According to a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire who has studied humour, the world’s funniest joke goes like this:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. His friend takes out his phone and calls 999. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he is dead.” There is a silence, followed by the sound of a gunshot in the background. Back on the phone, the man says, “OK, now what?”
Humour depends on making connections that are a bit quirky. Our minds, I suppose, work by making patterns but when the patterns are disrupted and an unexpected new link is made, laughter occurs as the new connection is made. This explains a lot about jokes – why they are really only funny the first time we hear them and also why jokes rely on stereotypes: stereotypical behaviour is easier to disrupt and force new connections.
Several years ago, there was a book and TV series called Connections, in which James Burke, looked at how trivial, incidental discoveries were, in fact, connected. For example, we have telecommunications because the Normans wore stirrups at the Battle of Hastings…a simple advance caused a revolution in the increasingly expensive science of warfare. Europe turned its attention to making more money to fund wars, which in turn led to the need for deeper mineshafts to reach silver. This caused flooding and led Galileo to investigate vacuums and air pressure. In turn, this led to the discovery of electricity and magnetism. Which finally led to the development of radio and telecommunications…all because of the simple stirrup. Big patterns are changed by tiny details.
So, what does all this have to do with today’s readings. What has John the Baptist got to do with us? In what way does his life and example connect to what we are about? At the risk of another joke here, John will always be remembered as the man who lost his head at a party, the one for whom death was brought about in the context of the very things his ministry was about – the fight against opulence and sin – yet the Gospels, it seems, cannot quite face this fate; that he was killed by the very things he spent so much time preaching against.
Sometimes it is uncomfortable to own the connections that bind us to history, and perhaps to one another. It is true to say that without WWII we wouldn’t have had the NHS. The one prepared the ground for the other, and so it is with John the Baptist: without him, his ministry, and his untimely death, there is no preparation for the Messiah. No John, no Jesus.
This is not as heretical as it may first sound. After all the Gospels make a virtue out of utilising the narrative from the book of Isaiah: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord…make way” is how it is expressed to us. Now, there are two senses to the phrase “make way” here, and both are implied. One is clearly proactive – namely make the way clear, clear the path, make rough places smooth, create the road. But the other is more humbling: “make way”, as in “get out of the way”, because he is coming. Here, we are to step aside and take all obstacles, including ourselves, out of his path. For we are not the message nor the messenger; the One who is to come is not to be obstructed.
Whichever way one reads the use of the passage from Isaiah by the Gospel writers, it is clear that for those who follow John the Baptist, the common denominator in the vocation is the ministry of preparation. For those of us who follow after him, we are the seed and not the fruit; the cause not the result; the start and not the finish; the beginning not the end. We are those who prepare the way.
So, arguably, there cannot be a more apt saint for Christians. For here the ministry of preparation is life-giving, one in which we are God’s midwives, bringing new spiritual life into the world. The progeny he has begun and will continue forever. The fruit of the Spirit was planted in Mary, but it requires an Elizabeth and a John to help it to come to full term. John’s role is to prepare the ground; to make a way in the desert. On this, Jesus can come.
Significantly, Mark, the first of the evangelists, begins the story of Jesus, not with the nativity but with John the Baptist, at a time when the prophecies of Isaiah all seem to be coming true, into which he places these words: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies. It remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We already know how John’s story will end from these words.
The connection here is one of paradox. Unless we step aside and make way – die to ourselves – we cannot bear fruit. We must yield ourselves, our power, our identity, our heritage, ourselves, so that what God longs to give birth to will grow and flourish. This is no easy lesson, but it is the only one we have to ponder on as we learn from the example of John the Baptist. For in the end, John the Baptist’s example embodies what it means to be a follower of Christ – we must follow by going before and preparing the way. The only ministry that we all have is preparing ourselves and others for Christ to come into our lives; being like a nurturing womb, a place that nourishes and feeds but ultimately has to let go making way for new life. It is, I guess, a form of mothering, and that is why we might celebrate Elizabeth today as much as we remember John. For she too has her ministry of preparation, of yielding, of letting go, of bringing life but then stepping aside, of brining into being and preparing the ground – but all the while knowing that she is not the central actor in God’s drama. Like all of us, she was part of the supporting cast.
Elijah figures prominently in Jesus’ teaching, and in early Christian writings and this is because Elijah finds the God of Abraham outside of Israel, God is encountered in the wilderness, beyond tribal boundaries and national borders. And like Elijah, John the Baptist cared enough about society to protest against inequality and the abuses of power. He loved mankind so much that he was able to summon the words that spoke out against injustice and wrongdoing. Like Elijah, John the Baptist prayed for those who persecuted him, and like other prophets both before and since, his passion and love meant he paid with his life. His ministry could not have been more costly.
Thinking of John the Baptist, then, is bitter-sweet. For we remember and celebrate a life that was cruelly cut short: “the grass withers and the flower fades” as Isaiah so beautifully puts it. But God is coming, and John’s ministry was to make way; to prepare the way for the Messiah. Unless he died, like the grain of wheat must die, then there would have been no fruit. It is John’s willingness to both make way and give way that is so remarkable – his ministry of preparation, a life of extraordinary sacrifice, in which the connection between repentance and hope is now fully realised. During the Advent season, as we prepare our lives and hearts for the coming of the Messiah, as we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our lives afresh, it is good to remember the words of John the Baptist’s short but nevertheless necessary prayer:
“Dear Lord help me for He must increase and I must decrease”