I’ve been told that in the journey of faith, we don’t need so much to be instructed as we need to be reminded.
This morning, I’m reminded of the life and ministry and witness of John the Baptist. Last Friday, June 24, the church celebrated his birthday, employing Episco-speak to observe the feast of his nativity. It is also the anniversary of my ordination, so I always pay attention to the guy, and year after year try to let him be my teacher, my reminder. Let’s just say, I’m a slow learner.
On one occasion, Jesus referred to John the Baptist as the greatest person ever born of a woman. I don’t get the sense that Jesus threw around those kinds of compliments unadvisedly or lightly. What made John the Baptist so exceptional in Jesus’ eyes?
The history of Western Christian art depicts John the Baptist pointing beyond himself, often extending arm index finger indicating Christ on the cross. The great theologian, Karl Barth, wrote volumes in a study in his home. (I’m not sure Dr. Barth ever had an unexpressed written thought. He once said that even he had not read everything he had written.) As he wrote and wrote and wrote at his small desk, Barth had a picture of John the Baptist hanging over the workspace, a small reproduction of the Grunewald Altarpiece, reminding him that his impressive efforts only had meaning as they pointed beyond himself to Christ. Maybe we could all use such a reminder in the work we do. How does the work we do point to Christ?
We celebrate the birth of John the Baptist near the summer solstice, when days are longest. I don’t want to dampen summer fun, but the fact is the days have already started to decrease in length, until we come to the winter solstice, near Christmas, the feast of Jesus’ birth. I mention this because the liturgical calendar preaches to us. The timing of Jesus’ birthday and the timing of John’s birthday fulfill what John said when asked whether he was the one people should follow. John said of Jesus: “He must increase but I must decrease.” The days after John’s birthday decrease in length. The days after Jesus’ birthday increase in length. He pointed to Christ.
Make no mistake. John was no shrinking violet. He preached to the elite of the day, and opened sermons by addressing his congregation as a brood of vipers. Try that in stewardship season. He spoke truth to power, calling out the king for scandalous behavior. He lost his head over that one. He was strong in his sense of who he was, with all his eccentricity, all his counter cultural ways. He not only knew who he was. He knew who Jesus was, and found in Jesus the direction for his life.
I need to be taught how to do that. I need to be pointed in the right direction. I need to be reminded of that, day after day, year after year. The longer I am a priest, the more I need the reminder. Maybe you share that sense. If so, take this day to think about the life and ministry and witness of John the Baptist. Then ask: To what does my life point? What would it take to get ego out of the way, to point beyond self, with all our eccentricities, to the one who stretches out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into his saving embrace? What would that look like this Monday?
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