(The Birth of John the Baptist)
Tonight we remember the birth, and person, that was John the Baptist.
Luke offers us the most extensive account of the strange events surrounding the birth of this forerunner to Christ. There we read of Zechariah’s prophecy, his doubt at the angel’s promise, his inability to speak, Elizabeth’s pregnancy (despite her age), John’s birth and naming, and the prophecy that made up the first sound that came from Zechariah’s mouth for nine months. They were strange events indeed.
Perhaps even stranger, John grew to become a man of humility and perspective. He spoke words, as all good prophets do, that were not his own. He considered himself to be God’s mouthpiece.
So remarkable was his ministry that people began to ask if he was the Christ. John famously denied the flattering question and pointed to another. The would be Messiah ended his days in prison alone and executed over a king’s ill considered deal.
But as we remember John tonight we are, strangely, pointed to the words of the Apostle Paul.
It would seem that Paul and John had something in common. Indeed, as we read the words of the Apostle, we can see some significant parallels. They have both become men of humility.
Yes, these two giants of the early Christian faith knew their lowly place and role in comparison to the role and place of Christ.
Both John and Paul had people proclaiming them to be more that they actually were. John through his ministry, and Paul through his religious and academic credentials.
And they both found the courage, humility, and grace to put these credentials and human assessments aside.
Paul, I would suggest, did not regard his achievements as nothing in and of themselves. He used his knowledge and training in many ways to proclaim the Gospel. His writing demonstrates his academic ability and, to no small degree, his mastery of rhetorical argument. He has certainly not discarded these abilities.
But they are no longer his boast.
Paul boasts of nothing but Christ. For him ‘…knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ surpasses everything. In comparison those abilities and opportunities he formerly found his identity in he describes as ‘loss’ and ‘rubbish’. Paul has found a better prize and will not let it slip through his fingers.
There is something remarkable and admirable about someone who knows with clarity and vision what they want. Paul, even as he writes from behind prison bars, had become such a man. He can articulate exactly what it is that he wants: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’
It is an admirable goal – worthy of our imitation.
And what Paul discovered after the resurrection, John discovered before. John may have put it a little differently, but the sentiment is the same: ‘He must become greater, and I must become less.’
My suspicion is that neither man articulates this reality or direction simply for himself. Both Paul and John speak in exemplary terms – inviting all those who hear to embrace that which is greater.
As Paul said so well: ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’