Category Archives: Luke

I’m H-A-P-P-Y

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The second thing I want to say about happiness (as promised) is that to be happy is to do good to others. There is no prize for the right answer, but there is a question. Who said “There is no such thing as society?” Of course, it was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The statement was part of her thesis that life is enhanced by an individual’s personal initiative and self-motivation. Many people can live with that, and do, their philosophy more political than religious. In practice looking after number one is not the same as doing good to oneself. The doctrine of looking after number one does not quite gel with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. Two things stand out: take the Beatitudes alone and they are all about happiness and community and the two are interrelated. To be content with our lot, we are truly blest. One example, “Happy are those who are merciful to others.” The Sermon on the Mount demonstrates clearly and bluntly how much we are bound together in the bundle of life. Take one small example, the desperate need for Food Banks and the magnificent response of so many people. And the Sermon on the Mount also makes clear that to belong to Christ is to belong to a community. A community, or society, shaped by the conviction that no one is an island. So, those first Christians shared with one another as each one had need. Happy are those who are merciful to others.

There is the third thing to be noted about our quest for happiness. We must not equate the Beatitudes with the Ten Commandments: they are not the same! The Beatitudes are not a collection of moral rules of conduct or code of ethics. They do not mean you must do those things in order to deserve and win divine approval. They have nothing to do with being well-thought of. The happiness God promises comes to those who claim no merit for themselves but, knowing their own hearts, are content to rest their need on the mercy of God. A description I have borrowed: “not so much the ethics of obedience as the ethics of grace.” The picture we are given is of a gracious giver and ourselves as humble receivers. Side by side with the teaching, there are the promises. The happiness of the Beatitudes is not the product of an alliance of human will and strength. The happiness of the Beatitudes is the promise of a living relationship with the One Christ Jesus, who not only taught them but exhibited them in his own life. And the more closely we walk in His Way, the more firmly we walk in His footsteps. The closer we are drawn into His presence, the more we become like Him, the more Blessed we become.

Epilogue: “I have spoken to you,” Jesus says “that My Way may be in you and your joy be complete.”

Happiness, Happiness, The greatest gift that I possess; I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness. (Ken Dodd)

I’m H-A-P-P-Y (song)

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5 / Luke 6

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Blessed

A Methodist minister is ordained at the Church’s Annual Conference in June. It is a big day, a long day, a memorable day – although not quite as lengthy as in my day. First there is a lunch where the ordinands and their guests meet with the President of the Conference who talks to them informally and briefly, congratulating them on reaching Ordination and perhaps offering some practical advice gleaned from his/her experience in ministry. After lunch in a crowded conference auditorium they are received into what is known as ‘Full Connexion’, in my judgement of greater significance even than ordination. The President addresses them more formally about ministry. Come evening, at different venues, is the ordination by laying on of hands, the service itself always a wonderfully inspiring and humbling occasion. A Charge is given to those about to begin the work to which God has called them by an appropriate person on behalf of the whole church, a pertinent word of wise counsel and encouragement.

Three times that day an ordinand is challenged, as indeed is the entire gathering. But two things stick in my mind, neither of mind-boggling significance. At the informal session the President said, “Keep your desk tidy. It turns my stomach to see the mess in some ministers studies.” Good advice but not tremendously exciting or inspiring! At the ordination service all I remember is an extract from someone’s homily, a tit-bit of practical advice it being said, “In your ministry Saturday is the day you prepare yourself for Sunday. So, do not anything on Saturday that you ought not to be doing on Sunday.” I saw myself denied the pleasure of shouting encouragement and, now and then, (polite!) abuse at my favourite football team on a Saturday afternoon. I thought of some of the activities in which we participated at the youth club on a Saturday evening. I thought to myself – is this the code of practice to encourage and sustain in the years ahead? Am I doing the right thing? Subject to those restrictions I would certainly not be ‘a happy bunny.’

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Turn to Matthew chapter five or Luke chapter six to what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, and which may be like an ordination charge, in this instance addressed to the twelve disciples. As I was given my charge on ordination day, likewise Jesus spoke to the disciples in similar vein, as they prepared to undertake their life’s work. My charge came in three sessions and it is virtually certain the Sermon on the Mount as it is presented in the gospel is not a single actual sermon but a summary of a number of talks given by Jesus on different occasions. The Sermon on the Mount begins with The Beatitudes – eight of them; each one begins with the words Blessed or in modern translations,’You are blessed or Happy are those’ (who) . . . .

