It’s always seemed strange to me when John the Baptist shows up in our worship services before Christmas. Much better to consider his witness here–as we remember the final days of Jesus’ life on earth. John–clothed in a camel skin pelt, bits of locust husks stuck between his teeth, sucking on wild honey. John with no time for anything except announcing that the time had come–the messiah was here to cleanse and redeem the world. John yelling at the poor and the powerful alike, ‘repent of your sin and be baptized, before it is too late!’ John, the only preacher to curse his congregation for coming to faith, ‘you brood of vipers! Who warned you to escape from the wrath to come?…the one who comes after me will baptize with fire!’
But when Jesus finally comes to the river Jordan to begin his ministry, John was both convicted and confused. ‘Why are you here? I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ John was born to prepare the way of the messiah–but that didn’t mean he understood the messiah’s ways. Of John, Jesus said, ‘I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John, and yet the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.’
John was both absolutely right and absolutely wrong about Jesus and his ministry. Wrong, because he longed for the day when the unrighteous would be destroyed by God’s wrath, while Jesus longed for the day when God’s righteousness would restore the wicked.
Wrong, because John believed that the ways of the world were the ways of the Kingdom. He thought even there the (spiritually) great would be served by the (spiritually) least. And so he protested, ‘I am not worthy to untie your sandal, how can I baptize you?’ Yet Jesus came to show us that the one who serves is greater than the one who is served.
Wrong because while John was the first to recognize Jesus, he was also the first to reject him. After watching Jesus eat with sinners and Pharisees, break the Sabbath and heal Caananites and Syro-Phonecian women, John sent his disciples to check. ‘Are you really the one?’ Because, He was not the one John had been hoping for.
But however least he is in the Kingdom of Heaven, he is also the greatest prophet ever born. He was absolutely wrong about Jesus, but he was also absolutely right. Right, because when they came to him trying to spark fear and jealousy saying, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan, the one you baptized, look–now He is baptizing and everyone is leaving you to go to him.’ John only replied, ‘ A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.‘
John the Baptist teaches me how to follow Jesus more than anyone else. His story shows me that I don’t have to understand Jesus to be faithful to him. His witness gently informs me that I too am certainly both absolutely wrong and absolutely right about Jesus in ways that really matter. But more than anything, his life trains me to notice that I am the friend, not the bridegroom. I am not the messiah, I am only one of the ones sent by him. What John wanted and what God wanted were not the same, still he was utterly faithful to God’s call on his life.
I want to be a John the Baptist pastor. One who remembers that the church doesn’t belong to me, but to Jesus. I can’t save anyone. I can’t deliver abundant life. Only Jesus can do that. So He must increase, I must decrease. John knew Jesus, but he didn’t understand him. Yet he was the first disciple–and the first to lay down his life. Arrested by King Herod for proclaiming the coming of the Lord whose ways were not his ways–John lost his life in an act of violence shocking for both it’s brutality and deep pointlessness. John died a death foreshadowing Jesus’ own. He never saw the cross. He never saw the resurrection. He never saw Jesus triumph over sin and death.
But still. even without seeing–he knew.
John said, ‘the one who comes from above is above all, the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.’ John reminds us that we are from the earth–Jesus’ ways are not our ways. Jesus’ way is better than our way. We have essential and sacred work to do, but Jesus’ work is not our work. It is more important. We don’t have to understand Christ to glorify Him. And if we do glorify Him, we no longer need to be ashamed of our weaknesses. More than anyone, John’s is a life of faith–faith in God even when God’s goodness is beyond our comprehension.
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