December 11, 2022
John’s Haunting Question
So, here we are one more Sunday with John the focus of the lectionary. In part because his ministry is interlinked with that of Jesus. Jesus is baptized by John as most likely are some of his disciples. Certainly, several of them came to hear John preach before they followed Jesus. Even some of John’s words sound similar to those of Jesus and Luke says they were cousins. Some of John’s disciples almost certainly thought of John as the Messiah and after his death there seemed to be some competition between John’s disciples and those of Jesus. The gospel writers try to make clear the relationship between the two in part because John’s following was still so strong even into the mid to late first century.
John’s words today though, do not sound like an uncompromising prophet or dynamic leader. Last week what we heard from John was strident and clear. He was uncompromisingly certain in his message. But today we hear hesitancy, questioning. From his prison cell John sends word to Jesus, wanting to know if Jesus is the Messiah. It is the question, of course, of the first century, indeed, the question of the ages. Is Jesus the Messiah, the one anointed by God? The one sent to bring healing and hope, saving redemption for the world?
Apparently, John had never heard anything about shepherds and Wise Men coming and angels singing over Jesus’ birth. John’s only going by what he sees and hears about Jesus’ ministry and he’s not certain. You can’t blame John for questioning. He’s sitting there in prison, with a sword hanging over his head, so to speak, and nothing has changed in the world. Rome and Herod still hold all the cards. His fate is still up in the air, and he wonders, is a new world really coming? Is God really doing something? Some doubts in his own faith seem to be creeping in. Maybe he’s even a little depressed. The future doesn’t look that bright. Has his own life been wasted, his own ministry a mistake?
John is so like most of us. When things don’t go the way we’d expected, or planned, and it all starts to look bleak, we can’t help but wonder if God is really there. The world certainly wasn’t anything like the picture Isaiah paints of God’s messianic time. And it isn’t now. No doubt John is wondering if Jesus was going to do something more. I mean the Herods and Caesars of this world have held sway long enough. –Then, as now, the world was full of injustice and cruelty.
John must have been saying, we don’t seem to be there yet! Isaiah’s hope is still there in the background, but it doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction! What made Jesus and John, indeed first century Judaism, such a threat was that they held on to this prophetic promise, a promise that God had in mind a better world, a more just world, a world more equitable, a world more in harmony. Harmony between nations, harmony between mankind and nature. It was a vision of a more grace filled world than anything we have experienced. That dream was the ferment of a kind of revolutionary energy and longing that fueled unease and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Sadly, there have also always been those who wanted to dominate and exploit, manage and manipulate both other people and nature. An attitude that is at the root of human sin and separation from God. With Isaiah, and other prophets we stand on tiptoes as it were and peek over the rim of history towards the world of God’s intention. A world where grace and caring overcome greed and power.
This is not some naïve hope that says, “If we just all hold hands and Joy to the World, our problems will go away.” It is a hope built on changed hearts and transformed, unselfish living. It is a hope based on God’s presence. The prophets knew that humanity is too caught in its old patterns and too ready to buy into cheap easy answers. The prophetic hope is an affirmation that God kneels over the cradle of history and weeps with us in the pain of our world and in our pain. God always seeking to move us towards the dream and make that redemptive hope more real in our world.
Are we there yet? – not in any final sense surely. But, some of us are touched by grace and lives are changed. Hope is made alive where despair had taken root. There are still voices that rally for justice and reach out in caring, still voices that seek to put an end to racism and violence. All the would-be tyrants have failed in their time and have been banished to the dustbin of history. Yes, still more will fall by the wayside -Putin included.
John is wondering this morning, wondering, is God doing anything yet? And the gospel story tells us, there was this peasant baby who became a refugee. There was the sound of angels reverberating through the universe at his birth. He grew into a man of passion and caring, faith and love. He upset the applecart of tradition and got a lot of powerful people mad at him. He became the expression of God’s own sacrifice. He stirred the hearts and hopes of a little band of believers who said not even death could silence him. They became so passionate in their faith that they ultimately changed the world. Even that great Roman Empire yielded to the affirmation of him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Letters and Papers from Prison (page 361):
“To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a [human being] – not a type of [human being], but the [human being] that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event….”
It was Anne Frank, a victim of the Nazis, who said, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people really are good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.”
Sometimes, you see, God gives us courage, even when the world seems its bleakest, to imagine a different future, a different world, and in the imagining we find the strength to move the needle, to make the impossible, possible. And enliven the prophetic hope for our time.