19th January 2020

Isaiah 49.1-7 Psalm 40.1-14 1 Corinthians 1.1-9 John 1.29-42

WE ARE fortunate in our patron saint, because the Bible gives us such a full picture of him. Imagine having, say, St Bartholomew as your patron! All you would have is a name and the fact that he was one of the twelve apostles, nothing more. But with John the Baptist, it’s a very different story.

It starts when we hear Gabriel telling Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are to have a son and call him John; we hear of his birth, and Zechariah’s outpouring of praise for it. In between, we are even told about John in his mother’s womb: how the unborn baby ‘leaped for joy’ at the approach of Jesus in his mother’s womb (Luke 1). We are told about his habitat (the wilderness — Luke 1.80); his clothes (camel hair coat and leather, belt); and his diet (locusts and wild honey). We hear his message (“Repent!”) and how he baptized the crowds who flocked to him, in the Jordan. We hear his excoriating denunciation of the Pharisees and Sadducees among that crowd — ‘Vipers’ brood!’, he called them (Matthew 3.1-12). We hear, too, his blunt rebuke to Herod for divorcing his own wife and seducing Herodias, his brother’s wife. ‘It is not lawful for you to have her,’ he told him, leading to Herod throwing him into prison (Matthew 14.3,4). Poignantly (but endearingly), we learn how, in that dark dungeon, doubts began to reep in as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah, the beloved Son, as John had heard and proclaimed (Matthew 11.2, Mark 1.11, John 1.34). And finally, we hear of Herodias’ grisly revenge, having John beheaded and his head brought in on a serving dish (Matthew 14.6-11). All this, and more, the gospels tells us about John the Baptist: from birth (and before) to death, and so much in between, so that we know much more about him than about anyone else in the gospel story, except Jesus himself, and have such a clear picture of him.

Which is profoundly ironic, because it was emphatically not what John wanted, and strenuously resisted. He irritated the delegation of priests and Levites, sent to find out who or what he was claiming to be, by rejecting all their suggested identities: are you the Messiah? No; Elijah come back? No; the prophet promised by Moses (Deuteronomy 18.15)? No. ‘Then who are you?’, they demanded impatiently. ‘How would you describe yourself? We must have an answer.’ And all that John would say about himself was that he was a voice — with a simple, urgent message (John 1.19-23). He wanted to be heard, not seen.

Today’s gospel records that when John saw Jesus coming towards him, he told those with him, ‘There is the Lamb of God’. The same thing happened again the next day. John was standing with two of his disciples (Andrew was one of them), and, seeing Jesus, repeated, ‘There is the Lamb of God.’ And the two disciples left John and followed Jesus (John 1.29,35-37). Think about that. And think, too, of the time a little later when Jesus, too, had started baptizing. John was still baptizing, and some of his disciples came and told him: ‘Teacher, the man to whom you bore witness is baptizing now, and everyone is flocking to him’ (John 3.22-26).

What would our reaction be? Wouldn’t we feel hurt, resentful, on both occasions, at being deserted by our followers, feel betrayed by their lack of loyalty? Not so John — just the opposite. He is happy. His role is being fulfilled. ‘I told you,’ he says, am ‘I am not the Messiah, I am his forerunner.’ When a royal visit takes place, someone has to go ahead to prepare. No one takes any notice of him; his job is to be faceless, anonymous, so that people can see the important person coming after. John describes himself like that.

‘Or,’ he says, ‘think of me as the best man at a wedding. It’s the bridegroom who gets the bride. The best man does his job, then stands aside, happy for the groom. That is my joy, and now it is complete.’ He sums it all up in six words: ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ (John 3.27-30).

Look at the statue of our patron saint. I know some of you don’t like it, but ignore the improbable legs and look at the hands. In his left hand, John holds a lamb, symbolising the Lamb of God, as he described Jesus. ‘His right hand points towards that lamb, as John spent his life doing. That is the role of every Christian minister: to point people away from himself towards Christ, the Lamb of God. There is no room for anything remotely resembling a personality cult in authentic ministry. But isn’t that pointing the job of every Christian, too? ‘I have seen and have borne witness,’ we hear John say today’ (John 1.34). The fact that we are here says that we, too, have seen. Have we borne witness?