In traditional artistic pictures of John the Baptist and Jesus, John the Baptist is always shown pointing toward Jesus.
This traditional depiction reflects a deep theological truth about the relationship between the two men. John the Baptist’s whole message as recorded in the Gospels consists of pointing to Jesus.
It is John the Baptist who first hails Jesus as the Lamb of God who will take away the world’s sins.
It is John the Baptist who calls Israel to repentance because the kingdom of God is at hand, a Kingdom that Jesus will establish.
It is John the Baptist who says that he must decrease in favor of Jesus, who must increase.
John’s whole message is one that points away from himself and to Jesus, his and our Lord.
But all that was a long time ago. That was at the beginning of the Gospel story, and all of sudden here on only the third Sunday of Advent we are way ahead in Matthew—chapter 11. A lot has happened since those early days when John and Jesus were together in the desert.
In fact, things have gone very badly for John. He is in prison at the order of King Herod. He may know that he will die in this prison. And it’s from that prison that John the Baptist—who so confidently proclaimed Jesus the Messiah—now sends a question that suggests he is not so confident any more. “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
In the beginning John the Baptist seemed so sure. Now he sounds unsure.
And we can understand why that might be. John the Baptist prophesied the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the one who would save the world with a baptism of his own—a baptism of holy spirit and fire, as Sarah Coakley so powerfully preached to us about last week.
So where is that fire now? You can imagine that John is asking himself whether this is the way things were supposed to go. Herod is still king, John is in jail, facing execution, and maybe he could use a little reassurance.
Because John the Baptist has spent his prophetic career pointing to Jesus, and now he needs to know that it was not a waste to do so. Because doing the kind of work he does can be discouraging. There is a sense in which John the Baptist will always be second fiddle. He willingly takes a place of subordination to his Lord, and he devotes himself to pointing the way to the Lord Jesus, but in doing so he claims nothing for himself. And now that’s all he has left: nothing.
I said before that traditionally in artistic depictions of John the Baptist and Jesus John is shown pointing to Jesus. There’s something funny though about the Church of the Advent’s stained glass windows of John the Baptist and Jesus. You can see them in the baptistery. They are a little funny because John is pointing away from Jesus, which is backwards, but it also looks for all the world like Jesus is pointing at and blessing John. And that is odd.
But I have decided that today’s Gospel reading makes it a little less odd. Because in answer to John’s understandable question, Jesus for once does in fact point back to John the Baptist, and he blesses him.
In fact Jesus calls John the Baptist the greatest person who has ever been born.
So we would do well to try to figure out why.
What did the crowds find when they went out to the desert to seek John? A reed shaken by the wind? A guy in fine clothes? No, John the Baptist is anything but unstable; and he hates luxury and indulgence.
John the Baptist stuck to his message and to his conviction about who Jesus is, and even when things got tough and his confidence was shaken, Jesus reassures him that prophecy is being fulfilled. Just as Isaiah foretold, so now the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the sick are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are brought to life, the poor hear good news preached to them, and all thanks to the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ, in whom Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled.
Jesus’s message to John is straightforward and strengthening: “Don’t waver now, John, everything the prophets promised is coming true. Everything you promised, John, is coming true.”
And almost as an afterthought Jesus adds, “blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” What does this mean? I think it may mean that Jesus is encouraging John not to be offended now at this late and desperate moment.
Because it might have been pretty easy for John to be offended at Jesus. We don’t know how long the two of them worked together in the desert before Jesus asks John to baptize him, but it seems that the call to repentance comes first from John and that Jesus is at the outset just another one of John’s followers. It would have been much easier for John to keep the spotlight focused on himself rather than share it with his upstart little cousin. Yet he does the opposite: He focuses all the attention away from himself and onto Jesus because he is not offended by who Jesus so evidently is.
Because John was himself a prophet and in fact the last and greatest of the prophets. And even more than that he is the greatest person who has ever been born.
Yet even if John the Baptist is the greatest person who was ever born, still, incredibly, Jesus says that “the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John the Baptist.
That means you and I, small though we may be in the kingdom of heaven, are in a way greater than John the Baptist himself. Not that we are saintlier than he. I am sure I am not. But there is a blessing available to us as members of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus established that is simply not available to anyone outside it, no matter how great they may have been.
To be perfectly clear, John the Baptist is not outside the kingdom of heaven because he does not enjoy its benefits. I am sure he does, and the church is sure he does, and that’s why we call him a saint.
But he is outside in that like all prophets he was graced to foresee the work of God on earth and yet was not immediately a part of what he foresaw.
Two things it seems to me follow from this recognition.
First, if we are in our small ways greater even than John the Baptist, we ought at least to strive to emulate his example and be worthy of our Lord’s words of praise for John the Baptist. Like John the Baptist, everything about our lives ought to point to Jesus Christ. We ought to make less of ourselves and more of him. We ought to have the stability and firmness of conviction that John the Baptist did, and like him we ought to embrace a life of self-denial and discipline.
Second, we must be prepared to accept the reality of how we will appear in the world’s eyes when we become nothing but a pointer to Jesus Christ. As I said John the Baptist will always be second fiddle. And that can be a discouraging role, even for one as great as he.
I had a mentor back in college who used to say that there is no end to the good you can get done for the church if you are willing to not take credit for doing it. There is a truth to that. Behind the scenes of any flourishing parish there is an army of mostly unrecognized workers who keep the place running. The same is true of the Advent. Our shared life is entirely dependent upon the voluntary service of many followers of Christ who dedicate their time and trouble to pointing to their Savior in some small or great but largely unappreciated way. The sacristan, the sextons, the kitchen staff, all those who serve on Tuesday nights, Sunday school teachers, the search committee, the wardens and on and on.
And sometimes those are discouraging places to be. But while it’s true that you can get a lot done for the church without taking credit for it, the larger truth is that nothing done for the kingdom of heaven really goes unnoticed. Everything you do, no matter how small or invisible in the world’s eyes, everything you do to point to Jesus Christ by word and by deed, all of it is precious and important. Remind yourself of that when you weary of working for him.
Just as John the Baptist pointed to Christ and Christ pointed back to him, so anything you do for Jesus he will bless, even if the world does not notice. I said a moment ago that John the Baptist is in prison and that he is left with nothing. But this is not really so. No one who works for the cause of Christ has nothing. Because if we have nothing else, we always have Christ himself. And blessed is anyone who is not offended by that.