They were related, John and Jesus—probably cousins of some degree. John was the older of the two. His mother Elizabeth was six months along in her pregnancy when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary with the news of Mary’s own miraculous pregnancy. After hearing this news, Mary had gone to visit Elizabeth, who was a kinswoman, and she stayed with her for about three months—long enough to be with Elizabeth during John’s birth and to hold Baby John in her arms as she thought about her own impending motherhood.
Luke tells us that Elizabeth and Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, about 80 miles away. So, it’s not likely that the two little boys played together often during their growing-up years. But maybe there were family gatherings like weddings that brought the two together from time to time. And I wonder if, on that journey to Jerusalem, when Jesus stayed behind in the Temple, the two families met up, and the boys concocted a plan so that Jesus’ absence would go unnoticed.
I can see the families getting ready to leave Jerusalem, and hear Mary or Joseph asking John, “Where’s your cousin?” “Ummm, I think he was over saying goodbye to Josiah. Or maybe he was loading up David’s donkey. I think I saw him talking to my Mom.” Fortunately for John, their families were travelling in different directions, so John would have avoided the scolding he might have gotten otherwise when Jesus’ absence and John’s part in it were discovered.
Of course, this is all just speculation. We don’t know anything from Scripture about how the two boys spent their growing up years. We do know that they had some things in common though. Their births were both miraculous–with Mary becoming pregnant by the Holy Spirit and Elizabeth becoming pregnant far past the usual age for having children. The angel Gabriel himself announced the impending births of both boys to their parents and announced the work they would do in the world. Gabriel instructed Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah on what to name their sons: unusual names, not names from their family traditions, but names that spoke of the missions on which they would be sent: John, meaning “God is gracious,” and Jesus: “God saves.”
Surely, during those early years, John’s parents taught and prepared him for the role he was to play. He would have been taught to eat the diet of prophets—avoiding meat and alcohol. Surely, they told him the stories of the angel’s visit and the prophecy that he would be great in God’s sight—the one who would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord, the one who would prepare their hearts for the Lord’s coming. And, surely, they told him the story of how, when Mary approached Elizabeth, bearing her precious cargo in her womb, the unborn John leaped in recognition. Surely, they told him that he was to prepare the way for the coming of the Son of God, his own cousin Jesus.
What must it have been like for John to hear those stories? What do you suppose he thought and felt? I have a cousin who is six months older than me. We lived about 50 miles from each other during most of our growing up years. Caroline was all the things little girls weren’t supposed to be at that time—a tall, muscular, athletic girl who didn’t take to the lady-like traits our Grandma Williams so valued.
I, on the other hand, fit into Grandma’s preferred grand-daughter profile pretty easily. I played the piano, I showed up at Grandma’s card parties to politely greet her friends, I was anything but an athlete. Unfortunately, Caroline heard about that—a lot, and I heard a lot of disparaging comments about Caroline. Needless to say, it didn’t help us forge a close bond. It wasn’t until we were adults, when we were able to talk about the stories we had been told about each other, that we were able to set aside the feelings those stories had caused and build a friendship.
So, I wonder about John. How did he feel, knowing that his job was to prepare the way for someone greater than himself, and that that person was his cousin? How did he feel, as his life was directed along the path the angel had prescribed, so that he could adequately fill his role as the opening act for the real star? Was he jealous? Resentful? Or, was he grateful for the privilege of serving his Lord in such a pivotal way—that it would fall to him to prepare the hearts of people to receive the greatest gift they could ever be given?
Scripture tells us that both boys grew and became strong. And then, when Pontius Pilate was governor, the time came for John to begin his appointed work. The word of God came to John, and he began to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins— repentance that would turn lives in a new direction, repentance that would make a way in the wilderness of sinful hearts so that the Lord could come in. He proclaimed the coming of the One who was greater than himself, who would offer a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
We read the story of Jesus coming to John at the Jordan River, and I picture John, standing knee deep in the water as he baptized the crowds who were coming out to him. He looks up and sees Jesus approaching. Did his heart leap in recognition—not visual recognition (it may have been years since they had seen each other), but the Spirit-inspired recognition that had made him leap in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary approached?
