Today was the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday we light the candle representing peace, and read the story of John the Baptist’s baptism of his cousin, Jesus.
It’s always seems an odd juxtaposition, but this Sunday the irony of it hit me harder than usual. John is proclaiming the coming of the Prince of Peace, and calling people to prepare. He announces that the
is at hand, and surely expects to participate fully in that kingdom as it becomes apparent on the earth. Kingdom of God
But anyone who knows the little bits about John we’re given in scripture would know that before long John will be in prison, wondering why the kingdom hasn’t appeared in the way he expected. And not long after that, he’ll be dead, beheaded by a petty dictator trying to impress a teenage girl.
Like John the Baptist, we live in a between time – the kingdom is at hand; the kingdom is coming. We live with disappointment, and doubt, and the more obedient we’ve tried to be, the more deeply we feel the pain of trusting in a promise that hasn’t yet appeared.
The story of John’s doubt appears in Matthew 11: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
That’s not the real question. John knew without question the answer to that one: Jesus was the Messiah, prophesied by angels, confirmed by miracles in his own life and his cousin's, affirmed yet again by a voice from heaven. The real question was one John was afraid to ask: If you’re the Messiah, and if I’ve been faithful, why am I here, in prison? Why have you forgotten me? Why did this obedience gig end up so very badly?
John proclaimed Jesus’ coming by quoting Isaiah; Jesus responded to John’s question by quoting Isaiah as well. “Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. “ It’s an obvious reference, and expansion, of Isaiah 61, the text Jesus read in the synagogue when he began his years of ministry.
None of that was new to John. But “as John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John.” After asking “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Jesus affirmed that John was a prophet, “and more than a prophet. Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist . . . .”
Part of the question that rises up in us, when we’ve tried to serve, to be obedient, to live in the way we believe God has called us, is this: Did I hear it right? Was I a fool to believe it? Did God really have a plan for me, or was I just supposed to put life on cruise-control, take it easy, not take my faith so seriously?
Somehow, we’ve been lead to think that if God really called us, it would go easily. If we’re following God’s plan, things should be smooth. Doesn’t God bless us if we obey? Isn’t that what confirmation looks like? Can't we expect visible success? Problems solved?
When things don’t go well, when things appear to fall apart, when troubles threaten and friends turn away, our immediate thought is “I must have misunderstood.”
But Jesus was clear: John, you’re right on track. A prophet, and more than a prophet. Don’t second guess it because you’re in prison. Don’t let your followers, or friends, or the people around you, discount you because it looks like it’s coming to a painful end.
There’s another part of John’s question, though: Have you forgotten me? Was I faithful for nothing?
Jesus’ answer has baffled commentators, puzzled preachers, and prompted one of the most compelling, troubling works of American fiction, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away:
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.”
Jesus said plenty of puzzling things, and translation often poses an additional problem in understanding what was meant. Did Jesus mean that the kingdom of heaven is subject to violent attack? That’s one way to read it, but there are others (quick summaries of quite a few).
My own impression is that Jesus was still building on the theme he started in the teaching of the previous chapter, Matthew 10: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it."
John the Baptist’s crossroad is one that any Christian struggling to serve, grow, and live faithfully will face. The choices are obvious. Some decide the whole thing was a sham from the start. If it can go this badly, obviously, there was nothing to it. Better to sleep in on Sunday mornings and set the whole endeavor aside. Others decide that autopilot might be a good alternative. Sure, God is real, but it’s not worth the hassle to try to figure out what He’s up to. Show up Sunday morning, agree to whatever “propositional truth” will cause least pain, and go about your daily business. Most pews are full of quietly discouraged disciples, who thought it should be easy, and settled for less when the going got hard.
Then there’s the path of that cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11, that path of courageous faith, sacrifice and struggle that can lead to great victory, amazing miracles, martyrdom, apparent defeat. Whenever my own path seems less than successful, or more difficult than I had hoped, I remind myself of that amazing litany:
I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them.
Flannery O’Connor, discussing The Violent Bear it Away, wrote to a friend: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
As the days grow short and the weather cold, a big electric blanket would be nice. But even in this advent season, when we’re tempted by calls to every convenience and teased with visions of ease and plenty, Jesus calls us to be on guard, to stand firm, and to look to him as the example of what this life of faith will be. As he said again, not long before his own death: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”