The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness

John 1. 6-8, 19-28

Sermon preached on 15 December 2002 by
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

I think I am right to say that you do not object to a mildly funny story - of course so long as it bears on the theme of the day.

Well, a few years ago someone I know wanted to phone up a couple who happened to have a Swedish guest staying in their house; and I must tell you that when a Swede says 'guest', it may sound like a different English word. Unknown to my friend of course, the couple had gone out for the evening. So he got an unfamiliar voice.

'Can I speak to Mr. So-and-so?'

'He has departed', came the alarming reply.

'Oh well - is Mrs So-and-so there?'

'She also has departed.'

'And may I ask who you are?'

''I am zeer ghost.'

To be reduced to a mere spectre - even, especially, of a couple - is not a very attractive fate. But it is not far from the fate of John the Baptist, today's forerunner for Jesus, as one Gospel succeeds to another.

If you read the way he is put over in one Gospel after another, you'll find that, on the whole, his position is gradually and subtly reduced. To begin with, in the Gospel of Mark, he is no less than the prophet Elijah returned to earth, the herald of the Messiah himself. In Jesus' day, for Jews, Elijah really was a top hero - 'great', I think, is the word.

John baptizes Jesus for his coming role, and is as important as could be. But as Gospel succeeds to Gospel, his position diminishes - as if he might detract from the place of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, just heard, we reach the buffers.

'Are you this or are you that?'

'No, I am not.'

'Are you Elijah?'

'I am not.'

'Who are you then?'

'I am the voice - of one crying in the wilderness.'

'The voice.' That and no more. It is like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, gradually disappearing, till only the grin is left.

It seems that, as early Christians devoted thought to Jesus, their (and our) Lord, his radiance, his meaning, spread and spread - so as to fill whatever space there was in your picture of things. 'All for Jesus, all for Jesus', as we sang a week or two ago. And we, the rest of us, pale, shrink, by comparison. Even great ones, even John the Baptist..

Yet there is a problem. For we also know that we are, each of us, full of dignity as creatures of God, made in his image, of more value than many sparrows. It is the basis of any doctrine of human rights and vital for our faith. So how do we bring together our unimportance and our unique importance? Each of us probably is a mixture of shrinking violet and pushy so-and-so; though in some, it is true, 'mixture' hardly strikes one as quite the word! Most of us shift from one to the other, according to mood and circumstance. What gives stability in practice is the love and value which we experience, the security we feel (we hope) from those around. Little love, low value - -and we retaliate or else fade into the background. Given love and security, we can be ourselves, without aggression, without fear, content to let others be themselves; we can even forget ourselves, and be all the better selves for doing so. That's a human and a Christian ideal.

John the Baptist was like the person whose sole job is to introduce the speaker at a meeting. Two things matter: that he should say enough, and that he should not say too much. He must put us in the picture (who is this speaker, what is he to speak about?), but he must not get in the way by blathering on. He has his own value - but we have not come to listen to him.

We too, as followers of Jesus, have our true place and dignity, for we are his loved ones. But we are always his forerunners in word and deed - and that suffices.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

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