When we last left John the Baptist, which was actually last week, when Linden reminded us about the locusts and wild honey he feasted on, John was ready for the coming Messiah who John said would separate the wheat from the chaff, and throw the chaff into the unquenchable fire.
It’s a week later for us, but in the story quite some time has gone by. John, who is now in prison, has been thinking Jesus is The One, but maybe he’s not so sure. So far, John’s expectations have been disappointed. There’s no unquenchable fire. Instead of all that death and destruction, all that judgement Jesus is doing things like healing and raising people from the dead, comforting the afflicted, telling people that God loves every last one of them. “Where did that come from?” John wants to know.
So John sends some of his own disciples to go find out what’s going on. He has, literally, stuck out his neck for the cause, but where’s the judgment? Where’s the death and destruction? Why is John sitting in a Roman prison, while Jesus, if he indeed is the one John was expecting, hasn’t put an end to Rome and all of its prisons? Jesus isn’t even baptizing anybody and hurling insults at them as he does.
So he sends the guys to ask. Maybe it’s a real question. Or maybe he’s trying to provoke Jesus a bit, get him to get on with what needs to be done, to show everyone that John was right after all. Or, at least, he could spring John from the dungeon before the executioner arrives.
Jesus welcomes the question. This is what you should tell John, he tells John’s disciples, “the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth are learning that God is on their side. Isn’t this what you were expecting?”
Jesus knew, of course, that John was expecting something quite different. But even though John had missed the point, Jesus still had good things to say about the Baptizer. John had given his all, including his life, it now appeared, to serve God.
He was, Jesus said, the last of his kind. No prophet of the past was going to surpass John. But that was the past. Something new was happening and it was happening in Jesus. “No one in history,” Jesus said, “surpasses John the Baptizer, but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him.”
John was getting the people, getting us, ready for what was coming in Jesus, even though John misunderstood what it was. He had his expectations, but Jesus took him by surprise. Of course, John thought, Jesus would reveal himself as Messiah with death and destruction. Israel’s day would finally come, Caesar would tuck his tail and try to run from God’s wrath. Isn’t that the way kingdoms always work? Not for Jesus. “Tell John the blind see, the lame walk, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.”
Jesus and John had such different visions for God’s Kingdom, but Jesus still appreciated and honored John. I don’t know what it was, but maybe it had something to do with the fact they both had the same ends in mind, but Jesus was going to go there in a much different way, that included no winnowing forks or unquenchable fires.
John and Jesus were both looking for big changes in this world. They wanted to see God’s Kingdom established. They were both committed to the vision, and they both called men and women to make the same commitments to God’s realm that they had made.
Jesus believed, though, that you couldn’t get to a new ends without a new means. That’s why his concerns weren’t judgment and destruction, but healing and compassion. The best way to deal with empire was not to play its own game of violence and destruction, but to challenge it with love and sacrifice, words not really in John’s vocabulary. That’s why Jesus said the least in God’s kingdom would surpass John. As Jesus’ life unfolded people were going to see things about God that not even this greatest of all the prophets had been able to imagine.
And here is where we come in. Jesus came to build a movement, the God movement, as Clarence Jordan called it. You think about John in the wilderness preaching his hellfire and brimstone sermons, calling people to get themselves baptized, on God’s side before it was too late. There was, after all, that unquenchable fire waiting for more fuel.
Jesus wasn’t a hellfire and brimstone kind of guy, though he did have his moments where he wasn’t above warning people about the outer darkness, the weeping and wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. But that wasn’t his primary way of relating to people, maybe just something he picked up from John.
John was waiting for this cataclysmic moment when God’s Kingdom would be established with its requisite blood lust. Jesus was willing to spill his own blood, rather than the blood of others, so God’s Kingdom might come.
And I don’t think Jesus was so concerned about The One who would make this all happen, but the ones, people like Luke and Matthew, Mary and Martha, you and me who would bring kingdom come.
When we are called to follow Jesus it’s not simply about finding meaning in our lives, getting closer to God, finding healing for our addictions and obsessions, and forgiveness for our sins and our fears. All of those things are good things, but the gospel is a whole lot more. Following Jesus is about being part of the movement, giving ourselves over to what Jesus gave himself over to, the kingdom of God, which is about healing and resurrection and love. As I heard Jim Wallis say in a sermon a couple of weeks ago, the gospel may do lots of good things in our lives, but it doesn’t become the gospel until it is good news for the poor.
That’s the perspective Jesus had, and one we have to keep in mind. The church is about the movement. Too many people fail to realize that the issue is not so much what the church brings to them, but what they can help Jesus, through the church bring to this world. That’s the revolution Jesus saw, something so much greater than John ever imagined.
“Are you the one we are expecting,” they asked Jesus. “It depends on what you’re expecting,” was how Jesus replied. What are we expecting from Jesus? Maybe some of our expectations are wrong, or just as sad, maybe our expectations for Jesus and what he intends for our lives and this world are too low. Maybe we don’t really expect enough of him for it to make a real difference in our lives.
I think that’s what Advent is getting at. It’s a time of watching and waiting, but what are we watching and waiting for. Jesus is looking to call together a band of followers who are going to overturn the whole world, without even the hint of a winnowing fork in their hands.
Our challenge is to claim our place that is greater than the greatest of the prophets claimed, a place in God’s Realm where in the name of Jesus we put down the weapons, we reject the violence, and we throw our lot in with other followers of Jesus and build a new world.
Are you the one Jesus is expecting? Should he be waiting for someone else? Or did he get it right after all?