When I first appeared in my royal blue cassock, gifted to me by family at a special time in my career, a lady in the congregation enquired if it was a new uniform for ministers! I was later to learn that a group of my colleagues actually participated in a discussion as to my motive in becoming so clad for worship. Was I trying to be different, a lookalike bishop? A sensitive subject for us! The Methodist church still refuses to countenance the appointment of some form of episcopacy into our system. Well, what was I getting up to? My friends need not have feared, I had no thoughts of grandeur, I was acting on the understanding that the Sermon on the Mount/Beatitudes consist of a promise of happiness, a call to happiness, an invitation to the happy life. Why did I choose to go blue? Ministers in the Church of Scotland dressed in the royal blue and I thought it looked well and bright – colourful. I wore it as a form of protest, an attempt to get away from the more familiar funereal black; a modest attempt to change the image of the church – to demonstrate that the party we attend on a Sunday is not a wake but a ball. So, be happy and be glad, is our Lord’s invitation and call.

To be continued . . . . . .

Christmas 2014

Gerard Van Honthorst: Adoration of the shepherds Image credit: Wikimedia

Adoration of the shepherds. Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas comes but once a year. When it does it brings good cheer. Is it true?

I write one week before Christmas. Already I have heard it said more than once, Christmas has come too early, you get tired of it, not least the noisy music blasting out over the tannoy in shops and public places heralding the arrival of the new-born king. It is sad to hear it said, we will be glad when it is all over. Christmas is meant to be a time of great cheer. I have a certain sympathy with the point of view that questions the justification for anything resembling the Nativity event. For example, Christmas shopping promotions and bargain hunting aside, what Christmas are we celebrating in those weeks before with our trees and lights and parties, our scurrying around for presents for friends and family hoping we have got the right gift for everyone? How much does Jesus the babe in the manger, the Lord Jesus Christ, feature in it all?

While my mind was centred along those lines, I thought you might appreciate the message on a card that came to us from an American friend: Care deeply, think kindly, act gently. And be at peace in the world, for this is the spirit of Christmas.

On the evening before we broke up at the end of term, there was a tradition in my college for the students to visit each of our tutors to sing a couple of carols for them and to wish them a happy Christmas. The visit concluded with us singing the tutor’s favourite. Each of them, with one exception, requested a traditional carol. The one exception always chose one of the Advent hymns that are sometimes not given fair treatment in our acts of worship in the four weeks prior to the big event. The one who did not conform insisted, quite correctly, that he was right in the stance he took – Christmas began at twelve midnight on the 24th December. And he was right!

Be of good cheer …….

Be not afraid; I bring you good news; news of great joy for the whole nation. Today there has been born to you in the city of David a deliverer – the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2: 10-11)

Wishing you all Joy this Christmastide.

Prayer request

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Master, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples. Luke 11:1 (NEB)

I cannot imagine that, before this request, the disciples had never prayed and now they sought enlightenment. In this case, ignorance was not bliss – and they were sure the Master had the remedy. Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples. They were not disappointed. Part of Jesus’ response was to give us what is known as the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name …

It is more than likely that, as opportunities arose, Jesus took his disciples aside and shared with them his understanding of the Life of Faith and, within that context, the life of prayer would certainly feature.

The name Roland Walls was unknown to me until some years ago I found him on the shelves of my local library by chance. (Biography is my favourite reading.) I had forgotten all about him until I read a review of the recent publication of the book A simple life: Roland Walls and the Community of the Transfiguration. John Miller, the author, writes “Roland taught a generation how to pray and how to live both simply and joyfully.” It was not just what he said but how he lived the kind of life that convinced his students and friends that he was not just an academic but of being spiritual, a man of dedicated prayer. When I think of Roland Walls, I find it easy to transfer my thoughts to Jesus and his response to his disciples’ prayer request. Living with him every day, watching him in all sorts of situation, listening to his private talk, being admitted to sharing his dreams and hopes, they would gradually come to see things as Jesus saw them. In the fellowship of that small disciple band they would be witness to Jesus at prayer; at times listening in to some of Jesus’ intimate conversations with the Father and so learning the art of prayer. It seems to me there might be two ways of understanding what Jesus’ men were asking when they based their request on the witness/testimony of John’s followers, viz. the obvious impact of prayer determining the commitment and the shape of a dedicated life style, to treat it simply as a matter of reporting a historic fact. On the other hand might there not be more to it? Namely, the disciples were impressed by the astonishing impact and the remarkable influence of prayer. And they did not wish to miss out. Hence, teach us to pray like John did with his flock.

