Surprised by the Known
It would be strange to grow up knowing that your life is set apart. Of course, to a small extent this is the experience of many modern children. Wrapped within the dreams of their parents, they grow with the assurance of a plan and a purpose for their lives—albeit a purpose shrouded in hopeful mystery. For John the Baptist, the only son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, there was much less mystery. John grew up knowing that he would one day be called a prophet. In fact, he grew up knowing his life's exact call: "You will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him" (Luke 1:76). He was to be a Nazirite, literally one consecrated to God and separated from the general population.
We know very little about John's life outside of his short public ministry. We are told that this miracle child of a barren womb grew strong in spirit and lived in the desert. He ate locusts and wild honey and wore clothing made of camel's hair. His entire life seemed to be marked with the knowledge that he was set apart for a unique and specific role. I imagine that he thought often of the day he would meet the Messiah whose way he was to prepare. I imagine that he never expected it would be someone from his own family, a cousin who grew up beside him.
John was baptizing in the Jordan River when the sky opened up and the Spirit descended like a dove, the sign that God had told him to expect. "The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit" (John 1:31). The Spirit rested upon Jesus. Twice, John seems to note his astonishment; "I myself did not know him." It is safe to assume that John knew who Jesus was; his mother, Elizabeth, was Mary's cousin. But John did not know Jesus as the Christ, the one he had been set apart to proclaim, the one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.
I wonder how often I do not see the person in front of me—the loved one, the colleague, the stranger I sell short as an imager bearer of God. John was so taken with what God revealed about Jesus that he realized he had never really known him. This distant cousin, present at family gatherings and near on holidays, was the Lord, the one he had been waiting for all his life. Without questioning God, without doubting Jesus, John immediately reframed his perspective and bowed before the Lamb of God. For the remainder of his days, John gave this testimony of Jesus: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me... I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God" (1:32-34).
How quick are you to adjust your eyes to all God would have you see in the person in front of you? For the Christian, the question is repeated again and again in the gospels. If we are unwilling to let God transform the world before our eyes, there will be people we will never really know, dynamics that will go unnoticed, signs we will miss completely. In the kingdom of God, astonishment should not surprise us.
The day after John was shown the truth about his cousin, he introduced two of his disciples to the Christ. "Rabbi," they said, "where are you staying?" "Come," Jesus replied, "and you will see." Like Jesus himself, this exchange has both an element of the spiritual and the physical entwined, something divine and something human. Jesus reminds us that there is a vertical quality about our lives, a reaching to taste and see the goodness of God and to know the one in whose image we were formed. But there is also a horizontal quality about the invitation of Christ to come and see. His followers are called to see the image of God in their neighbors, to be present in a crowd that prefers escapism, to reach out to the world as if reaching to Christ himself.
The disciples answered Jesus's invitation to come and see, learning in time that it was indeed a multi-dimensional offer. They went to his house and saw where he was staying; they met his mom and saw his family. But they also discovered in his eyes a kingdom that is not of flesh and blood. They would not have known except that God revealed it. They would not have realized except that they were willing to see.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.