The road to Graceland goes through Tupelo, Mississippi.
The road to Bethlehem goes through John the Baptizer.
It must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose to be an ascetic. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?
Mark’s gospel tells readers that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Imagine the unique qualities of those relationships. What did you know or not know of your brother’s humanity or his divinity? These questions fascinated the early church. The infancy gospels, noncanonical works telling stories of Jesus’ childhood and family, tried to fill in the gaps surrounding Jesus’ missing childhood years. They are weird and read more like science fiction than the accepted miracle stories of Jesus walking on water or feeding multitudes.
What’s notable about Mark’s account (3:31-35) is that his mother, brothers, sisters, and broader family are worried about Jesus. They know he’s coming off as crazy. Some of those in Nazareth didn’t take kindly to the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter making grand theological arguments. To claim to be able to heal and even hint at a messianic identity put his life (and their family’s) in danger. Besides, wasn’t his cousin John the real religious one in the family? Didn’t he leave home, live alone in the wilderness, and pursue God with a small group of devoted followers? John was the guy, the prophet in the family, right? Jesus worked in the shop and made speeches in the synagogue. John, the man they hadn’t seen in years, the distant cousin, the black sheep, he’s the one with real religious potential.
Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable. The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.
John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric yet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer (think Jimmie Rogers or the Carter Family) from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash (whom only a few die-hard fans remember), he lived hard, died harder, and wrote songs that people would sing forever. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.