Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.
Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’
John said: No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven; and: He must increase, but I must decrease.
Yesterday I spoke of the destructive nature of our very human sense of entitlement and self-importance. Today’s reading comes from a different gospel and a different moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry, but it carries a very similar message. Rather than leaving us to deduce that message from Jesus’ words to an anonymous leper, today John the Baptist is spelling it out in words of one syllable.
We live in a society that values and rewards hard work. We live in a society that celebrates skill and talent, and especially if it can be seen as having great financial worth. This level of societal acclamation makes us feel valued and of some worth to the community in which we live. However, it also leads us into the trap of self-congratulation. We become convinced by the dangerous philosophy of self-sufficiency. We become convinced that we can exist, and thrive, through our own wisdom and strength. Brick by brick we build a wall between ourselves and God.
In our reading John is approached by some who are concerned about his reputation and influence. They fear that John is being overshadowed by Jesus. They know that Jesus and his disciples are now offering baptism. They are afraid that John is being belittled and that his message is being diminished. However, John is not so self-possessed.
Throughout his short public ministry, John’s message was consistent. John knew that his role in the great divine narrative was to prepare the way for one greater than himself. John recognized that his role was a gift from God, he also recognized that there was no room for pride, self-congratulation or a sense of entitlement if he was to honour the task allotted to him by God himself. John also recognized and acknowledged the authenticity of Jesus’ ministry. Those who recognized Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, were blessed because no one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. There is great comfort in these words. If we remain faithful and humble as our relationship with Jesus develops, we too will be blessed.
In case we are tempted away from the true path, John also models for us the humility demanded of those who would not distance themselves from God. In worldly terms, John had been something of a success. Yes, his trademark scruffy demeanour and frugal lifestyle left something to be desired, but he had a great following. People had flocked from miles around to hear his teaching and to receive his baptism. Now he was being eclipsed by someone who seemed to be taking his message to another level, and who seemed to be able to do amazing things as well. Of course, John understood. John knew that Jesus was the Promised One of God, the one for whom he was preparing the way. Rather than arguing for recognition and status, John declared: He must increase, but I must decrease. In those words we are given the model for our own faith. As we allow ourselves to diminish we will come to know the joy and completeness of being one with God. We will shine out as bright lights in this darkened world. We will be the ones whose hands bring healing where there is so much hurt.