Note: These weekly blogs, based on scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, are prepared as sermons for North Baptist Church, Port Chester, N.Y. The writer is a Baptist layman, a life long journalist, and a communicator for church denominational and ecumenical organizations.
First of all, let’s dispense with the inevitable question:
Can we Baptists trace our origins back to the Great Precursor, John the Baptist?
Of course we can. But we’d be wrong.
Baptist historians who believe Baptists have been around since the time of Jesus have a vivid imagination and an astonishing ability to read unintended messages into ancient scripture.
Claims of shared ancestry with John the Baptist are entertaining canards useful for annoying our apostolic friends, that is, those who really trace their faith origins back to the Apostles. The testosteronal claim that “my faith is longer than your faith” may be self-gratifying but it accomplishes little and will likely get Baptist infiltrators thrown out of Knights of Columbus halls. For the record, most church historians trace Baptist origins to the British separatist movement or Anabaptist movement, neither of which is older than the seventeenth century.
So if John the Baptist is not the father of our Baptist faith, who was he?
One thing seems biblically clear: he is the greatest second banana in history. That is his own take on the matter, judging by how Christians quoted him a century or so after there was anyone left who had actually heard his voice:
“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” (Luke 3:16a)
That is an amazing statement for many reasons, including the likelihood that it is the most gracious second banana concession in history.
There are plenty of examples that suggests second bananas are not always content with (to expand the metaphor) their second fiddle fare, not are they enamored with those who cast the shadows in which they walk.
Vice President Thomas Jefferson smiled sardonically as his followers accused President John Adams as having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Jefferson may not have used the words, but he could have said, “I’m Thomas Jefferson and I approve this message.”
During the Second World War, British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery dismissed his superior, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, with four words: “Nice chap, no soldier.” More than once, Monty tried to take over Eisenhower’s job as allied field commander in Europe.
Vice President Harry S Truman described his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as “the coldest man I ever knew,” and “a faker.”
Vice President Richard Nixon, who owed everything to President Eisenhower, called Ike “devious,” although he added a Nixonian qualification that he meant the word in its “best sense.”
Vice President Lyndon Johnson hid his contempt for President John F. Kennedy, whom he regarded as a callow playboy who was physically not up to the job. According to his biographer Robert Caro, LBJ would put his thumb and forefinger together to demonstrate the circumference of JFK’s ankle, suggesting Kennedy was neither physically nor temperamentally fit for power.
Historically, Second Bananas had a bad habit of knocking First Bananas off their pedestals. In England, Prince Stephen usurped the throne from Queen Matilda in 1135; Henry IV from Richard II in 1399; Edward IV from Henry VI in 1461; Richard III from Edward V in 1483; Henry VII from Richard III in 1485; Mary I from the legally designated Queen Jane in 1553; and William III and Mary II from James II in 1689.
In fact, virtually every empire and geopolitical entity in the world has had its usurpers. Second Bananaship is often unbearable.
Church historians and cynical observers have wondered, in fact, if John the Baptist was content with the role. Did he, in fact, actually think of himself as a Second Banana.
The biblical and historic record suggests he was an extraordinarily gifted man with a magnetic personality who attracted thousands to his watery warren in the Jordan River and acknowledged no authority but God’s. He had innumerable disciples who followed him faithfully.
John’s father, Zechariah, foresaw a starring role for the boy:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”" (Luke 1:76-79)
Later, Luke introduces John with historical precision, marking for posterity the time and place he first appeared:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6)
If there was ever a religious or political leader qualified to think of himself as number one, it was John the Baptist. He is one of a relative handful of bible characters who appears in extra-biblical sources.
John is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and he plays a prophetic role in the Qur’an. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, Yahya ibn Zakkariya, Sufi Muslims hold John in high regard because of the Qur’an’s account of his astute wisdom, unfailing kindness, and sexual purity.
John’s significance as a prophet and first century evangelist has led some scholars to theorize his Second-Banana-to-Jesus status was an after thought made up by uneasy Christians seeking a credible cover story. The fact that Jesus was among several thousand who came to John for baptism suggests to some – including scholars who work so hard to destroy the faith of innocent seminarians – that Jesus initially thought of himself as a disciple of John. All the prophetic references casting John in the role of the “voice crying in the wilderness” to prepare the way for the Messiah came later, these cynics say, to explain why Jesus was baptized by John if John was a mere Second Banana.
There is even biblical support for the notion that John was never fully persuaded of Jesus’ messianic role: “He sent word by his disciples and said to (Jesus), ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
I think all this distrusting skepticism is understandable.
Most of us find it hard to respect Second Bananas, or to trust them as they relate to the person at the top.
History is too full of Second Bananas who were driven to push their bosses aside and snatch the power away.
And the loyal Second Bananas we know were hardly threats to the throne. I remember with fondness Andy Divine’s “Jingles” who rode with Guy Madison’s Wild Bill Hickock, or Gabby Hayes’ humorous subservience to Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, or Leo Carrillo’s Pancho who rode with Duncan Reynaldo’s Cisco Kid, or – lest we forget – Ed McMahon who loyally laughed at Johnny Carson’s funniest – and weakest – ripostes?
These Second Bananas never threatened their bosses. And John the Baptist was no comical sidekick, so some have had difficulty thinking of him as a number two.
But the skepticism is also understandable because it is so difficult to accept the logic of Jesus’ oxymoronic declaration: “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)
Jesus also made it clear what happens to Second Bananas who seek to usurp power:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be first among you must also be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 25-28)
Perhaps no one in history had a more important supporting role than John the Baptist:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6)
He was, by his own declaration, not the Messiah. His role was to prepare the way, to call people to repentance, to remind them of the preeminence of God in human lives, and to open their hearts and minds to the coming of Jesus.
That may be only a supporting role, but it’s a great one.
John the Baptist is no Second Banana. In the eyes of God and all who seek to emulate his role every day, his status in the divine hierarchy is clear.
John the Baptist is number one.