Zechariah, a priest of the temple, and his devout wife, Elizabeth, are childless and elderly when they are visited by the angel Gabriel and told they will be parents of a son. Their son will become a great prophet, and herald the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. How can this be? About six months later Gabriel appears to a relative of Elizabeth who is an unmarried young woman named Mary. She is told that she is going to bear the Messiah. How can this be? Elizabeth does indeed give birth to a son, John, and Mary gives birth six months later to a son, Jesus. If we work our ways backwards in the western calendar of the church, with the birth of Jesus being celebrated on December 25th, the birth of his cousin John would be celebrated six months earlier, today, the 24th of June: John, the miracle son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were old enough to be his great grandparents. Jesus, the miracle son of Mary, almost too young to be a mother, and her fiancé, Joseph, who becomes Jesus’ stepfather.
Undoubtedly there were “family of origin” issues with these two cousins, especially given the incredible challenge of living into their destinies, supposedly predicted by the angel Gabriel. I say “supposedly” because these are the kinds of stories you can read about in supermarket check-out lines. In small-town Judea in the first century, there would have been gossip, derisive humor, and disbelief about these angel stories and these two bionic boys. What would it have been like for these two cousins to grow up and grow old in each other’s shadows for about 30 years, their lives shrouded with such mystery, and expectation, and speculation about their identities and their futures. Neither of them married. It seems that neither of them was all-that-special, really, at least for boys who were supposed to become so great. What did they think about each other? How did they talk to one another? We don’t know.
All we do know is that at about age 30 – life expectancy being about 30 in first-century Palestine – John finally began living out own his destiny, preaching repentance, baptizing those who confessed their sins, preparing the way for the Messiah. And the day comes when Jesus, also about age 30, appears on the horizon, asking John to be baptized with all the other sinners, which is a crisis for John. If Jesus is the Messiah, he certainly shouldn’t be in line to be baptized along with repenting sinners. If Jesus is not the Messiah, then maybe John is not the Messianic prophet. In my mind’s eye I see John lunging after Jesus, seizing Jesus by the arm and marching him out into the sea, far enough so they could be alone, where John demands, almost in desperation, “What in the world are you doing here!?” It’s not that John is so humble. He’s having a crisis of identity – his own and Jesus’.
Jesus insists on being baptized; John obliges; a voice from heaven confirms, “This is my well-beloved son.”[i] Jesus hears it; other people hear it; John is not so sure. John does baptize Jesus, on Jesus’ insistence, and John labors on, preaching repentance and baptizing. The only thing he’s sure of is that something greater is to come. “Prepare the way for it,” John preaches. Would this happen through Jesus or not? Maybe. You may remember the early reports about Jesus’ coming to his home town to teach. People asked themselves, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” They were not impressed with Jesus. Quite to the contrary. The Gospels say that they took offence at him. Which is why Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor… except in their own country and in their own house.”[ii] This could have applied to his cousin John: same country, same house, same clan. John, at the end of his life may not have been altogether sure that Jesus actually was the Messiah. In prison and facing execution, John summons two of his own disciples and sends them to Jesus. They are to say to him that “John the Baptist” had sent them. John tells them to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me…” including his cousin, John.[iii]
I actually take enormous comfort in John’s uncertainty, maybe confusion, about Jesus’ identity and his own, which may be a word of comfort for us for two reasons. For one, Jesus had his own issues growing into his own identity as the Messiah. It took the church three centuries following Jesus’ death and resurrection to arrive at the theological formula that Jesus was truly God and truly human (what we attest in the Nicene Creed). I wonder how that was with Jesus in his own lifetime? As we hear in the Gospel record, people were asking, “What good can come out of someone from somewhere like Jesus?” I imagine Jesus was asking those questions of himself long before anyone else was. We even know of Jesus’ struggle, up to the last moment of his crucifixion, when he felt abandoned by the God whom he called “Father”: “Why, O why have you forsaken me,” Jesus cries out.[iv] I find enormous comfort in both John’s and Jesus’ struggle to know and claim their own identities and destinies with certainty. Some mornings I wake up with my own questions about my identity and my destiny. John the Baptist, pointing to the way was also struggling to find his own way. He is a good soul mate for us.
Secondly, we see in both John and Jesus the hope of heaven. Their lives here on earth ended in sorry ways: John beheaded; Jesus crucified. And so for most people: their lives do not come round right on this earth.[v] Most people come to the end of their lives incomplete, often times quite broken. When Jesus says he’s come “to make all things new,” I think he’s speaking heavenward. Life on this earth is a foretaste of what is to come, for ourselves and for others; life on earth will not end in completeness. If you know someone who died where things did not “come round right” in their own lifetime, pray for them. Pray for the kind of restoration and reconciliation that can come, and may only be able to come, in death, which is the ultimate healing. Jesus gives us enormous power to pray for what he calls the “unbinding of people” on earth and in heaven.[vi] Our identities and our destinies will take an eternity to understand fully. In the meantime we’re comforted by the example of John the Baptist and companioned by Jesus, who eventually found his way and is the way for us.
[i] Matthew 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11; 9:7.
[ii] Matthew 13:54-58.
[iii] Luke 7:18-23.
[iv] Jesus’ cry, remembered in Matthew 27:46, and echoing Psalm 22:1.
[v] An allusion to the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” composed by Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. in 1848. The hymn was first published in The Gift to be Simple: Shaker Rituals and Songs.
[vi] Matthew 16:19; 18:18-20.
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