The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      1st September 2019
John the Baptist and Jesus: the Best Man and the Bridegroom
Ayla Lepine

Readings:

Isaiah 33.13-22

John 3.22-36



When people are collectively in a state of pain or shock, utopianism has profound appeal. It can be a dangerous rhetorical strategy. Or it can provide real hope. The utopianism of a dictator’s empty promises on the one hand. The utopianism of Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, ‘I have a dream’, on the other. For Isaiah, Jerusalem is full of fear, under pressure, living in the shadow of threat. The prophet’s voice emerges with a series of questions about who might provide relief, or even rescue. When that beautiful leader does arise, each person’s heart will ponder: how will the city be restored, who is going to help us, what will a better life be like? Isaiah responds: Jerusalem will be tranquil. There will be forgiveness and peace. The sign of a true leader in this utopian poetic passage of longing, is not vengeance or violence, but peace. One of the most vivid images is of water – Jerusalem, though there aren’t any broad rivers in Judah, will be ‘a place of rivers, wide streams, where no sailing craft can go nor mighty vessels pass.’ The water is a sign of abundance, not an opportunity for attack. In this dream, Jerusalem is, as the poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, ‘The Venice of God’.


Linking water with hope and transformation is an image Christians are deeply affected by. Water is a precious symbol for us, and a sign of homecoming as sisters, brothers, and siblings held by grace within God’s love. In baptism, we invite people, whether infants or adults, into the Body of Christ to become citizens of heaven by walking in the light and faith of God. Our model for baptism, ritual washing that promises new life and offers forgiveness and freshness, comes to us from the example of John the Baptist and Jesus’ ministry. In today’s Gospel reading, John and Jesus are both baptising people and this is not a source of harmony but of tension.


John the Baptist is told hyperbolically that ‘all’ the people are going to Jesus, not to him. Isn’t John’s baptism just as good, maybe even better, than what Jesus is offering? Isn’t it John’s duty to assert his power and respond to the threat of Jesus’ rise to prominence in these first chapters of the Gospel? John provides a genuinely countercultural and even counterintuitive response. John and Jesus met before they were born, leaping in the wombs of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary as they greeted each other and Mary proclaimed the Magnificat we sing at Evensong every week. In the presence of John, Jesus and Mary - two bodies in one - proclaim the truth of God’s revelation in sending a tiny child who will bring salvation and peace. Mary’s Magnificat is a utopian vision of a world in which the weak and the poor are raised up by God and made powerful. John the Baptist heard this song of hope before he was even born.


John responds to questions about the threat of Jesus’ leadership not with plans for a new competitive edge to get more followers, grow his reputation, change his branding, hand out free smoothies, give bonuses to people who bring their friends to be baptised too…….he does none of this. John’s temptation is one we all face – when we feel jealous, or envious, or humiliated by someone else’s success, there may be a temptation to diminish or undermine the person who is the object of our envy. John does not play this game. He has no interest in ego or pride. He points to Jesus. He reminds his audience that the whole purpose of John’s life, and the life of every person, is to follow Jesus. Because Jesus is the Son of God. John’s vocation is to witness this, explain it, and guide people into this new way of living.


John speaks of the bride and the bridegroom. The bride is the Church, the bridegroom is Jesus. I went to eight weddings this summer. All different from each other, across many cities and countries, between atheists, Christians, agnostics, and Jewish people. Every one of these events celebrated the gift of love in a unique way. These events did not compete with each other – they really didn’t compete with anyone – and the purpose in each was clear: the couples’ love blessed everyone who gathered to celebrate with them. At every wedding, there was a best person – not always a best man. They coped with last-minute logistics, danced energetically, and one folded 200 origami dinosaurs. They wore a wide variety of party clothes, and read extravagant speeches (one of which was a 10-minute poem – but he’s a professional actor and poet so it was honestly better than it sounds). They celebrated the people getting married, and directed our loving attention to the couple, not themselves.


Think of John the Baptist as the best man for Jesus’ union with the Church, drawing every person into a new way of love. One person’s success can be, if our pride gets out of the way, the other person’s joy, and not their jealousy. This is a little glimpse of the Kingdom of God – there will be no competition for scarce resources or fear of failure in heaven. No wonder, then, that John the Baptist responds, as we must, that for his own life to be truly meaningful, Jesus must be central. ‘For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’ He follows Jesus rather than feeding his ego. Why? Because of love. 


At one of the weddings I attended, the friends getting married asked if I would offer a final blessing during the ceremony. Here is what I prayed for them, and for us now:


“Blessed is the creation of joy and celebration, lover and beloved, gladness and jubilation, pleasure and delight, love and solidarity, friendship and peace. Soon may we hear in the streets of the city and the paths of the fields the voice of joy, the voice of gladness, the voice of lover, the voice of beloved, the triumphant voice of lovers from the canopy and the voice of youths from their feasts of song. Blessed is the joy of lovers, one with another.”

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