On February 23rd Dave Kitchen was our guest preacher, he led the service in his own inimitable way!
We had three stories!
Jesus and John the Baptist
Cousin of mine
: imagining John the Baptist and Jesus
We were sat by the river, watching the sun sink lower and lower in the sky. I’d just turned sixteen. There wasn’t a breath of wind.
‘Do you remember coming here when you first came back from Egypt?’
My cousin nodded: ‘You taught me how to skim stones properly.’
‘And I swore that was the last time I taught you anything. You got the hang of it immediately and were better than me in minutes.’
He laughed: ‘I’m sorry. It’s a bad habit catching on to things so quickly. You’d think it would make your life easier but it hardly ever does. The odd thing is that I’m not hugely competitive. I just like to think things through and find the best way of working them out.’
‘You were always miles cleverer than the rest of us. Remember the time you got left behind with the teachers in the Temple?’
He went red: ‘I had no idea you’d gone. I just hate causing difficulties like that, especially for my mum. She worries enough as it is.’
‘And she’s got something to worry about again, hasn’t she? So your brother told me. Is it true that dad’s unwell?’
He looked down at the ground. ‘I want to do something but I don’t think I can. I don’t think any of us can. We simply have to bear it.’
‘It sounds if he isn’t going to get better.’
‘They’re talking weeks rather than months. That’s why I’ve been allowed to spend a little time with you.’
‘Are they right?’
‘I think so.’
‘And what will you do?’
‘Well, I’ll have to be the carpenter, the builder, like dad was. I’m already doing some of it’
‘But you’re the brains of the family. It will drive you mad with boredom.’
He laughed but there was no sense of release in the laughter: ‘The routine work will give me plenty of thinking time. And it may not last forever. All of my younger brothers want to be builders so there won’t be room for all of us to make a living like that. I may be able to step back and return to the work I think our father wants from me.’
I was confused for a moment because I assumed he was still talking about his dad and then I realised that he was talking about our Father God. I thought to myself that the neighbourhood was about to get the most religious table maker and roof erector in human history.
He must have guessed what I was thinking because he said: ‘I don’t mind, you know. Dad has always taught us his trade from when we were little. I know what to do and I can do it well enough. As the oldest, I must take the lead. None of us get to do what we want all the time. We simply have to do what falls to us. God needs buildings that are firm against the storms just as much as he needs teachers to keep us firm in our faith. One kind of work isn’t better or worse than another.’
I paused for a moment: ‘You’re right. I can see that. But you’re the man who should study just as I’m the one who wants to tell everyone what needs to be put right. That’s who we are.’
‘And perhaps our time will come to make the most of such gifts as we have. But it isn’t the work I have been given for the months ahead so I will do what needs to be done with a smile and I will do what I love the most in whatever spare time I have.’
‘But’s it’s hard.’
‘Yes, but it’s harder still for your family to starve. You do what you have to do for the time you are required to do it. You do not master life except by being its servant.’
The sun was setting by now.
‘Skim one last stone?’ I asked.
He smiled: ‘Why not?’
So we did and I put my arm around his shoulder as we walked home. I kept glancing sideways at him, wondering what the world had in store for this cousin of mine who I loved so much but who I couldn’t say I really understood.
: John the Baptist by the Jordan
When it started, my mother would tell the neighbours: ‘He always wanted to make a splash. Now he’s down by the Jordan, he’s got the perfect opportunity.’
That was her way of hiding all the complicated feelings that I think I triggered in her. She knew I was different but she found that embarrassing; felt awkward about what I said but knew it needed saying.
You can understand that easily enough: boys don’t always have straightforward relationships even with their mums. And I divided opinion well beyond my family.
But people came when I set up camp by the Jordan. I had this sense that I was a forerunner who could straighten things out before the one we always dreamed of actually appeared. Sounds a bit fanciful but, even if I had been wrong, it was clear enough that we needed to start over again.
‘Wash away those sins,’ I declared. ‘Be baptised into a new kind of life.’
It struck a chord. People knew they weren’t where God hoped they would be and some truly wanted to get straight. I told soldiers to be content with their pay, tax collectors to be honest and those who had more than enough to share what they had. People did, too. Of course, others just turned up because everyone else was doing it. I could pick them out easily enough and I gave them short shrift.
‘You can’t just take a dip in the Jordan and go on doing what you like. The one who comes after me is like the difference between water and a spirit on fire. I’m not good enough even to be his servant. He will burn away all that is rotten and there will be no escape.’
I’d been doing all this for a while when my cousin, Jesus, arrived. For the first time, I was taken aback. I knew him well. He never cheated, always gave people space. Even when things weren’t going well, he accepted his lot and got on with it. I simply couldn’t believe that he needed the baptism I was offering.
