The Life of John: Tragedy, Comedy, or?
Have you noticed the new genre between drama and comedy? It's called dramedy. From the time of the ancient Greeks there has been tragedy or comedy. Is the story of John the Baptist one or the other, or is there perhaps a third option?
His story surely is a tragedy. Luke tells us that before John, his parents "had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years." Even when God Himself through the angel Gabriel promised his father they would have a son, a stunned Zechariah said, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years."
So John was raised as an only child. His parents were too old to play ball, wrestle, build things with. His parents were the age of grandparents. How do you think John fared among other kids his age? Do you think they teased, "What's your grandma doing here?" And the tragedy went on even after boyhood. Luke tells us, "John was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance."
So what? Lots of people have been an only child; lots of people, even in our day and age, live in remote areas. Well, I doubt they live on grasshoppers and wild honey like John or were clothed in scratchy camel's hair like he was, but still maybe an austere life is not a tragic one. Read on.
John came out of the wilderness preaching a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and that probably would have been fine except he dared to call the powerful King Herod to repentance for marrying his brother's wife. It was a sordid affair. After something like 15 years of marriage to his first wife, he fell in love with his brother's wife while visiting him. She promised to marry him only if he divorced his first wife. He did; they married, and nobody said anything except the father of his first wife and John. John said, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."
Of course, that preaching is not tragic, it's heroic. The tragedy comes when Herod imprisons him for that preaching. Mark 6 tells us, "Herodias [Herod's illicit wife] had a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she could not for Herod feared John knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe." Personally, I think it would have been easier on John if Herodias had been able to kill him right away because now we've come to the most tragic incident of all in John's life.
I don't really know what Herod's prison was like, but I can't imagine a 1st century A.D. prison was a Club Fed or even as good as a state penitentiary or county jail. Words like dark, dank, cold, and creepy come to mind. And from the midst of this hell hole comes the question from John that seems to me on the level of Jesus' forlorn question from the cross. John doesn't ask, "Why have you forsaken me, but, "Are you He who is to come, or shall we look for another?" John, suffering in prison for the faith that he preached, doubts whether Jesus is the Messiah. Doubts are like a steady drip. They can do more damage then a sudden rush of water. How tragic! This man who fearlessly called the powers to be to repentance is racked by doubts!
But the tragedy deepens. Herod doesn't want to kill John. Herodias, his wife, does but can't; Herodias' daughter by her first husband can. Herod throws a birthday bash and somehow, improbably so, the girl is the one to entertain Herod and guests with dancing. They loved it and in the manner of Middle Eastern and kingly hyperbole, Herod says, "Ask me for whatever you wish and I will give it to you, even half of my kingdom." She didn't ask for half his kingdom, but on the advice of her mother asked for half of John, his head on a sliver platter. Herod was sorry, but because he didn't want to lose face with his guests, he had John beheaded right away and gave it to her silver platter and all. John is dead at about 30 because of a little girl's whim. If that's not a tragedy what is?
However, I can make a case that John's life is comedy. I think it's funny that the biblical date we can most easily verify historically is the one we celebrate today: The Nativity of John the Baptist. We can do this because we know that his father was performing his priestly duties at Jerusalem according to the time of year for his particular order. We know what time of year that is, and we know when he goes home Elizabeth gets pregnant soon afterwards. We can do the math. Scripture tells us Elizabeth is in her 6 month when Mary is by child of the Holy Spirit that puts Jesus' conception at March 25 and His birth at December 25 (Origins of the Liturgical Year, 95).
For all of you who think Christians just copied the pagan calendar which dated things by the equinoxes and solstices, you have to think they were bad at dating. The spring equinox is March 21, the Annunciation is March 25. The summer solstice is June 21; the Nativity of John the Baptist is June 24. The winter solstice is December 22; the Birth of Christ, December 25. Either the early Church was bad with dates or the Lord purposely does things so they don't line up with the movements of the Sun that the Romans worshipped and followed religiously.
