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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Fifth Business

Facing pressure from his publisher to explain the meaning of his new book’s title, Canadian novelist Robertson Davies cooked up the following phony quote:
“Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”
I read the otherwise-rather-grubby novel in my teens and the only part of it that stuck with me was the term Fifth Business. It seemed like a very apt description of a lot of people’s lives, I thought at the time.

They used to be called bit players. Nowadays we give them awards and call them character actors.

What would you think about dying in your early 30s? It’s not something I’d necessarily choose for myself and I suspect most people feel the same way.

That was what happened to John the Baptist, the original bit player.

John lived in the wilderness of Judea. He seems to have been a rather radical individual by modern standards and even the standards of his day, wearing a garment of camel’s hair and living on locusts and wild honey. Polite society was not for John, to say the least. He was clearly not concerned with income, career, wife, or family. He was a man with a serious message, and the message was “repent”.

But people evidently understood that he was not just some weirdo with spit in his beard. We’re told “Jerusalem, all Judea and the district around the Jordan” were going out to him to be baptized by him.

There are a number of different events referred to in Scripture as “baptisms”, some metaphorical and some literal, each with a different significance. John distinguished the baptisms he performed in the Jordan River from both the “baptism of fire” of coming judgment and the future “baptism of the Holy Spirit” by which believers were incorporated at Pentecost into the spiritual body of Christ. These are also distinct from believer’s baptism commanded by the Lord in the “great commission”. 

John’s, however, was a baptism “with water for repentance”.

The last two verses of the very last book of the Old Testament prophesy about the coming of John. Malachi said, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” 

The reference to Elijah the prophet may seem obscure, and certainly seems to have confused some of the Jews who awaited John’s coming. But the Lord himself confirmed that John was Malachi’s “Elijah who is to come”.

So, as odd as John may have seemed, he had not only the weight of Old Testament prophecy behind him, but what Luke refers to as the “spirit and power of Elijah”. 

By getting into the Jordan and allowing John to baptize you, you were acknowledging your sinfulness and your willingness to reverse the previous course of your life, which is what repentance means. It’s not a guilty feeling or a sense of regret, or even the acknowledgement that your behaviour is wrong, but a change of heart and mind that results in a changed life. Those who failed to make the necessary changes earned the wrath of John: he was disinterested in baptizing the unserious. “You brood of vipers”, he cried to those he was convinced were inauthentic in their commitment, whether religious authority figures or those in the crowd. “Bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance”, he insisted.

For those who were too thick to grasp his meaning, he got very specific: “Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise”. He told tax collectors to stop fleecing the public and soldiers not to use their jobs as an opportunity for throwing their weight around and to be content with the wages they were already receiving.

True repentance always changes the way we live, then and now, from the rejection of obvious sin right down to the little details of how to behave on the job. If it doesn’t, it’s just lip service, not repentance at all.

John was a practical man, what we might call a very “black and white” sort of guy. If you were a hypocrite or a phony, it was not a good idea to get too close to John. Being a prophet, he seemed fairly adept at discerning good from evil and real from unreal.

Which explains his reaction the day that Jesus came to be baptized by him: He saw Jesus coming toward him and declared “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”, associating an unknown Jewish carpenter with a prophecy that goes all the way back to Abraham, who told his son Isaac, “God will provide himself a lamb”.

That must have surprised the crowd, to say the least.

Then the Lord announced that he had come to be baptized, which surprised John. His reaction was immediate and intense: He tried to prevent it. He said, “I have need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” It’s unclear how John recognized the true nature of the Lord. There is no evidence that he had much in the way of opportunity to observe how Jesus conducted himself in his everyday life. It is, of course, possible he had heard stories, since the mother of the Lord and John’s mother were relatives.

But his assessment goes far beyond hearsay and can only have come via revelation.

John recognized that even though he was a prophet, any righteousness that he might possess paled into insignificance in the presence of the Lamb of God, and he was quite prepared to acknowledge that fact by undergoing a baptism of repentance himself — by taking his own medicine in public.

What he really didn’t want to do was baptize the spotless Lamb of God “for repentance”. That didn’t sit right with him at all. What sort of message would that send about Jesus to the crowd?

Because he didn’t know what was coming. Jesus did, and told him “in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (specifically the prophecy of Isaiah that is recorded as both “I have put my spirit on him” and “I will put my spirit on him”).

And we all know what happened next, don’t we. John baptized Jesus “for repentance”, as instructed.

But the Father would have none of that. We read “the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens saying, ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.’ ”

Thanks folks, but no repentance required.

Message received, loud and clear.

What happened to John after that? Other than his eventual beheading for doing nothing more than speaking his mind, as usual, we’re not told much. He was taken into custody not long after this event, so it’s not clear how much longer he continued baptizing, if in fact he did.

Either way, his mission was complete. When Jesus himself began baptizing, John’s disciples came to him, concerned that his position was being somehow encroached upon. John himself was entirely untroubled by this. Not only untroubled; he was delighted, insisting “this joy of mine is now complete”. He described himself as “the friend of the bridegroom”, someone who was happy to now recede into the background, and maintained that “he must increase, but I must decrease”.

Which is exactly what happened: John’s entire life and ministry led up to that single event, the baptism of the Lord Jesus and the resulting testimony from the Father. Having done his bit, he was joyfully prepared to accept insignificance ... or worse.

We each have our roles to play in the kingdom of God, don’t we. Nobody knows what yours is, and nobody, including me, knows what mine is.

How long are we here, and when are we done? At what point are our services “no longer required”? It’s hard to imagine that there will be a point, known only to the Lord, when I will have served my purpose and be moved off the stage, but that day will most certainly come, and almost surely when I’m not ready for it. It’s easy to see ourselves as the centre of the narrative, but the truth is we are all bit players. I once watched a father speak at the funeral of one of his teenage sons, and with great faith, he repudiated the notion that his son’s life was “cut short”. He maintained his son lived precisely as long as the Lord required.

I believe that’s true of each one of us, whether we grasp it or not. John accepted his role in the plans and purposes of God, and accepted it with joy.

I wonder if it would be fair to say the same of me.

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