Matthew tells us that John hesitated when Jesus asked to be baptized. He knew that he was in the presence of the One whose sandals he was not worthy to stoop down and untie. But he did it, and it was in that moment that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus.
From then on, Jesus’ and John’s lives would intersect as they carried out their ministries. Jesus would be questioned about the differences between the lifestyles of his disciples and John’s. Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray as John had taught his disciples. John’s imprisonment prompted Jesus to leave Judea for Galilee. Jesus pointed to John when his own authority was questioned, and he spoke of John’s ministry as a pivotal point in the life of the Jewish people. People recognized that everything John said about Jesus was true, and many believed because of that.
But even John wasn’t immune from doubt. Even though he had been prepared from childhood to announce who Jesus was, even though he recognized Jesus as the Christ on the banks of the Jordan, even though he proclaimed Jesus to the multitudes, he had his moments of wondering if he was right. Both Matthew and Luke tell of John sending his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew says that John was in prison at the time. I think of John in his cell, thinking back over his life and ministry and, in his darkest moments, wondering if he might have gotten it wrong.
But Jesus reassured him. He sent John’s disciples back to John with a message: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” All that John had heard from childhood, experienced through the word of God, and witnessed with his own eyes testified to the truth that Jesus was indeed the Savior. That is who John saw.
As we prepare for Christmas, what do we see when we look through the eyes of John the Baptist? First of all, we see Jesus as a human being like ourselves. John would have known Jesus first as a cousin—another little boy among his extended family, with scraped knees, grass stains on his clothes, and dirt under his fingernails. We know him as God made flesh—our flesh, born as human baby, who experienced the same joys and trials of growing to adulthood that we do. We see Jesus, our brother.
But we also see him as someone special. We, like John, see him through eyes opened by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Luke, we learn that Gabriel said that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born. The Spirit who caused the unborn John to leap in recognition at the approach of Mary and the unborn Messiah also gives us that jolt of recognition when Jesus comes to us. We recognize him as the source of love, of forgiveness, and of grace: Emmanuel, God with Us.
When, through the eyes of John, we look at Jesus and how he came to us at Christmas, we are filled with gratitude and humility, that Jesus would come to ones who are so unworthy—unworthy even to stoop before him and untie his sandals. And yet he does come and, more than that, he asks us to join him in his saving work in the world—to believe in him and to share the good news we have received with others. He asks us to prepare the way for when he comes again.
When we look at Christmas through the eyes of John, we may, like him, experience times of doubt. We live in such a troubled world. Natural disasters follow one after another. Our elected representatives seem hell-bent on fostering self-interest and division and even hatred for their chosen targets. Violence abounds and no meaningful action is taken to stop it. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, here and abroad. Our own families are touched by physical and mental illness, addiction, unemployment and poverty, and all the ills that accompany them. And so, in the darkest hours of the night, we might ask John’s plaintive question of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
But, Jesus looks back at us with eyes filled with love and grace, and he gives us the same answer he gave to John: that he is the one we are looking for. He is the One who gives us the strength to keep going when we feel crippled by difficult times. He’s the one who helps us see how God is present in our lives and hear God’s word to us. When we are feeling left out and alone, he’s the one who befriends us. He’s the one whose love can free us from the prisons we inhabit and the chains that bind us. He’s the one who washes our soiled hearts clean from the shame and guilt we harbor there. He is the one who brings the Kingdom of God near, incomplete as it still is.
John beheld Jesus through the eyes of a very personal connection, and he saw both cousin and Messiah. When we behold Jesus through John’s eyes, we too see with a personal connection. We see brother and Savior. We see human being and God. We see the one whose sending we celebrate at Christmas—the one who was sent to baptize us with the Holy Spirit so that we might live eternally as God’s beloved children, now and in the world to come. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young