My Cousin's Coming, by Pastor Fred Kinsey
One of the memorable pictures in our extended family, is my brother and I with my cousin Mark, from about 1965. My brother and I were about 9 and 10 years old, which would make my cousin Mark about 12 years old. It was summer in Des Moines, Iowa, and we had just returned from shopping with our moms. They had found, on sale, what they considered to be, adorable blazing-white suit jackets. And the three of us were made to pose, shoulder to shoulder, in front of our grandparents red brick house. My cousin Mark who is now about 6’ 5”, even then towered head and shoulders above me and my brother. My brother Dave and I were exactly the same height growing up, though I’m a year older. I don’t know why, but I still feel embarrassed just looking at that picture. Maybe because, ‘us cousins,’ in our pre-teen innocence, look so clearly set-up, for “cuteness!”
On Monday night, when Kim wasn’t home yet, and the Green Bay Packers were on Monday night football, I caught a bit of the game. And one of the stories was about the Packers defensive leader, Clay Matthews, playing against his cousin on the Atlanta Falcons. Clay’s cousin, Jake Matthews, is an offensive lineman, so the potential for them to face each other on the field had the announcers all a-twitter! But in the game, it only happened, maybe 3 times, I’d guess. And over all it looked pretty much like a stand-off. Though once Clay did get around his rookie cousin Jake when their quarterback held the ball, way too long, and got an assist in sacking their QB. But mostly they looked like they were trying not to embarrass each other!
In the Gospel of John, the story begins with John the Baptist being sent by God as one who could testify to the light, the coming Messiah, someone like Elijah, or another prophet. But never once in our reading today does John mention the expected Savior by name, or that, it’s his cousin! According to Luke’s gospel, anyway, John and Jesus are cousins, sons of Mary and Elizabeth, who are kinswomen in the Galilean hill country.
John was only three months older than Jesus, but in stature, he was already, head and shoulder’s taller, than the coming Messiah. It seems that, John the Baptist already had a thriving ministry of baptism before the anointed Savior would become so much more popular, and eclipse his older cousin. And so we have, in this first chapter of John, the rather comical “I am not’s,” of John the Baptist, to the questions that come from Jerusalem’s intelligentsia!
In John’s gospel, we know that Jesus identifies himself in the formula from Exodus that God uses in the very beginning, to identify God’s Name: I am, or, I am who I am; I will be who I will be. Jesus says, I am the light of the world, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Gate, and so on. But here, when the authorities are questioning John whether he might be the expected Messiah, the coming Christ, John says: “I am not the Messiah; I am not Elijah; and No, I am not the Prophet!”
The important party sent from the Temple thinks he, dost protest too much! But they’re willing to give him another chance: Well then, who the heck are you, they ask?
John came as a witness, he says, to testify to the light. That’s who John is!
As a college student in Germany, I remember getting to see the very famous Altarpiece painted by Grunewald in the Alsatian town of Colmar. It portrays – especially for its time – a very gruesome but realistic portrait of Jesus on the cross, exactly 500 years ago, in the early 16th century. But also there, in this massive triptych, is cousin John, just to the right of the cross. John, the forerunner of the Messiah, is pointing, with an exaggeratedly long finger, up at his cousin. Of course, long before Christ’s Passion, John was already executed, beheaded by Herod, at Salome’s request. But that pointing, is forever John’s vocation for us, and is therefore, a perfectly appropriate anachronism, in this work of art.
Two chapters later in the gospel of John, the Baptist remarks that, “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease,” which also signals that cousin John’s mission is complete. There is room for only one Messiah, and Christ, the anointed one of God. John’s younger cousin, will be the one. The coming Christ is like the light, created on the 3rd day of Creation. John points to this one, the renew-er of our world.
At the time though, John was no doubt, much bigger than Jesus. He had established himself as a serious prophetic reformer, with a unique ministry of baptism in the wilderness. He was not only the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, as the prophet Isaiah had once declared, but he was a truth-teller, crying out against the immorality of Herod, the ruler of an occupied Israel. Herod had illegally married his brothers’ former wife, while still being married himself, and John pointed that out, with his long index finger, no doubt, and with his sharp tongue. So John was originally on the short list of possible Messiah’s to come, but – if you’ll pardon the expression – does not make the cut!
In God’s plan though, it all makes sense. John was mostly, old world curmudgeon, a voice of ‘fire and brimstone.’ While Jesus was that, curious blend of prophetic truth-teller and stunning revealer of God’s Amazing Grace, just what the world needed, and continues to so desperately need, even now. Both John and his younger cousin were martyr’s for their cause, but the coming Christ’s cause was not just a baptism of washing for the forgiveness of sins, but also a resurrection-renewal of the whole world, bringing a new light, and a new power, revealed in weakness, a new gift and way of non-violence that is stronger than death, and shines clearly in the blue evening sky of our lives, giving us reason to live, and to hope.
The Episcopal Priest, Fleming Rutledge and her husband, tell of a Christmas Card they received in 1968, from the Catholic Interracial Council of the Twin Cities. The outside of the card pictures a beautiful redish-orange sun on the horizon, and features the words of the Benedictus: “From on high our God will bring the rising Sun...” When you open the card, there is a different, down to earth, sepia-colored image, of a small child, lit by a striking ray of sunlight, as he sits by himself in the courtyard, of a desperately poor neighborhood. And printed there inside is the rest of the verse: “to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” The contrast between the outside and the inside, took our breath away, says Fleming, “and we still think it is the best Christmas card we ever received.”
We are pointers, like John the Baptist, to the one who is the giver of light, who comes to us to take away the shadow of death. Whatever it takes, whatever your personal style is – whether with a long index finger, or a strong and humble example of helping and joining in for justice – we are called to make straight the way of the Lord, and be ones who point to the Christ, who comes into our world, the bringer of life and light. We are not Elijah’s, but we are John the Baptist’s. We are all cousins, though we point to something greater than ourselves. We point to our younger cousin, the light and the truth. This is the joyful good news we are so privileged to share in Advent. The Messiah is coming to enlighten us with grace, that we may serve our neighbors in need. “Grant this,” we pray, “through Christ our Lord, whose coming is certain and whose day draws near!”
And let the people say, Amen.