I read some time ago that Leonard Bernstein, director of the Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, was once asked what the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play was. The famous orchestra leader said (probably with a smile), “Second fiddle!” I am told musicians know that every instrument is vital to the harmony of the orchestra. I’ll take their word for it. The finest musician in each section of the orchestra always occupies first chair. However, there can be no triumphant harmony without those playing second, third, and even fourth chair.
Second fiddle was the role that God called John the Baptist to fulfil. His role was to prepare for the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. That John understood his role is clearly seen in his own words, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The role of second fiddle is not an inconsequential role but rather a significant one. All who occupy positions of leadership in any category depend upon hundreds of people behind the scenes who give support. This is particularly true of those in religious leadership positions. Whatever melody is being played is dependent upon scores of people.
God had raised up John, the son of Zechariah, as a witness to the coming of his son, Jesus. John was an ascetic, living in the desert on locusts and wild honey. He was a fiery preacher and always preached for a verdict. With a lash of deeply cutting words, John denounced sin (the turning away from God) in any form and commanded everyone to repent before the day of grace has passed. He addressed his congregation as a “brood of vipers” and warned them to flee from the wrath to come.
Evidently, according to the prevailing standards back then, one was in good standing with the “church” of the day if the prescribed dues were paid and one went through the motions of faith and worship. A bit like today when many denominations expect certain man made rules to be followed. “Not so,” said John. The prophet’s idea of a right relationship with God involved your words and your walk being the same. John quickly shot down people’s reliance on their kinship to Abraham as a substitute for righteousness.
A cynic once said, “People come to church today expecting very little and seldom go away disappointed.” This says something to us about modern prophets and their message. Although the love of God is a predominant theme of the New Testament, let us never forget that there are consequences when we fail to live out that love which God calls us to. We are called to follow the pathway God has set before us.
Look again at those gathered to hear John preach—the well-to-do, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. There would have been many common people present as well. However, many listening had some power, influence, and wealth. John’s answer to them is most instructive! They are to do three things—first, to share what they have with those in need. The “haves” were to share with the “have-nots.” Secondly, honesty was to be a key to living and finally John said to be content. Like our day, the people wanted more. They were never satisfied.
John didn’t ask for heroics; essentially, he said to live your life around the basics of humility, justice, and mercy. In other words, be rightly related to God as well as to your neighbour. This sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”
What would happen if all those playing second fiddle played the right notes at the right time and in the right place? Jesus said of John, “Among those born of women no one is greater than John.” Jesus then presented himself to John to be baptised. At last John and Jesus come face to face. For John this moment marked the culmination of his life work.
For Jesus it was the beginning of his public ministry on earth. This Jesus who is radically non-violent and a relentless advocate for the poor, outcast and disenfranchised. This Jesus who teaches his followers to live radically risky and peaceful lives in the name of love. This Jesus who modelled what he preached by being obedient to death on a cross.