They were second cousins (...according to some traditions, so I'll go with that), six months age difference between them. Living in different towns, but only about two days walk, it's easy to imagine their families visiting often enough for them to look forward to playing together for a couple of days. They probably played stick ball, fished in the creek, hiked the hill country, and played “Antiochus vs. the Maccabees” with tree branch swords. Once a year during Passover, their families may have met to go up to Jerusalem. While a solemn and holy festival, there was quite a lot of celebration, too, and plenty of time for two young boys to have some fun with cousins and brothers. John and Jesus could very well have been buddies, good friends during their childhood, as well as cousins.
I know what it's like to have fun with cousins. I always looked forward to visits with my second cousin, Mark. Whether at my house or his, we always a had great time together. Riding our bikes, playing in the creeks, playing with our plastic army men, and whatever other imaginary games came to mind. Then, we grew up and went our separate ways. It would be nice to reconnect some day, but I don't even know where he is today, nor even what he does with his life.
Reading through John, a writer about the life of Jesus, I've been focusing on John's cousin, Jesus. We pick up practically nothing of Jesus' childhood in all of the accounts, only a few snapshots here and there, what the writers choose to weave into their message. We can surmise that John and Jesus went their separate ways, as they grew up. Jesus learned the carpenter trade from his father, which some say also may have included stone working. We know a little about John's dad, but nearly nothing about John's upbringing or aspirations. John's father was a priest who served the temple on a rotating basis probably with years of who-knows-what in between. We do know that both John and Jesus as young men felt God calling them for something very special. John was led into a life of solitariness in the wilderness, sort of a modern day Bear Grylls, a Man vs. Wild kind of guy. There he heard the voice of God more clearly, discovering what it was this Yahweh was asking him to do. It was probably there that God showed him he would fill the vital role of blazing a trail for Messiah, that some day Yahweh would reveal Messiah and when that day came, he would have accomplished his life's work.
Jesus was also led into the wilderness and “by the Spirit,” as the Jesus "biographer" Luke puts it. He was led there to fast and hear from this same Yahweh, this God whom he now knew intimately as his Father. While John survived off of the land eating locusts and wild honey in his desert experience, in his Jesus ate nothing for 40 days and experienced a hellish vision of the true enemy of humankind, clearly a test. He passed. Luke says he returned to civilization “in the power of the Spirit.” He was ready to walk out his intimacy with Father in the public square, prepared to declare him to the world. Matthew, another Jesus writer, quotes the ancient word's of Prophet Isaiah who foretells great impact on a beaten down, captive people: "The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” New Testament writers consistently describe Jesus as Light.
Two cousins, two similar beginnings, one with a six month head start. John knew that he would come back to civilization ready to confront the culture with its brokenness and challenge the people to prepare themselves for a special visitation from the One whom they had heard about all their lives, One who would be sent from God, a Savior, Messiah. His mode of challenge was to baptize people (a ritual practice not unknown to the current culture) and call them to return their lives and focus to God. John knew that his coup de grace, his swan song, his purpose and most important act would be to introduce the Son of God to the world. Near the same time, Jesus, this Son of God, returned from his wilderness encounter to take on the complete role he had been called to, to seek and to save anyone who recognized they were lost and broken. And, by the way, he's still doing that for anyone who will listen for his soft, tender and whispered voice.
In the first few chapters of biographer John's account (a different John than our subject), Jesus' cousin becomes known as John the Baptizer. Curious religious leaders come one day to ask him who he is, and he is clear that he is not Messiah, but that he fulfills the role of Prophet Isaiah's “voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'” Then one day cousin John sees cousin Jesus coming his direction after these many years toward the very waters in which John had chosen to baptize people. At that instant, the sign he was too look for appeared and it was no longer just cousin Jesus he was staring at, but the very Son of God himself, the savior of the world. “There he is! I saw the sign! He is the One! This is the Lamb of God who will take away the world's sin, it's brokenness. He is the One who will offer himself as healer of the souls of humankind.” Can you imagine John's excitement? Cousin Jesus! He's the One! MY COUSIN! The very one who I played pitch and catch with when we were boys. I can imagine John laying his head down on his rolled up tunic that night thinking, “Man! I knew it! I knew there was something different about Jesus. Looking back at our boyhood days, I always felt that somehow he was marked for greatness.” I'm sure Jesus had known the same of John.
From that moment on, John's popularity wanes. Some of his disciples become the disciples of Jesus, one of them, Andrew, becoming one of the inner circle of Jesus' friends. People begin to flock to Jesus, and understandably so. Jesus has a message that far exceeds the message of any religious leader of the day, including John. His love and compassion, his healing touch, his miraculous representation of God the Father, his evidence of “being from God,” all of these characteristics draw people like a magnet. Some of John's followers become concerned and ask him about it.