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air

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Lord, we welcome you into our lives, we want to point our fellow men and women to you, fill us with your Spirit, set our hearts aflame with a passion to do the works of your kingdom  – but, be gentle with us, go slowly with us, do not ask for anything too radical. You know what we mean, you understand, you came to comfort not to discomfort. What is that you say? If you are with me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow. Lord, you got a handful when you chose us. Do not let it stop you from using us – minds and hearts are open. Amen.

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God, there are valleys in life into which we may stray where there do not appear to be any promises of sunlight after rain. It is dark – we tremble with fear. Faith does not appear strong enough to hold us. How silly we are; we have been here before: come out of it, found you because you have never left us. God, light shines again – we are unscathed: relief, deliverance, gratitude. God, time marches on – all is well, we forget. How mysterious, are your thoughts to me, how vast in number they are – your goodness and love unfailingly follow me, keep us ever praising.

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Praying some sayings of Jesus – follow each saying with the response: Lord, this is your word. Make us to be like you.

Jesus said: I did not come to invite righteous people, but sinners.

Jesus said: What does one gain by winning the whole world at cost to one’s true self?

Jesus said: Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.

Jesus said: Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind, take up his cross, and come with me.

Jesus said: Father, all things are possible to you, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours.

Father help us to follow your good example in humility and obedience. Amen.

 

Kingdom come

Ghirlandaio, Domenico - Calling of the Apostles - 1481

Calling of the Apostles. Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A clever piece of fictitious writing about Jesus at the beginning of his ministry has him thinking about the recruitment of disciples. He compiles a short list of potential helpers and takes it for assessment to the “Jordan Management Consultants” in Jerusalem. The Agency’s response, based on computer analysis and interviews, is highly critical. “The men you are thinking about,” the report says, “do not demonstrate any true potential and you might be advised to look elsewhere.” There can be little argument that the men Jesus did propose for leadership roles were a motley crew!

Keep with the idea, extend it, and engage in another fictitious exercise involving the same Management Consultants. This time Jesus is exploring how best to proceed and succeed in his missionary task. A possible response from the Consultancy’s Public Relations Department might read, “Sir, we have reviewed your stated objectives and it is our considered judgement that to win public appeal your movement would be advised to have a single watchword or master-thought. A careful evaluation of your aims and purpose lead us to believe your most appropriate and effective slogan would be: “The kingdom of God.”

Although, astonishingly, it is given no mention in the historic Creeds of the Church, “the kingdom of God” was at the very heart of Jesus’ message. He is on record as saying, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God, for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43). The kingdom of God is the main theme in Jesus’ teaching: it occurs over 100 times in the gospels. Many of the parables were stories Jesus told to explain what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom features in his very first sermon. “The appointed time has come,” he said, “The kingdom of God is here.” (Mark 1:15). It is still there in his last sermon. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles (1:3) tells us that after the resurrection of Jesus, “He spoke to them about the kingdom of God.” And he asks his followers to pray for it: in the prayer Jesus gave us on which to model all our prayers, we are to ask, “May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Every time we say those words we are asking for the Rule of God to be recognised and accepted in the world. The hope of the visionary with whose writings the New Testament closes – the Revelation of John – is of a time of rejoicing in heaven because “the kingdoms of this world now belong to our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (11:15). Whatever else Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God, its fulfilment is something for which the disciples must pray.

A word of caution – a mistake is easily made if our evaluation of prayer equates it with a quick-fix God who is good at conjuring tricks. T.W. Manson, a noted theologian, had this to say, “Those who think Messiah will come and transform the world by a wave of a magic wand are mistaken.” Jesus could not be more clear; early in his ministry he launched His campaign “manifesto” (without the help of the Joint Management Consultants in Jerusalem!) He took the opportunity to do it in the Synagogue when asked to read the Scripture, a passage from the prophetic Isiah. There he made public how he saw his task (Luke 4:18-19): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

