III Advent Yr B, 14/12/2008
Jn 1:6-8, 19-28
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“John the second fiddle”
In Vienna, Austria, you will find a church in which the Hapsburgs, the former ruling family of Austria, are buried. It is said that when royal funerals finally arrive at the church for the burial rites, the mourners leading the funeral procession knock at the door to gain entrance.
“Who is it that desires admission here?” a priest asks through the locked door.
“His apostolic majesty, the emperor!” calls the guard.
“I don’t know him,” answers the priest.
A second knock follows and a similar question is asked. This time, the funeral guard announces the deceased as “the highest emperor.”
Again, “I don’t know him,” echoes throughout the vaulted burial chamber.
Finally, a third knock is heard. “Who is it?”
“A poor sinner, your brother,” comes the final answer. Then the door is opened and the royal burial completed.1
Humility. A virtue often made fun of and belittled, sometimes even despised. Yet, a quintessential virtue among God’s faithful servants. In today’s gospel, John epitomizes humility. Rather than call him John the Baptizer, I’d be more inclined to call him John the Second Fiddle. As you likely know, the second fiddle in an orchestra is not in the limelight. Yet, the role of the second fiddle is equally as important as the first fiddle. Where would an orchestra be without second fiddles? It would be a lot poorer, that’s where. The second fiddle adds beauty and texture to the sound of a composition—giving the listener a sense of the larger picture of the whole piece, highlighting the organic unity of the entire composition. So, the role of second fiddle is essential for an orchestra, even though second fiddlers are not in the limelight.
John the second fiddle epitomizes humility in that our gospel tells us: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” Then, when the Jerusalem delegation of religious leaders question John about his role and identity he tells them: “I am not the Messiah.” When asked whether he was Elijah, he states, “I am not,” even though in another gospel Jesus describes John as a second Elijah. And when asked whether he is “the prophet,”—that is, like Elijah, the prophet was considered a forerunner of the Messiah—John again answers in the negative.
There is irony here, John is a witness to Jesus the light, not the light, and he even quotes Isaiah 40:3 to describe his role and identity: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” That quotation from Isaiah sounds to me a lot like the role of an Elijah or another prophet preparing for the Messiah’s coming. Perhaps John’s humility was so deeply entrenched that at this point in his life he did not realise that he was the second Elijah preparing for the Messiah’s coming. This too seems to fit with his words in verses 26 and 27, where he answers the question as to why he is baptizing. John replies: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Now that’s humility! Considering the fact that it was the role of a servant or slave to untie their Master’s sandals, John here is telling the Jerusalem delegation of religious leaders that he’s even less than a servant or slave of “the one who is coming after me.” Again there is irony here. John the most humble of God’s servants publicly declares his humility in contrast to the Messiah, yet he is the one who heralds the coming of the Messiah—NOT the Jerusalem religious elite!
I wonder, is it precisely because John is a very humble servant of God that he is able to herald the Messiah’s coming? If he were not so humble, would he have listened to God’s call to be the Messiah’s forerunner? Who listens the best, the proud religious elite or the most humble folk on society’s margins? Is the voice of the Lord today to be listened to and heeded among the most humble of God’s servants? The humble of heart do seem to be God’s voice in the world. Think of the gospel of Matthew twenty-five a couple of weeks ago. Do you recall that Jesus, in separating the righteous from the unrighteous said that those who had provided food and drink, and clothing; those who had cared for the sick; those who had visited the prisoners were the blessed ones. Why? Because, Jesus said, in doing these things to the least of his brothers and sisters we do it to him. In other words, Jesus speaks to us, makes himself known to us through the most humble of human beings. If the humblest, most numerous folk in the world are the voice and presence of Christ—then how can we help but not hear Christ’s voice and welcome him in our midst?!
Coming back to John again, it requires a great deal of humility to be a preparer, a sign, a pointer to the Messiah. John’s second fiddle role is not always easy; there may have been times when he struggled with his ego; struggled not to become number one celebrity in the limelight. Yet, in humility he is clear that he is only a witness to the light, only a forerunner of Jesus, that’s all. What about us? How do we witness to Christ our light? The following story is rather instructive:
The day of graduation had finally come. Not only for the University college coeds but for the graduate school and the divinity school. All three graduations blended into one glorious processional of young and old who had worked hard to celebrate this day. Also longed for was to hear the graduation speaker of well-known propriety, Rev. Jesse Jackson. He was to speak on “The Unseen Guest At Graduation.”
Not only were the graduates anticipating, but the parents, faculty, administration and the media this well-known preacher turned political prophet. It was just before the processional of the graduates that the rumor was heard that Rev. Jesse Jackson would not be the speaker. There was a hush upon the crowd following the graduates’ procession as to just exactly who would be the speaker. There was much concern for all had anticipated and looked forward to this dynamic speaker. Who could fill his shoes?
Suddenly, the replacement appeared. People rose to their feet as Alan Aida appeared with his smile through the doorway of the gymnasium. People began to applaud and wave.
He took the podium and was introduced as not Rev. Jesse Jackson who could not be the speaker due to illness. He addressed the packed audience with the message that he was not Jesse Jackson, nor could he fill his shoes, nor did he intend to. Yet, he had come with a message. A powerful message erupted from his heart. His words penetrated the hearts of all gathered that day for graduation. He pointed to the “Unseen Guest at Graduation.”
Alan Aida was a voice that spoke that day as one who spoke to prepare for the coming of the Lord. He was not the light, he came to bear witness to the light.2
So it was with John, and so it is with us, John was not the light, we are not the light, John came to bear witness to Jesus the light, we too have come to bear witness to the light. Therefore remember the words spoken, the calling that you were given, that we were all given when we were baptized, when the baptismal candle was lit, we were given the following call and commission: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
We are not Christ the Light, we are however, like John, only Jesus the Messiah’s humble forerunners, signs, pointers, preparers. Our baptismal covenant, call and commission is to reflect Jesus the True Light of the world to others. So it is that in the darkness of our times; over against all indicators that would have us believe there is no Light; we as an Advent people bear witness to Jesus our True Light as we watch and wait with hope, peacefully and joyfully expecting our Saviour’s appearing, as we sing, pray, and live those familiar words: “Amen! Come Lord Jesus! Come and live in and through our hearts, minds and lives; today, tomorrow, always and forever! Amen! Come Lord Jesus! Come and save your people from the darkness of sin, death and evil. Amen.
1 Wm. J. Bausch, A World Of Stories for Preachers and Teachers (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, Eighth Printing, 2007), pp. 326-327.
2 Emphasis, Vol. 23, No. 4, November-December 1993 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 47.