I read some time ago that Leonard Bernstein, director of the Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, was once asked what was the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play. The famous orchestra leader said (probably with a smile), “Second fiddle!”
As any musician knows, every instrument is vital to the harmony of the orchestra. 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 fulfill. 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 corded words, John denounced sin in any form and commanded everyone to repent before the day of grace has passed. Preachers and teachers timid about speaking out today on moral issues should examine New Testament accounts regarding this prophet. He addressed his congregation as a “brood of vipers” and warned them to flee from the wrath to come. Evidently, according to prevailing standards of that day, one was in good standing with the church if prescribed dues were paid and one went through the motions of faith and worship. “Not so,” said John. The prophet’s idea of a right relationship with God involved a wedding of religion and ethics. Your words and your walk had to go together. To use pious words and live a terrible life was completely unacceptable.
The people’s reliance on their kinship to Abraham as a substitute for righteousness was quickly shot down. John’s statement about being “able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” is a play on words. In Aramaic, the language used in addressing his audience, the words stones, children, and Abraham sounded much alike.
John painted two clear pictures of judgment in our text. One concerned the axe laid at the foot of the tree while the other was a figure of the threshing floor. Obviously an axe was for cutting down the trees. The figure of separating the wheat from the chaff on a threshing floor was a familiar picture. The fan blowing the chaff is yet in the hand of God and the threshing floor is still alive with activity. The dreadful picture on a national scene actually took place just a few years later (70 AD) when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and wiped out Jewish national life.
What was the result of John’s dynamic preaching? The people asked, “What shall we do?” A cynic once said, “People come to church today expecting very little and seldom go away disappointed.” This ought to say something about modern prophets and their message. Although the love of God is a predominant theme of the New Testament, let us never forget that judgment is inevitable when we fail to do God’s will. Those who preach and teach must remember to share the whole gospel.
The last words of our text are, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Look again at those gathered to hear John preach—the well-to-do, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. No doubt there were many common people as well. All of these had some amount of power, influence, and wealth. John’s answer is most instructive! He told them to do three things—first, to share what they had with those in need. The “haves” were to share with the “have-nots.” In addition, John told them to be honest. Could our world use an old-fashioned dose of honesty? Finally John said to be content. Like our day, the people wanted more. They were never satisfied.
You almost feel let down by the admonitions. Did you expect loftier tasks? John didn’t ask for heroics; he didn’t request people to climb the highest mountain or swim the deepest river. 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 neighbor. This sounds a lot like our Lord, 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 neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
What would happen if all those playing second fiddle played the right notes at the right time and in the right place? Because John was unreservedly committed to his mission in life, quite comfortable with his place in God’s plan and no seeker of personal glory, Jesus said of him, “Among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28).
Do you want to hear (as Paul Harvey often said) the rest of the story? Jesus joined the throngs of people going to the Jordan to hear John. For two or three days, he stood in the crowd listening to John speak. Then he presented himself to John to be baptized. 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.