The early church struggled with the memory of John the Baptist and with his obvious and important relationship with Jesus. Their struggle was not so much with the relationship between John and Jesus that was familial, they appreciated such basic relationships as both important and necessary. No, their struggle was much more serious. It was a two-pronged concern. One, how could it be that the followers of John the Baptist did not all acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and come over to his discipleship? Why did so many followers of John remain seemingly unconvinced? And secondly, and perhaps most important of all, why did Jesus who was without sin and who had no need to repent, present himself to John in the river Jordan to be baptized? The baptism of Jesus by John simply made no sense but there was no escaping the fact that it happened, there were just too many people who had witnessed the original event and it could not be ignored.
The evangelists in their gospel accounts attempted to answer both of these questions and perhaps succeeded in making some sort of answer plausible but in reality there is no answer that is entirely satisfying. As if often the case, even in the life of Jesus, there are some things that happen that just are as simple as they appear and many times have no deeper meaning. This may well be the situation: John and Jesus knew each other well. John was a man who baptized and Jesus accepted his baptism.
What is perhaps more worthwhile of our attention and our effort is the gospel story that we hear this morning from the evangelist Matthew. It is a dramatic portrayal of John the Baptist and the portrayal leaves a strong impression. After reading this description it might be fair to observe that John was probably one of those unique, perhaps even difficult people, that sometimes appear in our relationships and we do not know quite what to make of him. He is like the uncle that you only see once a year at Thanksgiving and that is enough for everyone!
John is also a man that appears to be pretty much the exact opposite of Jesus. It seems that his perception of life and of people is not a perception that Jesus might easily embrace. John calls people to repentance, Jesus calls people to forgiveness. John demands some sort of proof that you are capable of receiving baptism while Jesus forgives unconditionally and sends people on their way with a simple, “and in the future avoid this sin.” John seems to be comfortable with exclusion while Jesus is laser-focused on inclusion. John’s language seems to be harsh and vivid, violent at times with a terrifying vision of what is to come. Jesus counters that vision with a vision of the Kingdom of God that is not so much terrifying but rather inviting and hopeful. It is a difficult invitation and it demands sacrifice in order for it to be implemented, but it is nonetheless hopeful and life-giving. We might go so far as to say that Jesus and John the Baptist are the ying and the yang of the gospel story: opposite and contrary but at the same time somehow interconnected and in some manner interdependent.
For me this portrait of the Baptist is a strong portrait of a prophet of the Old Testament and the God that the prophet proclaims. I do not think that this image is accidental, I think it is exactly what the evangelist intended in his portrayal. John powerfully represents the old story, the old relationship between the People of God and their God that had been proclaimed and shared for many hundreds of years, but it was the old story, and as old stories are sometimes remembered fondly, they have fundamentally lost their ability to inspire, seduce, and call forth people to action and a new way of life.
Jesus, on the other hand, represents the new story of the relationship between the People of God and his people. It is a story based on relationship and there is a distinct difference in the relationship that is experienced. It is not the relationship of the God who is served and the people who must serve or they will face the wrath and the punishment of God, but it is rather the story of a Father and his Son, a Father and his daughter. It is a relationship that is natural, it does not need to be earned or merited. It is a relationship that is both a gift for the human person but also a gift for the Father, both are nourished and both are blessed. It is a relationship that is not built on servitude and fear but is rather built on the experience of mutual trust, a growing vulnerability, and finally a special intimacy that results.
Understood in this manner, in the way that the story is both told and experienced in the gospel by Jesus and those who followed him, it is a story that ultimately invites and I would go so far as to say seduces a response. How can such a relationship be ignored? I think we all understand why a person might want to avoid a relationship where you are unsure if you are loved or wherein you live in fear that you might somehow displease or disappoint, but who freely ignores the nurturing experience of being loved? Really, who does not want to be loved and accepted, not as they one day might be but rather as they are, at this very minute, in this present moment?
There was a time and a place for the Baptist and his story needed to be told. But the greatest story, the story that needs to be told and experienced again and again, is not the story of the Baptist but is rather the story of Jesus. Jesus the incarnate Word of God who invites us into a relationship of love with the Father. A relationship that includes and does not exclude. That generates life, hope, forgiveness, and above all, unearned and unmerited redemption and salvation.