December 15, 2013
What makes a person a celebrity? With some people—like Helen Mirren or Bono or A-Rod—it is clear that they have more talent than the average bear. But what do we make of the popularity of the Kardashians? Or the cast of The Jersey Shore? What makes someone newsworthy? Apparently, sometimes it’s talent and sometimes it’s an inexplicable weirdness that makes a person famous. Whatever it is that makes a person a celebrity, Jesus’ wacky cousin, John had it.
Last week we were introduced to John the Baptist, that wild preacher who wore clothes made out of animal hide and ate a bizarre diet of locusts with honey. Crowds flocked to the desert outside of town to hear his radical preaching (or maybe just to get a look at the person everyone else was talking about). Whatever curiosity drove them out there, when people listened to him, many responded to his message. You remember last week, John calling people to allow the excesses and idols that filled their lives to be cut away and to embrace new life. Despite his warning that it might hurt, people who heard John’s invitation to repentance and release from all that kept them from living full, authentic lives were baptized in droves.
It must have been such an affirmation to John of his ministry! To feel a conviction so deeply he couldn’t keep it in, and then when he shared it, to have people hear the tough message and react penitently instead of running away! It must have assured him that he was on the right track. It’s so satisfying, isn’t it, when other people see what we see? It validates our sense that we are onto something real and true. Our shared convictions about what matters is part of what holds us together as a congregation, as a denomination, as a Christian community. It is reassuring to us when others resonate with our deepest convictions.
But all that was last week. Ask Lindsay Lohan or the Green Bay Packers—a lot can happen in a week. You can go from headlines to lining the birdcage in no time at all. Last week John the Baptist could have been on the cover of People Magazine. This week, he’s in jail. Riding high on the certainty that he was acting as God’s messenger, he spoke not only to the common crowds who came out to see him, but also to high governing officials. And his message was the same: repent! Herod Antipas was one of the powerful men John addressed. John urged Herod and his new wife, who also happened to be Herod’s sister-in-law, to repent for committing adultery. Unfortunately, these two did not respond by recognizing their need for renewal and asking for God’s pardon. They did not invite John to baptize them and help them strive for transformation in their lives. Instead, they had him arrested.
Meanwhile, the Messiah, whose arrival John had been anticipating and proclaiming, is rising to prominence. Jesus, for whom John had been preparing the people, the one whose arrival he pointed toward, had indeed come. John had baptized him, but then their stories diverged. John was not able to walk beside Jesus in triumph. There was no photo shoot of the two of them preaching and baptizing the masses side by side. Instead, John was being punished for preaching what he thought was Jesus’ message.
Who could blame John if he hoped that Jesus would head straight for Herod’s palace and demand John’s release? Or if he expected Jesus to wave his right hand and dissolve the prison bars? John knew that the Messiah would come to defend the poor and the oppressed, and it is my guess that people in jail tend to consider themselves among the poor and oppressed. Perhaps the fact that these things did NOT happen made John wonder about his own message and ministry. “Was I mistaken?” John must have wondered. “I thought I was delivering God’s word. But look at where I am! Did I do something to deserve this?” Think how tormented he must have been by this idea. Eventually, John sends a personal message to Jesus, asking one of the most poignant questions in the whole Bible: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we be expecting someone else?” In other words, “Am I on the right track or did I miss the mark?”
John’s question breaks my heart because I understand completely where he is coming from. If you think you are following the will of God, and doing your very best to be faithful, and if your work seems to be confirmed by the reactions of many people around you, then how on earth do you process what seems to be a derailment of it all? How do you make sense of the fact that your devotion isn’t bringing about peace, reconciliation, repentance, and renewal, but has, apparently, ended in shame? Have you misunderstood God’s word and works all along? If you are doing the right thing, shouldn’t there be some kind of reward? How many of you have wondered these same things when your life appeared to be caving in around you, and you thought you were doing so well?
I think Jesus’ response to his cousin is one we would do well to borrow. Jesus doesn’t answer John’s question directly, but instead, he points back to Scriptures. Since John and Jesus were cousins—and since families in the Middle East are tightly knit—I suspect they had discussed Scriptures together before. Perhaps Jesus learned his catechism from John’s dad, Zecheriah, who was a priest. Maybe they were classmates, and had talked about the Kingdom of God many times. In any case, Jesus points John’s friends toward the reading we heard today from Isaiah: “Go back and tell him what you have seen and heard—the eyes of the blind are opened, and the lame are walking, and in general, the broken parts of creation are being restored to wholeness.”