It's comedic to me that our whole Church year revolves around a tragic figure. Even the secular world does, in a sense. The musical scales that we know "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La" come from an 8th century hymn of Paul the Deacon in honor of John the Baptist. The notes of the first syllables in each line make up the sequence of the first six degrees of the musical scale. The naming of each degree by the Latin syllable gives us the "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La" (Reed, 560). Isn't that a hoot? All the world's music is connected to a hymn for a tragically beheaded man.
Now we get to things that are funny in a tragic sort of way; kind of like the dramedies of today. Jesus says John the Baptist was the Elijah whom the OT predicted was coming before Him, but then adds, "And they did to him whatever they pleased." You don't know you're OT if you don't think this is funny. Do whatever they pleased to Elijah? The one who killed hundreds of false prophets, two 50 man solider units, raised the dead, and was taken to heaven in a whirlwind is putty in the hands of a vengeful woman and her little girl? If that doesn't make you laugh, nothing will.
How about this? After John is beheaded, Matthew 14 tells us that John's disciples buried him and then went and told Jesus. This means Jesus didn't even go to John the Baptist's funeral! And what's more, we're never told that Jesus continued to preach against Herod's immoral marriage. We are never told that Jesus took up the cause John was beheaded for. When Jesus is on trial before this Herod, He says not a word, not a word about Herod's perverse marriage or his murdering of John. The ways of God are so strange as to be funny, a comedy. You could laugh until you hurt.
When you think about your life, when you're tempted to label it either tragedy or comedy or both: Stop. Think of John's. There was tragedy; there was comedy, but most of all there was reality. Paul tells us explicitly, "What is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal." John's birth, life, and death, just like yours, were all in service to the eternal, the unseen, to what is realer than real. John says, "For this purpose I came baptizing with water, that the Christ might be revealed to Israel." John didn't get crowds into the desert regions by being born or growing up and living like the boy next store. His conception, birth, naming, upbringing, diet and dress all had to do with His real purpose: to reveal the Christ to Israel, to you and me too.
Luther says in a sermon on John the Baptist that the most important thing about John was his finger for with that finger he pointed at Jesus and said, "Behold, there is the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world." Whether you laugh with the sinners or cry with the saints follow where that finger points: Where are your sins? Right there on that Man, Jesus Christ. See your sins hanging around His neck, strapped to His back. Name them, accept them as yours, but see them on Jesus, and see them going away from you. Your unbelief, pride, worry, greed, lust, and more are on Jesus not on you. They can't be on you if they are on Jesus.
Everything that happened to John in life was to point to Jesus, to highlight Jesus. Remember when John's disciples were upset because once John identified Jesus as the sin-bearing Lamb more followed Him than John? What did John say? Jesus must increase; I must decrease. If we celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist and not see Jesus and His forgiveness more clearly, more dearly, more surely, then whether laughing or crying we have missed reality.
John the Baptist is the last of the Old Testament prophets, the first of the New Testament apostles, and the first martyr. Frankly, I don't know why he's never called this. That honor always goes to Stephen. Perhaps that is why the new hymnal switched the altar color from red to white. It's true; the Church only celebrates two nativities, two birth accounts: that of Jesus and that of John. We don't, like the rest of the saints, mark his death, but his birth. However, shouldn't we be looking for something in red even on this day we celebrate John's birth? We know where this baby is going: to desert, to jail, to grave. We know how he's is going to go: faithful preaching, awful doubting, sudden beheading.
But unlike the Rolling Stones we don't want to paint this black, nor do we want to make this white; we want to leave it red. For when the Church puts red on her altar it's a testimony that a saint was martyred for the faith but it's also to remind us that Jesus' blood covered their sins, empowered their life, and glorified their gory death. And what the Blood of Jesus did for John it is more than able to do for you who've been sprinkled with it in Baptism, marked by it in Absolution, and drank it in Communion. So whether you find tragedy or comedy in your life, always come back to the reality that the blood of Christ cleanses you from all sins and sanctifies everything about your life. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Nativity of John the Baptist (20120624)