The Baptizer's response is pretty amazing to me. He calls himself Jesus' friend, just as he had been for all those growing up years, but this time he is a different kind of friend. He is the friend of the bridegroom, his best man, we might call it. The best man waits hand and foot on the bridegroom as any good best man would do. He listens for his voice, and when he hears his voice he comes running, excited to do whatever it takes to make his friend ready for his big day, the big ceremony. That's his joy. And John says, “That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” And, this is the sentence that impresses me most: “He must become greater; I must become less. One of my early mentors called this “a ministry of decreasing.”
I've got to tell you, you don't see much of this today in our version of Christianity, at least in the most public of its persona. Everything has to be bigger and increase and “the man of God” has to become more and more revered. It isn't enough to meekly fill a place for a time and humbly step aside to allow someone else to keep the ball rolling. I think Christianity could use a prescription of humility and a mentality of decreasing among its leaders.
John is quite a guy. He sees the signs, acknowledges them, declares Jesus to be the Son of God, the one they have been waiting for. Then, he steps aside, out of the limelight and points people to Jesus. His time of service in the public eye is now coming to a close. In fact, it comes to a sudden stop a few months later. But, he now does what every believing-in-Jesus leader needs to do every time they step in front of others. He points everyone to Jesus. "It isn't me, folks; it's him. He's the One. He's the light in your darkness, the source of your life. Look to him." He believes wholeheartedly who this man is and acts upon that belief in fine fashion.
Followers of Jesus could take good note of John's demeanor, especially those who claim leadership in this group. To follow Jesus is to live in his love and to point others to that love, to that Christ, that Savior. Following him isn't about gathering a group of people who want to listen to me, who will adore me, who will hang on my every word. Following him is to point people to him, to give attention to him in increasing ways, and to discourage and decrease dependence upon yourself. Christian leadership baffles me. Leaders set themselves up for a lifetime of being served and adored by their followers. A rampant disease.
Leadership described in the New Testament is service-oriented, humbly carried out by those who would rather stay out of the spotlight and point that light on God. Look carefully at what is not said nor described in the New Testament and you might discover that leadership roles were probably temporary, given for seasons and tasks. Once those tasks were completed, they probably either stepped aside and allowed maturity to take its own course or moved on to a different field of endeavor. We don't do that today in Christmasanity. Every day is a gift of adoration or monetary gain or notoriety, or all of those. People love their leaders, their pastors, their apostles, their prophets. They lavish them with aura and mysterious godlike attributions. Our leaders in Christmasanity retire with Cadillacs and gold watches, CEO-style. And, it is a rare young man who enters the realm of leadership in this religion who doesn't have stardom in mind, many quite willing to wear the gilded cloak of "servant leadership." Even those with the best of motives find it difficult to resist soaking up the adulation afforded them. I believe it was author Robert Banks who noted that churches don't need more servant leaders. Rather, there is quite a dearth of "leading servants."
John, the historically respected forerunner of the Jesus these people preach, models a different lifestyle. “He must increase; I must decrease.” God is my source, my resource. I need no other. Simple. Complete.
Jesus said it better than any. Paraphrasing...“The one who tries to be exalted will be humbled. The one who humbles himself or herself will be exalted.” Jesus also said something like, the leaders in this world's system position themselves as benefactors, great ones. In other words, they set things up so that they are called by titles and adored by the masses. Then he concluded, It will not be like that among you. The greatest will be called the least. The least will be the greatest. You see, things are quite up-side-down in the Jesus world. Callings are calls to serve, not to be served. And, it just might be a revolutionary idea that a “called” person might find their source of living in God, in a job that God provides, not in a cushy officer-of-the-church position surrounded by plush amenities provided by the “flock” of little people followers. It just might be more difficult to point people to Jesus when all they can see is a huge spotlight on "me." The less they see of you, the more they see of Him. The less they need you, the more they learn to need him, to go to him, to know him.
Lowly John headed for a headless death in prison while struggling with doubt, needing to be reassured and comforted by his heralded messiah cousin. Jesus -- before his un-self exalted glory -- chose to begin and end his eternal place as healer of the broken in obscurity, poverty, and ignominious death.
While pondering the lives and attitudes of these cousins, ponder the lyrics to this common Christian tune:
"To be like Jesus,
To be like Jesus,
On earth I long,
To be like him.
All through life's journey,
From earth to glory,
I only ask,
To be like him."