Dawning Light

Dawning Light

What have the following in common?
RAB Butler, Willie Whitelaw, Michael Heseltine and John Prescott?
Elvis Presley ‘Hound Dog’, Beach Boys ‘God only knows’ (not the answer to the question!), Queen ‘We are the Champions’ and George Michael ‘Faith’

The answer is that they all got to number two and failed to reach the top. RAB Butler through to John Prescott all served as Deputy Prime Ministers but never occupied number 10 as the PM. Hound Dog through to Faith all made it to number two but never hit the number one slot.

Today’s Gospel reading features one who never quite made it to the top. John the Baptist was the forerunner, the one who baptised with water not with fire and spirit, the one who was not fit to tie the sandals of another who was yet to come, John was the one who must decrease so that the other might increase.

At least that was the view of the Early Church as they recorded something of the relationship between John and Jesus and their respective status in their attempts to reform Judaism and change the world. But it wasn’t necessarily the view of their contemporaries and certainly not necessarily so the view of John’s disciples. Many would remain faithful to John even after Jesus appeared on the scene, indeed faithful beyond the death of them both.The Baptist’s movement could be found twenty years later in Ephesus as recorded in Acts 19. And as late as 60 years after John’s death Josephus would record in his Antiquities more about John as he did of Jesus. Perhaps even more significantly he would give us a somewhat different take on him; not least for example the reason why Herod had the Baptist put to death. Josephus claimed that John’s death wasn’t at the whim of a young girl but the calculated act of an experienced tyrant. John was simply too dangerous to be left around for too long, he was too popular and too eloquent for his own good. Herod had to strike early to avoid an even greater challenge should he have left John’s movement free to grow. In this Herod would precede the actions of the High Priest who saw it as his duty to rid the community of one man, Jesus, before the community suffered as a whole.

Clearly John was a bigger player than even the New Testament would credit him, so much so that a full six-decades later Josephus would acknowledge his popularity and influence. But theology, like history, is written by the winner and the Early Church had reason to play down John’s significance, their guy needed to be seen as the Messiah not John.

We will briefly consider two facets of the relationship between a greater and a lesser, between the powerful and the not so powerful, between the influential and the not so influential, between the gifted and the not so gifted and between the popular and the not so popular.

The first facet I want to draw from this relationship is that a tension may exist between wanting to be one or the other.

As a minister I quickly grew accustomed to the fact that in the eyes of my congregation I would never be as good as my predecessor, but at least I had the joy of knowing that I would be better than my successor!

Bing Crosby once said of Sinatra ‘Frank is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime, but why did he have to come in mine?’

Whoever we are, whatever we do and however we are seen by others there is always going to be that tension of being between one or the other, being somewhere between a greater and a lesser. There are times when we actually desire to be one or the other, to take on more prominence and responsibility or on the other hand to have less of a high profile than we currently experience, maybe for others to be less dependent upon us.

The common perception is that the lesser always wants to aspire to be the greater; maybe there was something of that in Bing Crosby’s tongue in cheek comment about Sinatra; after all, many a true word is spoken in jest.
But it isn’t always that way round.

How many in high profile positions would prefer a quieter life, if not at all times then at least on occasions? How many celebrities find that fame is not all that they had dreamt it might be and in order to cope with the pressure end up addicted to one thing or another? Some even crave a more reclusive life away from the paparazzi.

Both John and Jesus would never be able to escape who they were or to abandon their purpose; they were who they were and the scriptures give us the impression that they knew exactly what their respective missions would be. However they would still seek occasional escape from the pressures that purpose placed upon them. We can take heart from their withdrawal from the crowds when we too need space, silence and solitude. We can see that it is not a dereliction of duty but a necessity to prevail in the tasks to which we have been called.

So the first facet I draw from this relationship between John and Jesus is that there may be a common feature for us all wherever we are judged to be on the sliding scale of society, namely that a tension may exist between wanting to be one or the other.

