This past Sunday, I heard a couple of different themes emerging from sermons that I either read or heard, based upon the Matthew Gospel lesson in which Jesus is telling his disciples, three times over, "Don't be afraid," as he then lets them know what kind of trouble is brewing. It's biiiiggg trouble. Jesus said to them that he wasn't bringing peace, but a sword. Families are going to be divided because of him. Take up your cross and follow me. So, fear was one theme.
The other major note was that one would have to be crazy to agree to follow someone if it's going to be this much strife and difficulty. A supposedly sane person would never want to willingly go into a situation this divisive.
Today on the calendar, we celebrate the man who, in the descriptions, sounds a little off his rocker. St. John the Baptist (or "Baptizer) is living out in the wilderness. He's eating locusts and honey, wears a camel's hair tunic, and is calling out to all the people of Israel to "Repent!" "Get yourselves back on track," he's saying, "Because God's kingdom is at hand and the Messiah is coming!" Mind you, John does not see himself as the Anointed One. But he's got this inner gut feeling that tells him that one who was born six months after him is THE One. He believes that Jesus is going to be the person who delivers Israel from being under the thumb of the Romans. So, you can imagine how he might have been wondering if his instincts had deceived him when he's sitting in jail, and there hasn't been the kind of revolutionary movement that he had anticipated. He sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he really is THE One, or perhaps John needs to check his gut again. And Jesus sends word back to John, noting that the wounded are healed, the blind have sight. In other words: "Yeah, I'm the One you've been waiting for. But this is a Love revolution, and that doesn't look like the human form of overthrow."
Of the readings assigned for today, I find myself again drawn to the comment John makes to his followers who are fretting over the people leaving John to be baptized and follow Jesus. John notes that "no one can receive anything except what has come from heaven." He's not at all troubled by people turning to Jesus for leadership and concludes with, "He must increase, but I must decrease." This is a challenging thought. It runs completely countercultural to how one is supposed to be. We are supposed to want to climb to the top of the ladder in all things, be it with our bank accounts or in our jobs. There are those among us who want to control everything in their universe, be it people or situations. Somehow "being in control" will give a sense of being "on top of" whatever needs to be controlled. And if we don't maintain a firm grip on control, then nobody will and there will be chaos. Our egos love to be stroked this way. We love to feel important because importance gives us self-worth, and self-worth tells us we matter and we aren't irrelevant. I'd argue that not only is it the common human experience to want to "increase"; we'd really like to super-size that, if we could!
Which makes the whole notion of decreasing seem weak. And weak, in this case, would seem... well... wrong. It's too bad we don't get to hear what John's followers had to say to this statement. One might expect them to complain about it being the incorrect answer in the same way Peter rebukes Jesus when he describes the type of death he must endure in order for the fulfillment of God's mission to be complete. Even Jesus understood that idea of decreasing to the end of having something greater increase.
In this way, I see John the Baptist being an appropriate guide in how to perceive one's self in the face of the greater God and greater good that comes from God. I think if any one of us really desires to live and work in the path that leads to greater awareness of God's grace and mercy for all in the world, then we have to let go of the illusion that any of that work is about us. It's not. It is only about God's power working in us. The more we allow that light to shine within us, and quit attempting to direct or control or operate a dimmer switch on that light, the more wattage that light is going to put out to the world. In order for God to increase in us, we must decrease in our own ego, give up control, and let God move through us.
Happy St. John the Baptist Day!