There we have it – a ministry that was to revolve round the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the suffering and to do something practical, positive and radical about their circumstances. Not surprising then, that those early Christians were known for the way they lived, just as much as for what they believed, One of the first things Jesus did following his dramatic announcement of how he saw his task was to choose his disciples. And then it would appear he gathered them together in a series of seminars where he spelt out in detail what the kingdom was about. In the gospels, we have preserved what might be called “the manifesto of the kingdom” in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is no airy-fairy waffle. Here is a programme which is more than theory, more than academic. Here is something that deals in a realistic and practical way with a new and universal order. Jim Wallis, the American preacher and evangelist has this to say, “Here Jesus speaks to the basic stuff of human existence. He concerns himself with money, possession, power, violence, anxiety, sexuality, law, and goes on to the way we treat people, as well as with faith and religion people.” N.T. Wright in his book Who is Jesus? gives an opinion that No King but God was the revolutionary slogan of Jesus’s day and Jesus was seen as the one announcing that God was at last to become King. And for Jesus the kingdom was not purely an inward, private thing, Tom Wright says, it was essentially to do with the way in which Israel’s God was to become the Lord of the cosmos. He concludes that is the big picture the Gospel paints. That is the ambition God has for the world. That is the task in which the Church must engage. No wonder we are to pray for it. And more – live and work for it!

Tears for a city

Jerusalem City from the Bible

Jerusalem, City from the Bible
By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times have I wanted to put my arms round all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me! (Matthew 23: 37)

The lament over Jerusalem is part of the story of Palm Sunday, incomplete without another verse that shows how much Jesus cared for the holy city: When he came to the city, he caught sight of it and wept over it. (LUKE 19: 41). Jerusalem was a big disappointment to Jesus. He accuses her of constant attempts to reject and even kill the messengers God sent. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to put my arms round you and you spurned me over and again!” It is not difficult to sense the pathos of it. Now it was his turn to be the target of her folly, her cruel intent. The major part of our Lord’s ministry was conducted in Galilee. Except in Nazareth, his home village, he was welcome in Galilee. The little we know of his ministry in Jerusalem tells another story. His time there is marked by a distinctively different tone and tempo. The Pharisees could be relied upon to create trouble, as part of a cunning and fierce opposition, and people were turning their backs on him. One might have expected something different in Jerusalem – the nerve centre of religious and political life. Here was built the most splendid temple to the glory of God. Here the religious elite gathered at their holy place to worship HIm. For the Judean, Jerusalem breathed a holy air. Alas, it was not to be. “O Jerusalem, how often I have longed put my arms around you – and you would not let me!” Words that tell how much Jesus loved Jerusalem, and also how deep was his disappointment.

Jesus suffered no delusions – he warned the disciples that the visit on which they had embarked would lead to suffering and death: something the disciples refused to believe, “Lord this will never happen to you!” Riding into the city on the back of a donkey challenged his opponents on their understanding of his God-given authority. This deliberate act challenged them one final time to turn around and to make their own the message which God had entrusted to Jesus, to welcome Him instead of rallying to be rid of Him. Trouble lay ahead and Jesus knew it! If the disciples had a problem (it will not happen to you) and they were his friends, what chance was there of his enemies rising to a more friendly reception? O Jerusalem, how often I have wanted to hug you and you turned away – words which tell how much Jesus loved that great city and how much it hurt to have his numerous overtures rejected, especially when much of the opposition was instigated and led by the religious, the Pharisees, who ought to have been on his side.

Some people turn on the tears as easily as they turn on the tap for water: some weep for nothing and cannot help themselves. Some weep and the onlooker may scarcely notice the quiet, gentle trickle on the cheek. I remember a friend of my parents coming to our home one evening in considerable distress with a letter received from her fiancé saying their engagement was off. Just like that – totally out of the blue! She loved him, and to say she was upset is an understatement. Although I was young at the time I have never forgotten the tears of a women jilted. As she wept the tears of unrequited love, the bed shook and her whole body trembled uncontrollably. When Jesus wept for Jerusalem it was not like turning on the tap, not a sign of emotional weakness, nor was it a whimper of self-pity. The word for weep in the story of Palm Sunday is a very strong word, one that is used for the heaving of the bosom, the sob and cry of a soul in agony – symptom of a broken heart!

When he came to the city, he caught sight of it and wept over it.

