John will decrease, what does that mean?

The Gospel of John chapter 3, verses 22 through 30 (or maybe through 36), the focus is again briefly on John the Baptist. The first several times I read this, it seems so taunting and mean. Like “Hey John you’re still here baptizing and preaching? Why? Jesus is here now, so go away.” Now I am reading it as a much more natural thing, a formal passing of the reigns of the story from John to Jesus. It repeats that John is not Messiah, it recaps that Jesus comes first both in time and in rank, it even goes back into “legal” language of testimony.

The shining thing here, to me, is that John the Baptist is not the least bit put out or sad or upset in any way that Jesus is taking the stage – getting more disciples, more followers, more attention. He describes himself as the “best man” at a wedding, and one who rejoices for the bride and groom, whose joy is fulfilled in their happiness. He brought Jesus, the bridegroom to the people of Israel, the bride – and this is ancient and powerful symbolic language even though it is unfamiliar and awkward to us. Or anyway unfamiliar and awkward to me. (Would we describe our country as a bride? If so what sort of bridegroom is she waiting for? See this imagery is strange, isn’t it? It’s okay you can disagree in the comments. I might just be having a failure of imagination. But it is very common imagery in scripture so it must have been ordinary to use it back in the day.)

I can picture this scene in my mind: John’s standing straight and tall, and grinning with delight, brimming with joy. Perhaps he has a hand on the back of one of his disciples, to calm him down the way you would an angry horse. Perhaps he points with his other hand, waves it in the direction of Jesus. “He’s going to grow and increase; I’m going to decrease. This is the will of God.” And more than the will of God, and more than the natural order of things. This fact makes John happy. This is good news of great joy for all the people: the Messiah is here. Go follow him already!

But….

Of course I’ve already written about John’s despair as he is trapped in prison in Matthew 11 and 14: look at how happy he is at the beginning about Jesus and then see and taste and feel his despair in Matthew 11 and 14. He had to send his disciples to ask if Jesus was really the messiah. He loses his confidence, his joy, his faith in what he earlier testified to: The spirit of God like a dove was on Jesus and Godself spoke. And a few years later…he isn’t so sure anymore.

Faith for us people, it comes and goes in waves and swirls and eddys and floods and trickles, yes? Even for John the Baptist.

None of us know the ending of our stories, we can hope we’ll die at home surrounded by loved ones and music and peace like a river.

But…

Dear God, let me like John be so pleased when other people come into their own, even if it seems to crowd the stage or push me off to the shadows. Let me rejoice. Let me beam with delight at their work and strength and beauty.

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