As a life-long supporter of Tottenham Hotspur football club I felt somewhat surprised and uneasy about the appointment of José Mourinho as their new coach last month. His reputation goes before him – the self-styled ‘special one’, a successful manager but also controversial. However, perhaps I shouldn’t worry too much because in one of his first press conferences Mourinho said he’d learned humility. “It’s not about me; it’s about the players and the club.” As one journalist observed, the ‘special one’ is now the ‘humble one’. So I can breathe a sigh of relief!
In our Advent passage we read about another special one: John the Baptist. It is evident from how Matthew describes him and his ministry that he is no shrinking violet. He leads an austere, if not eccentric, lifestyle in the desert regions around Jerusalem, preaching a simple message of repentance, baptising the penitent but castigating the religiously pretentious. He is a gifted and courageous individual, ardently serving God and exercising a much-needed ministry. Yet, for all his credentials and charisma, his self-understanding is that he is simply a herald of something and Someone much greater. “After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” John is the lesser who will yield to the greater. He is both a special one and a humble one. However, in John’s case neither greatness nor humility are self-proclaimed; it is Jesus who will later say of the Baptist that he is greatest among those born to women – but, paradoxically, also least.
I wonder what we might take from this as we think about how we serve in our churches, in our work, our neighbourhoods or families. In what ways do we try to ensure that our gifts and experience are put to use to build up and encourage others in our faith communities, organisations and circles of family and friends rather than to construct our own little empires? How do we try to ‘prepare the way’ for others to come to see Jesus as Lord? To what degree are we willing to be ‘less’ that another might be ‘great’? Humility is not being a doormat, or belittling our gifts and call; it is having an honest and realistic self-assessment. Or, as has been said elsewhere, ‘humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less’.
John the Baptist: both special and humble. By all accounts an effective and formidable prophet, he accepted that he would decrease as Jesus, more powerful and greater, took centre-stage.
And as to the outcome of the tenure at Spurs of the ‘special-turned-humble’ one … well, only time will tell.