Ambassadors

James Tissot: The exhortation to the apostles. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

James Tissot: The exhortation to the Apostles
Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11: 26) but it was Jesus who called them disciples. In the gospels it is the word most commonly used for a follower of Jesus. Jesus also called them apostles. Luke in the third gospel says “Jesus called his disciples to him and chose twelve whom he named apostles” (6: 13). In the New Testament, one of the qualifications for becoming an apostle was that the person had witnessed the resurrection. In time, however, every follower of Jesus was equally recognised as an apostle and the New Testament word for apostle refers to an envoy, an ambassador.

A young boy received a lesson about the disciples of Jesus in Sunday School. When he got home he told his mother the lesson was about Jesus’ samples! He may not have got the word right but he was as close to the truth as anyone could be. An apostle, an ambassador, represents Jesus; he or she – Christ’s samples. And the world’s opinion of Jesus may be influenced by the kind of sample we are. There is one feature of the life of an ambassador we ought to note. An ambassador can be an alien in a foreign land. When an ambassador comes to Britain to represent an African country, or the USA or Russia, he or she brings with them a different tradition, a different way of life and often a different language. They may be resident in this country but the UK is not their home and they will continue to follow their native life-styles. If they eat their dinner in a restaurant without using a knife – well, what is to stop them? They are probably American and not conditioned to our cultural code which insists by way of good manners on us eating with knife and fork!

It is a bit like that for the Christian. The environment in which we operate falls short of the picture the New Testament gives of the Kingdom of God. It is a world in which we may feel out-of-place and ill at ease as we take our stand for Christian values. There is much that gives rise to anger within us because it is contrary to the biblical concept of justice, of right and wrong. Christianity is fast becoming a minority in this country and what we stand for is increasingly opposed and challenged. If we are honest and bold enough to confess it, there are times when the grass looks greener on the other side and there is the temptation to have the best of both worlds; the temptation to compromise. Sometimes in our kind of world (not all will agree) compromise may be inevitable. It is naïve and an illusion to imagine the possibility of all and everything ever being absolutely crystal clear. Possibly the only way to avoid the conflict is to escape to the seclusion of the closed monastic life. If all of us went for that, who would work for God’s kingdom on earth? It would not be enough even if the pattern of life was to be one of intensive and consistent prayer. But an apostle is more than one who is sent as an envoy; the apostle is commissioned for a special task. And however great or humble the task we are given, it is for us personally to do something special in the interests of the kingdom of God. If we are Christ’s representatives we are commissioned to save the world from wreck and ruin. To be recognised as one of those Christ people, because our life carries with it the authority of the one who calls us and sends us to represent Him in our day-to-day life, work and witness and to be counted with the apostles…..is an honour and a privilege.

Christ has many services to be done;

Some are easy, others difficult,

Some bring honour others bring reproach

Some are suitable to our natural interests,

Others are contrary to both;

In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;

In others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves,

Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ,

Who strengthens us.

Extracts from the Methodist Covenant service

A contrast

Image: Claire Bernadette S Gonzales via Wikimedia

Image: Claire Bernadette S Gonzales via Wikimedia

I give you a new commandment: love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then everyone will know that you are my disciple. John 13: 34–35

On the most recent occasion of reading it, this familiar saying of Jesus leaped out of the page like it had not done before. I have read it many, many times, and I am well aware of what it says, yet somehow I felt compelled to read it again and reflect on the significance of what Jesus says. He does not say “love your neighbour” or “you must love one another.” However he does clearly indicate to a teacher of the Law, that to love our neighbour is of paramount importance, a saying that penetrates the conscience with considerable force: “You must love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Luke 10: 26-27)

But here in John (above) he says, “You must love one another as I have loved you.” And he says it in the context of preparing the disciples for his betrayal, Peter’s denial and the Cross. He says it just before those who were scheming to get rid of him came to arrest, beat and humiliate him. Here Jesus asks for a love that is open to crucifixion. It is this which struck me with such force,

I thought immediately of how poverty-stricken is my discipleship. How grudging is my commitment. How forgetful I am that the example I am given to follow is the example of one who surrenders himself for others – without thought of the ultimate cost.

We really have it easy, don’t we?

Second fiddle

Eastern Orthodox icon John the Baptist — the A...

