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 (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)