So I tried to discourage him – after all, you can’t be forgiven for what you haven’t done. He was the sort of man the nation needed, not someone who needed to start anew like most of us. But he was having none of it and I did as he asked.
Then it happened. As he came out of the water, there was a brightness. I’d never seen or felt anything like it. A dove appeared and rested on his shoulder. I heard a voice saying: ‘You are my son; I love you and I am so pleased to be your father.’
The penny dropped. I’d always known how honest and straightforward my cousin was but I realised for the first time that he was so much more than that. Like everyone else, I’d been waiting so long. And, after all that time, the one we were waiting for had been right there in front of me. However much people say a change is going to come, it still feels completely astonishing when it actually does.
: John the Baptist in prison
It’s nearly over now. He’s not keeping me here in prison just to let me out again. However many times Herod comes to talk with me, he’s not going to hear what he wants to hear and eventually something will tip the scales. Then I’ll be finished.
But what can you say to a man who steals his brother’s wife for his own satisfaction? It’s not right on any level and I’ve always told it as I see it. It’s tough, though. I miss the desert; I miss the chance to make a difference. My close followers are allowed to visit from time to time but it’s the freedom to speak in the wide open spaces of our country that I long for. No chance of that.
I shouldn’t complain. My cousin never did in all those years he spent working on tables, benches, roofs and a thousand other mundane tasks. In fact, it was news of him that I most longed for when people visited me here.
How is he doing? I’d ask. And they’d bring me news of his healings, his preaching, the disagreements with the authorities and the near-riots. He was clearly dividing opinion just as I had.
But was he the one? I’d been certain when I’d baptised him in the Jordan. The light, the dove of peace, the voice! How could there be any question? But it’s different when you can no longer be there yourself. Confidence drains away and you begin to wonder if you dreamt it all or, at the very least, exaggerated it in your mind.
I told myself that I’d seen it so it must be true. Then I’d fall to thinking that he was my cousin and sometimes families get inflated ideas about who they are.
But I so wanted it to be true. One day, this idea dropped into my head. Why not ask him? I couldn’t do it personally but, if I sent two of my followers, he would give them an answer surely. And it would need to be two so they could each check on what the other had heard. The last thing I wanted was half an answer.
It seemed to take them years to go there and come back but it was only a week or two. That’s how prison affects you. Eventually, they returned.
‘Well?’ I asked.
‘Er, he didn’t really answer your question.’
‘We asked it exactly as you said – Are you the one who was going to come or should we expect someone else?’
‘Well, what did he say?’
‘That’s the odd thing. He didn’t say anything about your question but said we were to tell you what we had seen and heard.’
‘All sorts of things. The blind can see; the lame can walk; the deaf can hear. And people with awful skin diseases are made clean again. Even the dead are raised to life. We met a young man from Nain – just an astonishing story.’
They smiled hopefully at me and then looked down at the floor. One of them looked up again.
‘We’re sorry he didn’t answer your question but he did say something about there being joy when there are no doubts. We didn’t like to press him further.’
‘But you didn’t need to,’ I told them. ‘This is the perfect answer. If he’d just claimed to be the one, I’d be worrying that he’d just said it to make my imprisonment less painful. Instead you’ve witnessed what I am not free to see. The joy is that the kingdom of God is here at last for people to see. I can rest now. He is the one.’
Jesus and John the Baptist
Bible passages behind the stories of Jesus and his cousin
in this morning’s service
Matthew 2. 13 – 15 Bethlehem to Egypt
Matthew 2. 19 – 23 Egypt to Nazareth
Luke 2. 41-52 – Jesus in the Temple, aged 12,
(last mention of Joseph in the bible)
Luke 3. 1-17 – John‘s ministry by the River Jordan
Mark 1. 1-8 – John‘s ministry by the River Jordan
Matthew 3. 1 – 12 – John‘s ministry by the River Jordan
John 1. 19-28 – John’s ministry by the River Jordan
Matthew 3. 13 – 17 – John baptises Jesus in the river
Mark 1. 9-13 – John baptises Jesus in the river
Luke 3. 21-22 – John baptises Jesus in the river
John 1. 29-34 – John talks about him the day after Jesus baptism
John 3. 22-24 – John baptises in Aenon (Samaritan area)
Luke 3. 18-20 – John is imprisoned
Luke 7. 11-23 – John in prison asks for reassurance of who Jesus is
Mark 6. 12-29 – John the Baptist’s death
Matthew 14. 1 – 12 John the Baptist’s death
No you don’t need to read them all. It’s just in case you think I’ve got a fertile imagination and want to check for yourself! D.K.