Did you know that the average number of friends everybody on Facebook has is 338? Many will have far more but how many of them would be friends they would go to in crisis? How many would they help and support in the real world rather than the virtual one? The average person will have around 600 friends or acquaintances during their lifetime but only around 9 of those could be described as close. There is a whole load of difference between being aware of someone and actually knowing them as a person. Those of us who are good at quizzes will be able to say who was prime minister in such a year or who scored the decisive goal for Liverpool in a particular cup match, but such people are no more than names to us, celebrities. Unless we have done some serious reading, we will know little of their background and characters. Unless we have had a conversation with them, there will be little kindred spirit even though we may be their greatest fan.
Last week, the Daily Mirror made the astonishing claim that members of the royal family are better known to many people than their own extended family. While this was an attempt to justify their publishing of extracts of a letter Meghan Markle wrote to her estranged father before her wedding to Prince Harry on the basis of public interest, it is a rather sad indication of how detached some people are even from their own family.
Today’s gospel reading focuses on the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. John is the forerunner of Jesus, the trailer if you like to the main movie. John emerges from the Judean wilderness dressed rustically in camel hair with a leather belt eating locusts and wild honey. While not quite a vegan, he is certainly alternative. John tells people that they must repent; show remorse for their sinful lifestyle and embrace a new way of living which respects both God and other people. This is to prepare them to receive Jesus, the one whom John describes as so much greater than himself; the thong of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. (Luke 3.16)
But what was the relationship between these two divinely appointed individuals? How did they relate together? Were they friends or just acquaintances? This is interesting because the bible is somewhat ambiguous about how well they knew each other. It is relevant for us too because it helps us explore our own relationship with Jesus.
According to Luke, who alone tells us about John’s birth, John’s mother, Elizabeth and Mary, the mother of Jesus, were close relatives, possibly cousins. This would make Jesus and John part of the same extended family although that family was divided for political reasons between Jesus’ family who lived in Nazareth and John’s in the Judean hill country to the south of Jerusalem. John and Jesus may well have been aware of each other during their childhoods but living 80 miles apart, they were hardly buddies in school.
While Jesus did not begin a public ministry until he was about thirty, John clearly started much earlier. It is a matter of pure speculation, but he might have been involved with a sect within Judaism at the time called the Essenes. Their base was at a place called Qumran a few miles from John’s home close to the Dead Sea. The Essenes lived a frugal life with an emphasis on rituals involving water for cleansing. It may have been partly through their influence that John began the practice of baptism in the nearby river Jordan. John already had a well-developed ministry with people streaming out of towns and villages to hear him well before Jesus started to teach.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Jesus’ ministry begins after his baptism by John and so that must be the first time that they met in person. How did John know who Jesus was? He must have looked much the same as everyone else who came for baptism. In todays passage from John’s gospel…that’s John the evangelist of course…not to be confused with John the Baptist we have some personal words of John the Baptist: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.’ (John 1.32-34)
Here, John says that he did not know Jesus at all, that he could not have picked him out in a crowd. It was simply that he was watching for something special, an anointing from God with his Spirit on someone coming for baptism. He sees and senses that with Jesus’ baptism; the presence of the Spirit upon him like a dove. For that reason, seeing Jesus walking by he can confidently proclaim: ‘This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ (John 1. 29 & 36) John cannot make that bold assertion because he has known Jesus from birth or had worked with him and could give a character reference. No, it was God’s intervention which led John to advertise Jesus as the Lamb, the Son of God and later graciously say ‘He must increase, and I must decrease’ (John 3.30)
Following Jesus baptism, the two ministries of John and Jesus run parallel for a time with Jesus centred more in Galilee and John in Judea. John is eventually arrested at the behest of Herod Antipas after he had criticised his relationship with his brother Philip’s wife. While in prison, John sends envoys to ask if Jesus is really the one to come, the Messiah. Had he doubted? Was he now not sure whether the amazing stories which he was hearing were being done at the hands of the one he had identified at baptism? We can’t be sure, but what is clear is that John must again go on the evidence of what God was doing if he wanted to be sure about Jesus. The answer he gets back is: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news brought to them.’ (Matthew 11. 4-6)
The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus is a little puzzling but one thing is clear; John was convinced by what he saw and heard of Jesus and so affirmed him as the long expected one from God, the one for whose coming he was preparing for. As a result, two others, Andrew and Simon were also drawn to Jesus, asking him where he was staying. Jesus answers: ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.’ (John 1.39)
How well do you know Jesus? Is he just a person from history, the leading character in bible stories, an acquaintance, a distant contact who has befriended you on face book? Or, like John the Baptist, are you convinced that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Do you believe that Jesus is not just a past event but a risen Christ who still beckons as he did to Andrew and Simon saying: come and see? Do you have experiences of Jesus’ forgiveness, leading and guiding in your life that make you certain of who Jesus is such that like John, you can prepare the way for others to follow him too. Can you own the sentiment that Charles Wesley expresses in the last verse of one of his hymns?
Happy, if with my latest breath
I may but gasp his name:
Preach him to all, and cry in death:
‘Behold, behold the Lamb!’ (Jesus the name high over all
Charles Wesley 1707-1788)
Epiphany 2 19.01.2020