Eastern Orthodox icon: John the Baptist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The picture the New Testament gives of John the Baptist is very much about someone happily accepting the role of Second Fiddle. (Acts of the Apostles 13:25 REB) “I am not the one you think I am. No, after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to unfasten”. And the way John the Evangelist tells the story in the 4th Gospel suggests there were probably contemporaries who thought John the Baptist to be mistaken in the role he undertook for himself; avid supporters of the Baptist. Possibly they campaigned to secure a greater prominence in the Jesus “set-up”. And part of the purpose of John, the writer of the Gospel, it would seem, was to ensure that John the Baptist is kept in his rightful place. The Evangelist keeps rubbing it in that John the Baptist is only a witness; he is not the light that shines in the darkness, only a witness to it. (John 1: 6 & 8) The Evangelist tells us more than once that the Baptist makes no claim to be the Christ; that he saw himself simply as a prophet, a voice calling in the desert preparing the way for one still to come, whose shoes he is not worthy to tie! All the time the 4th Gospel is saying, make no mistake the role of John the Baptist is that of Second Fiddle.

From a human standpoint this may not have been easy to accept. Country and people looked forward hopefully and expectantly for Messiah to come and deliver them. And maybe as the Baptist became more aware of a special destiny for himself, and discerned within himself the feeling of being somebody special, he would have wondered if the golden crown was for him. J.B’s message was not a popular one but there were those who warmed to him, gathered to him, elevated him to a position of prominence, people for whom baptism into faith by John was paramount. Luke reports even Jesus submitted to baptism by him. Perhaps there was some greater future for him than making do with clothes made of camel’s hair. But if he held any such notion, it was not to be.

It would have been easy to resent his subordinate role, to rebel against God’s wishes for him. The great thing is – John resisted whatever temptation came his way, to claim for himself more than he was due. For want of anything better to do in a relaxed moment I watched on TV a repeat of Keeping up Appearances – the episode in which Mrs Bucket was upset and furious because she only came second in a Cookery competition. “I will not be outdone by that Mrs So & So” (the one who got 1st prize), she tells her poor long-suffering husband, Richard, and immediately sets about to redress the situation in a most ridiculous way, having Richard drive her around in a borrowed Rolls Royce! Only an entertaining sit-com, yet not entirely unreal. I’m reminded of a boyhood friend – he had a real football and was very popular in the park! But when he was not made captain of the team or allowed to play centre forward (a striker to those younger than I am) he would pick up his ball and go home: “It’s ma baw!” Not so John the Baptist: although Jesus is junior to him in age and in spite of being first on the field, he is more than ready to step aside, listen to the voice of God and respond to it – more than ready to step aside and give Jesus centre stage; even if it is second fiddle, I’m not worthy to untie his shoes.

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does this make of discipleship? Does not submission, subservience, subordination, second fiddle create a situation of Upstairs Downstairs – not just servants but slaves? Who remembers the early 50s? Harry Belafonte’s good looks and silky vocal style helped popularise calypso music. My favourite was Island in the sun. Those attributes and charisma led him to the brink of a major movie. His pleasure at making such a break turned to anger when he realised that as a black man he would be expected for ever to play Second Fiddle to his white co-stars. Times have changed – thank God; the doors of opportunity open to those who in my early days would have found it difficult to rise even to the heights of Second Fiddle. Much as I enjoy following the antics in Downton Abbey, it rankles with me to think that to a lesser degree the attitude of “upstairs” to “downstairs” is bred of discrimination: certainly not First Fiddle; scarcely Second Fiddle. But, hold on! Second Fiddle in an orchestra is no less important than that of the leading violinist. It is crucial for Second Fiddle to play in harmony with the leader of the orchestra, the one enhances the other. To play Second Fiddle to Jesus requires us to be in a close, personal and dependent relationship with Him, reflecting the light that He brings as it shines on us and through us. Alas, sometimes Christians are more concerned with their own image and direct the spotlight on themselves rather than on Jesus. In the words of Paul, they are the ones who think too highly of themselves. Consigned to playing Second Fiddle is not good enough for them, so they set about lobbying for status and positions of power; their ambition – the mantle of star performer. There was a time when I operated close to a form of ecclesiastical politicking – fortunately I did not have to be part of it. The ambition of discipleship is eloquently summed up by St. Paul when he says, “For me to live is Christ, so that it is not I but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Advent is upon us once again and John the Baptist is part of the scene – John the forerunner, committed and content to be Second Fiddle. And it is part of his story that Jesus pays him a tremendous tribute. “I tell you,” He says, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” And then He says, “Yet, the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)