When we are not certain whether or not a message or messenger is from God, it is wise to look at whether or not other Scriptures back up what we are hearing and seeing. Another tip for when you cannot seem to find God is to look among the downtrodden. Over and over and over, the Scriptures remind us that God takes sides with the underdog. After the primary command to worship God alone, there is no subject the Bible addresses more often than caring for the poor. Not just to write a check and walk away, though that is also good. But more than that, text after text after text urges God’s people to stand beside the excluded, the foreigners, the refugees, the forgotten, the beaten up and the beaten down. If we are looking for God, it would make sense to place ourselves among those who are despised and rejected.
Of course, this is a dangerous place to stand. In fact, people who are living out their faith in this way are likely to be in the middle of conflict. Think of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, thrown into the fire for refusing to worship the Babylonian monarch, rather than God. Think of Moses and Aaron, who refused to sit idly by while Pharoah abused the Israelite slaves. Think of Queen Esther, urging her husband the king to spare God’s people, knowing that if she upset him it would cost her her life. They had to get involved, even though it was risky. God’s course of action always involves standing with the bullied or ignored. Therefore, as God’s people, we are also called to align ourselves with the ones being teased or harassed, even if it means (as it almost always does) that we must encounter some tough consequences as a result.
Which leads us right back to poor old John in jail. Jesus points him toward what John knows of God, evoking familiar images of all John’s predecessors in the faith. It’s as if Jesus wants to encourage John to see that his being in jail is not a sign that he’s on the wrong track. It’s probably a sign that he’s on the RIGHT track. He spoke the truth to powerful people, and it cost him his freedom. We know that eventually it will also cost him his life. But at this stage in the story, we only know that Jesus wants reassure John that he is not a fool. Jesus wants him to feel to connected to the Messiah whose arrival he had prophesied and longed for. Jesus assures John that the Messiah is absolutely the creative and gracious God they had learned to love as kids. The kind of God who brings healing and wholeness and life, even to the least expected places.
After Jesus sends this message to John, he asks the crowd around him the question I asked earlier. What makes a person a celebrity? Why were you interested in John? Did you think he was a flash-in-the-pan news story, or did you know he was the real deal? Then Jesus reminds the people of exactly what he just reminded John: that God’s beloved children are not necessarily the people in nice clothes, living respectable lives in decent places. The people who follow God’s call are as likely to be jail as in palaces, just as likely to be street preachers as televangelists. The way that you will know who to trust is to know your Scriptures, so that you are familiar with how God behaves and speaks to God’s people. Jesus urges his hearers to test out what they see and hear to make sure there is congruence with what they know about God.
So when you find yourself asking Jesus John’s question, “Are you the Messiah, or is there someone else?” consider what the Bible reveals about Jesus. He healed the sick, he made friends with social rejects, he broke all kinds of religious rules, and he never crushed anyone. He spoke about compassion and justice, and embodied those ideals in all his actions. He never advocated for anyone’s suffering, nor did he ever act violently. He loved without limits. He exalted widows, children, and outsiders. Before he was even born, his mother knew that he was the one who would “bring the mighty down from their thrones, but uplift the humble of heart; he has filled the hungry with wondrous food but left the wealthy no part.” She knew what kind of God she worshipped, and so she knew what kind of child God would conceive.
It’s not so much a question of “WWJD?” and much more a question of how Jesus would have us react in our present circumstances. If our God is the God who makes the blind see, then let us pray for eyes to see this world with God’s eyes. If our God is a God who empowers the lame and the weak, then perhaps God can work with us, even when we are confused and full of doubt, when our hands are shaky and our knees are weak. Jesus did not turn away from John in his dark night of the soul, and he will not turn away from us. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Are you the one or is there another?” to any power that presents itself as almighty. If the power is indeed God, you will know by how consistent it is with Scriptures revelation to us of a God of mercy and graciousness, forgiveness and blessing. If the power is God, you will know by the love it exudes.
Whether you are at the top of your game or locked in a cell on death row, you are God’s own. Take comfort from the fact that Jesus himself spent time in jail, and was eventually killed for his radical life of love. Jesus’ life shows us that God doesn’t just say that God is among the fragile and the unlikely, the hurting and the confused, but that it is really the case. Since we can trust that Jesus is among us in our lowliest state, we can also trust that when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness, all of creation will be lifted up into the embrace of the God. We pray expectantly and eagerly on behalf of the whole world, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.