The bible is full of family intrigues and sibling rivalries, conflicts among people that are made all the more heated because those involved are so close to one another. They value the same things, come from the same flesh, worship the same God. There was Cain and Abel, the first children born of humankind. Brother murdered brother over the question of who would be favored by God. They both wanted the same thing, only one would get it. There was Jacob and Esau, twins who fought for decades over who would be the true heir to their family legacy. They both wanted the same thing, only one would get it. There was Rachel and Leah, two sisters who burned with jealously over what the other sister had, and who between them would prove the matriarch of the family. They both wanted the same thing, only one would get it. The bible is filled with family intrigues and sibling rivalries, conflicts among people that are made all the more heated because those involved are so close to one another. They value the same things, come from the same flesh, worship the same God. And what is at stake is nothing less than their identities, who they are and what their life means in the end.
This brings us to the very beginning of the gospel of John, when this same story seems poised to repeat itself again. This time the roles in the family intrigue are held by two cousins born just a few months apart—John called the Baptizer, and Jesus who came from Nazareth. And they are so similar, so close that people would mistake them for one another. Both of them were born under strange circumstances: John was born to a mother who was advanced in age and who had never had any children. Jesus was born to a mother who was young and who—it was said—was a virgin when Jesus was born. Both John and Jesus devoted their lives to serving God. Both Jesus and John would attract huge crowds who would listen to them teach. Both Jesus and John attracted disciples from among these crowds, followers who were staunchly committed to living their lives in their service and emulating their example. People would even come to John and ask him point blank—who are you? Are you the messiah? Many people asked the same thing of Jesus—who are you? Are you the messiah?
The stage is set for a story as old as humanity to play itself out again. A conflict between Jesus and John about who will be the messiah, and who will finish second, which is to say, finish last. And we know how that story will end. Because John was not the messiah, his cousin Jesus was. The bible is full of these kinds of stories, and they don’t end well for the runner up. They are sad stories of people losing their identities, losing their families, losing their faith.
But the story of John the Baptizer and his cousin Jesus the Messiah does not end the way the stories of family intrigue do. John will not spend his life chasing after something that will forever elude him, he will not spend his life growing bitter at his cousin Jesus. John the baptizer does not succumb to jealousy, but instead finds his own way, claims the meaning of his own life, the purpose of his own days, the heart of his own work. John’s story doesn’t end the way all those others did. What is the difference? What is it about John that his story does not end like Rachel’s or Esau’s or Cain’s? What makes all the difference, what forms the core of his identity, is humility. Humility makes all the difference in the story of John the Baptist. You can hear it in the gospel reading from today:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”)
John is not the light of the world. But it is humility that empowers him to be the first person to testify to the light. John is not the truth that will set people free. But it is humility that empowers him to be the very first person set free because of the truth. John is not the messiah. But it is humility empowers him to be the very first witness to God’s plan for salvation. Humility is John the baptizer’s greatest strength. Humility is how he came to be the first and perhaps greatest servant of Jesus Christ.
From the story of John and his rather famous cousin Jesus, learn this lesson. Humility is not a kind of self-effacement, an erasure of yourself and a denial of what you are called to do. For, few in all the bible have a clearer sense of self than John the Baptizer. Neither is humility a kind of meek acceptance of whatever may happen in the world. For, few in the bible were possessed of the kind of wild and untamed power to rage against the injustice of the world as was John the Baptizer. Do not be mistaken, humility is not a milquetoast quality of weak people. Humility is strength.
In humility there is a sure and certain defense against slander or lies, because humility is to know yourself truly and to be yourself does not need anyone’s approval. In humility there is a sure defense against self-importance, because humility is knowing who you are and being proud of that, without need to wish you were someone else. Humility allows us to see that we are called to live our lives as part of God’s plan for the world, because it does not rely upon us alone. Humility allows us to call other people to this same path of seeking to contribute to God’s work of reshaping the world, welcoming those who do not think like us or look like us or pray like us to come alongside as fellow workers in God’s plan, because God’s plan is greater than what any one person could accomplish, God’s truth is greater than what any one mind could encompass. If any of us ever with the work of our lives spread abroad the message that God’s love has been made real, then we are merely following in the footsteps of John the Baptizer, we are following in the footsteps of one whose humility mean he could find himself in this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
John the Baptizer was able to find himself within a story that would change the whole world forever. He was able to find his own place within God plan because of humility, because with honesty and integrity he was able to live life as himself—no more and no less. May we all have at least a bit of the humility of John the Baptist.