Sunday, June 24th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
“Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” How many of us remember these iconic words? They were, of course, the introductory words of the Tonight Show. Every show began with the inimitable Ed McMahon introducing Johnny Carson this way. The depth and enthusiasm of Ed’s booming voice along with the music of Doc Severinson’s Tonight Show Band would get the audience pumped up and excited for that diminutive and dry comedian to appear from behind the curtain and begin his opening monologue. Johnny might banter back and forth a bit with Ed, and Ed might even appear on the couch for a while, next to Johnny’s desk, but as the evening progressed Ed would move farther down the couch as Johnny took centre stage and his guests arrived. Occasionally, we were reminded of Ed’s presence through his hearty laugh, his affirmations, “Yes sir, you are correct sir!”, but Ed was now usually outside the frame of the camera. The man who opened the show with such fanfare quickly disappeared from view, his primary role being to introduce the star of the program.
Back in 1992 when I was working on my undergraduate degree at York University, I took my first New Testament course, taught by Professor Steve Mason. At the time, I did not realize that I was studying under a man destined to become one of the great scholars our day in the field of inter-testamental studies. Mason was (and is) a great teacher. His thorough knowledge of the period and of the texts we studied was remarkable. More remarkable though, was the way he helped us come to an understanding of what we studied. Both Athena and I took courses with Mason, and it is amazing how frequently when we are discussing the biblical and other ancient texts that some of what we learned from Mason comes back to us and his words echo in our ears.
Professor Mason might be horrified that the example I now share with you is one that stuck with me. Perhaps it is irreverent, and maybe it is on some level an over-simplification, but I think the analogy rings true enough that it remains a useful one for me, and it is about the role of John the Baptist in the gospels. To this day I remember Mason telling us that if you want to understand the role of John, you have think of him as Ed McMahon, to Jesus’ Carson.
I think it rings true in each of the gospel stories. In Mark the gospel begins abruptly with John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, yet it is made abundantly clear from the quotation from Isaiah, that John is simply the one that prepares the way.” And immediately, Jesus appears on the scene. As Mason said, it is as if John was there saying, “Heeeeere’s Jesus!” John immediately disappears from centre stage. He shows up a few more times, like Ed on the couch, and his actions are reported by the disciples, like Ed’s laughter breaking through once in a while. Eventually we learn that John is beheaded… I think the Tonight Show analogy eventually breaks down a bit here. What is important, though, is that although the narrative begins with John, it is not ultimately about John. It is about Jesus.
The Gospel of Luke gives even more information about the birth of John the Baptist. In fact, the lengthy first chapter of St. Luke features two infancy narratives running in parallel, the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus. One would think by the opening of the text, that the story would be about both figures, but after the baptism of Jesus by John, John slides into the background and Jesus takes centre stage. It’s really all about Jesus.
In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, long after the baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist makes a surprise appearance, but this appearance is only to underscore to his own disciples that Jesus really is the one on they should be following. He says plainly, “I am not the messiah,” and in fact shares with them that Jesus “must increase, but I must decrease.” And so John slips away. It is all about Jesus.
It’s not that John the Baptist didn’t have a robust career apart from Jesus. There are other ancient sources that tell us about John the Baptist and give us some details that round out his character a bit more fully. Lengthy, and sometimes highly speculative, scholarly treatments have been written about him. Some try to link him up to the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls. If I could push the Tonight Show analogy beyond what Mason did, even Ed McMahon had his own program at one point, Star Search. Only the true TV aficionados remember it, and it really wasn’t his claim to fame. Ed McMahon shall forever be remembered as the one who introduced Carson. And so it is for John the Baptist. He is the one who first proclaimed Jesus. It really is all about Jesus.
I think it behooves us to remember this. Even for the greatest and last of the old-time prophets, it was not about him, but about the one about whom he prophesied and the one whom he proclaimed. But that’s the point of a prophet isn’t it? That’s the role of the preacher, isn’t it? I would also suggest, that is the role of the church. We are prone to turn inward; we can begin to think it is all about us, and all about the church. We can forget who and what we are called to proclaim. The church can become self-obsessed. We can worry more about our survival than about proclaiming the kingdom of God. We can worry more about our story than the story of the living God who comes to us in Christ Jesus. To be sure, we play a part in that story, but we must know our part, as John the Baptist did, “I must decrease that he might increase.” It’s about the living God who meets us in Jesus Christ.
We have a role in the story, but everything we are and shall be is shaped by our relationship with Jesus. We are created for him, we are transformed through him, we are saved by him, and we live unto him. Most importantly, though, we are called to proclaim him to each generation afresh. To know our place in the story is not to be tethered to a constraining role, but rather to be freed from the things that distract us from our mission, to prepare a way in the wilderness for our God.
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves
with apologies to Steve Mason, Ed McMahon & Johnny Carson