Two boys were born only months apart into vastly different, though related, Jewish families. Each birth would doubtless have been the talking point at the local wells for months, if not years to come. For Jesus and John were both conceived in an extraordinary way.
Many a Jewish mother must have had at least a fleeting thought that Messiah would be born into a family such as hers. That is, of course, if she belonged to the family line of King David. Mary’s mother, however, had more immediate concerns. Her young daughter was betrothed to the village carpenter and there was a wedding to plan, clothes to make the list seemed endless. She was generally an organized woman, and reassured herself that everything was under control. And it was, until that day.
Never in her wildest dreams had Mary thought it would happen to her. To be the mother of Messiah How could this be? Yet the angel’s presence and words had been clear. For now, though, two people must be told: Joseph, of course, her betrothed; and her mother
While this drama was taking place, Mary’s relative Elizabeth, who lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem, was already several months pregnant. This was surprising since she was already well past the age of childbearing. It seemed many unusual things were happening in Israel at that time. In her case the heavenly message concerning a baby was given to her husband Zechariah, a priest serving in the temple at Jerusalem. Even though he’d been praying for a child, it seems he was literally struck dumb by the news. Especially as this child was going to have a major role in preparing Israel for its Messiah.
This, then, was not only joyful news but created many waves in the lives of these two families, one quite wealthy, the other poor. Mary went to stay with Elizabeth and they encouraged each other as they prepared for the births. These inevitably came, as babies do, but in quite different circumstances. John was born in comfortable surroundings and the only rumours concerned his amazing conception despite the parents’ advanced age.
Mary and Joseph’s experience was vastly different. An unexpected order issued by the Roman government meant she and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem, the ‘City of David’, to register their names. The baby was born soon after they arrived and, the whole city being full for the census, the only delivery room turned out to be a stable that housed animals. Jesus was placed in the feeding trough.
It was several years before Jesus and his parents returned to Nazareth, and no doubt the tongues began to wag afresh. It was common knowledge that Mary had been very advanced in her pregnancy when they left for Bethlehem. Women love to count with their fingers and, well, it seemed the conception had taken place before the marriage. Mary’s mother had put up with much while her daughter was away.
The two boys grew, as boys do, and when Jesus was twelve he travelled with his parents and many others from the village up to the city of Jerusalem for the Passover feast. It was time for Jesus to be presented to the Temple and to take his place in the religious community. Of course his cousin John would also have been there. Jesus became so immersed in the teaching of the rabbis in the Temple Courts that he lost track of time and his parents spent days looking for him.
Another eighteen years have passed before John and Jesus emerge again. Now John, born into a comparatively wealthy home, has undergone a sea change. Gone are the fine robes. Instead he is dressed in animal skins like a hermit living rough and eating rough. He preaches to the crowds about the need for repentance, and he doesn’t mince words. He accuses his father’s friends, priests and teachers of the law, of being hypocrites and warns them that they will be judged for their sin. The atmosphere is charged with tension. And he baptises those who are prepared to change their ways and get real with God.
Suddenly his cousin appears on the edge of the crowd. They recognize each other and John by now is aware of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus wants John to baptise Him but John is reluctant. He feels unworthy. Jesus insists. God confirms that this is indeed His Son. Jesus then takes off into the desert and lives like John for nearly six weeks, except that, instead of feasting on insects and honey he eats absolutely nothing. Physically weakened to the extreme, He does battle with the enemy of our souls, and wins. And so begins His ministry.
John is soon thrown in prison for his outspokenness. A king does not like to be criticized for his immoral lifestyle. In the darkness of the dungeon he wonders whether Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Has he been mistaken? But No, Jesus reassures him via messengers, My actions speak for themselves. Jesus then tells the crowds of people that this man John is the genuine article. He is, in fact, the one whom God has sent ahead of His Son. He is a true prophet. He has faithfully fulfilled his role to prepare Israel for the Messiah. John is reassured. Not long after, he is beheaded, his work completed. Jesus’ ministry has just begun.