Secondly I want us to consider that we need one another; not only the lesser the greater but also the greater the lesser.

Jesus came to John and his baptism kick-started the Jesus mission. Later, the fact that Jesus gave sight to the blind, healed the sick and brought the dead to life was enough for John’s disciples to reassure their leader as he awaited execution that his own mission had not been in vain, indeed he had been proven correct, Jesus was after all the one whom he had looked for and they need not expect another, the search was over. The lesser needed the greater but the greater may also have needed the lesser. For either to dismiss the other without regard would have meant that their mission may not have been as recognized.

We live in a world of increasing inequality, indeed our age is one that is rolling back decades that had taken great strides in closing the gap between the rich and poor. The gulf that had existed for centuries between the privileged and the overlooked narrowed between 1918 and 1979. Over the last 30 years or so that gap has widened again with certain political philosophies claiming that it is for the benefit of economic growth. But at what cost? There were after all good reasons for the drive towards greater equality.

Research consistently shows that in those societies with the greatest inequality crime rates soar, divorce rates rise, there is more depression and anxiety, teenage pregnancies increase and addictions abound. Conversely in those societies that are less unequal such social ills are less frequent. But on these islands we call our home there is a growing gap between the rich and poor, between the privileged and the overlooked.

We need one another. And we need to break down the walls that divide us for the benefit of us all.

Sure the poor will always be with us; but I will never be one who argues for religion to be the opiate of the people. Nor will ‘All things bright and beautiful’ be the anthem of my theology with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate because God has somehow decreed it.

The Gospel that I adhere to is the one where the rich and poor gather at the table, where the asceticism of John is just as relevant and effective as the partying antics of Jesus with no one excluded. Just as John needed Jesus and, despite the spin of later Christian writing and sermonising, Jesus needed John; the so called lesser the greater and the so called greater the lesser.

Today as we journey through another week of prayer for Christian Unity we know that the Christian denominations of this country differ in their strengths, their gifts and their influence over the various aspects of human society.
There are occasions when some wish to be what they are not, to be one or the other, hence the increasing breadth of diversity found within each denomination.

A visit to a local church affiliated to a particular denomination may result in an experience other than what was expected. Some Anglican services are more akin to Baptist worship or the Roman mass. And breadth of diversity is present in Methodist churches too; if not to such an extent it is still a fact that we can no longer attend any Methodist Church and know for sure what the format and style will be.

But the diversity of the Church today is as necessary as the asceticism of John and the partying antics of Jesus two thousand years ago. There are those Anglicans who may wish to be Catholics and those Methodists who may wish they were Anglicans, indeed there are plenty from all denominations who wish they were independent of any mainstream denomination and life, in their view would be oh so simple.

We must not overlook the fact that the followers of John and the followers of Jesus were keen to know about each other. Delegations were sent to check each other out. There may have been some rivalry but an equal impression given by the writers of the New Testament is one of enquiry; the most important feature of such being ‘is this of the Kingdom’?

If only that question had been asked by the denominations of one another over subsequent centuries.

Is this of the Kingdom?
Do the poor have good news?
Do those who were oblivious to their misdemeanour now see the error of their ways?
Are those held back by prejudice set free to become the people God intended them to be?

If the answer to these questions are yes, then give me your hand my friend. Or to conclude by fully quoting the 20th century Methodist hymn write Fred Pratt Green:

What shall our greeting be:
Sign of our unity?
May we no more defend
Barriers he died to end:
Give me your hand, my friend:
One Church, One Lord!

What is our mission here?
He makes his purpose clear:
One world, one Lord!
Spirit of truth descend,
All our confusions end:
Give me your hand, my friend:

He comes to save us now:
To serve him is to know
Life’s true reward.
May he our lives amend,
All our betrayals end:
Give me your hand, my friend:
Fred Pratt Green
Words © 1975 Hope Publishing Company