thrilled by these words, though John understands them. "He must increase and I must decrease," he tells his followers. John, who eventually dies at the desire of a capricious woman, gets who Jesus is.
This sentence, "He must increase and I must decrease," really took on meaning to me when I first began hanging around with the Beve. He had it inscribed on the front of his Bible. It is the story of our lives, after all. The whole of Christian discipleship is contained in those words. To grow up in Christ, He must become greater--in our lives--and we must become lesser. Our very lives should be like John's as he walked this earth. In every action, every conversation, we should be like a voice calling in the wilderness--"Prepare you the way of the Lord." Look for Him, we should be saying by our lives, by our witness. Discover Him here. Don't look at me, but look at Him whose Holy sandals I'm not worthy to carry. Maturing in Christ means we're always aware of our relative importance in the Face of Him who saved us. We are not the author of our own lives, we are only His servant. Prepare the way of the Lord, in and through us. Amen.