The doorbell rang and when the homeowner went to answer it he encountered a tearful man with a bucket who said, “I am trying to raise money for a family in desperate need. The father has been out of work for year and the mother suffers from a chronic illness. They have five children and almost no food to eat. If that isn’t bad enough, their landlord is about to kick them out of their house. The entire family could be out on the street in a matter of days.” Well, the person who answered the door was quite moved by this story and asked how much money was needed to pay the rent. “Exactly $4,000,” said the man with the bucket. Pulling out his checkbook and a pen, the homeowner said, “I have been very blessed all my life and I’d like to pay off their debt myself.” “That is so wonderful of you,” the tearful man replied. Handing over the check the owner asked, “How have you come to know so much about this family and their situation?” The now-relieved man with the bucket responded, “Oh, they are my tenants.”
Think about a time when you were down and out; a time when life really laid you low. Someone once quipped that just when I thought I had hit rock bottom a person standing above me tossed me a shovel and ordered me to start digging. Very few of us manage to get through life without having an episode or two like that.
This is the exact place we find John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. He is in prison, having been arrested for criticizing publically King Herod’s adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife. Last week we heard about John’s wilderness ministry of calling people to repent and to prepare. He believed that God’s Messiah was coming and coming soon. This person, as John conceived it, would lead the people with a baptism of fire. This person would take a winnowing fork to everything in society that needed to be cut down. In short, John believed that the Messiah was going to lead a revolution that would overthrow Roman rule and restore the kingship of David’s royal line.
John proclaimed that Jesus was the person God had raised up for this messianic role. He baptized Jesus and then he waited for Jesus to act. And he waited. And he waited. And he waited. And then he was arrested and imprisoned. And then he waited some more.
But eventually he could wait no longer. He sends a few of his followers to ask Jesus if he is going to fulfill his duty of Messiah (as John understood it), or should John start looking around for someone else to do the job. You can imagine John sitting in a prison cell with his life hanging in the balance thinking to himself that now might be a good time to get the revolution going. He must have looked out the cell’s window each morning wondering if this would be the day that Jesus was going to lead an overthrowing mob to rise up and free him. But all he hears about Jesus is that he blesses little children, parties with sinners, and has a penchant for telling perplexing stories about something called the ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ John is at rock bottom and he is being told to pick up a shovel and dig even deeper.
Again, think about what it was like when your life was at point like this. Looking back on it now can you see how discouragement and disillusionment worked hand in hand? Discouragement: nothing that you tried seemed to work. Disillusionment: everything you had come to believe about life and how it is supposed to unfold turned out to be wrong. Think about the future that John envisioned and how he dedicated his life for it. How discouraged and disillusioned must he have been as he sat in that cell?
John had good reason to be disillusioned because, frankly, he was wrong. He was operating out of an old and outdated theological worldview. He held that God cared only about the people of Israel. He held that the role of the Messiah was to start a rebellion in order to rule from an earthly throne. And he held that the only work required of the people of Israel was to purify themselves in preparation for the restoration of something from the glorious past.
John came to this view through a narrow reading of Scripture and a heavy dose of cultural influence. You can pick and choose your way through the bible and paste together a series of verses that point exactly to what John expected. But this is something akin to looking at a rich, colorful mosaic and focusing only on the green tiles. If you do that you see something very different and very distorted. And messianic distortion was rampant in John’s day. Individuals and groups popped up everywhere predicting this and that. John himself seems to have joined a commune known as the Essenes who retreated to the wilderness to prepare for the arrival of God’s chosen one and the establishment of a new Israel.
But God’s plan was not to have the Messiah perpetuate a centuries-old cycle of violence in order recreate a geographical kingdom. What God desired was to renew a loving relationship with the entire human family, to do away with death, and to vanquish the horrible affects of sin. The author Rob Bell gets it right when he says, “God is not behind us dragging us backwards into some primitive, regressive state. God has always been ahead of us pulling us forward, into greater and greater peace, integration, wholeness and love.” Perhaps the single greatest difference between Jesus and John was that John found his vision of the future by looking to the past whereas Jesus’ vision of the future was something entirely new and never before seen. John’s hope was to recover something lost whereas Jesus’ hope was in something to come that no one had yet imagined.
So John’s followers come to Jesus with John’s question: “Are you the Messiah or are we to wait for another.” Jesus answers them by saying this: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” His words have the effect of encouraging John to relook at Scripture in order to take note of the blues and the yellows and the reds and the golds. God’s plan and deep desire is right there. It has always been there. We just haven’t noticed it yet.
Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us how John received this answer. It is also little unclear as to how much or how little time passed between this episode and when Herod had him beheaded. We will never know if John had time to do the revisioning work Jesus encouraged him to do, or if he was still discouraged and disillusioned when he was executed.
But I like that today’s reading ends with Jesus proclaiming first that there is no person born of a woman greater than John. By this Jesus highlights the important role John played in the coming of God’s Kingdom and that he played his role well. Jesus then adds paradoxically that even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John; indicating how blessed you and I are by our understanding of God’s work in Christ (when we get it right).
What a blessing it is to see the world as it truly is and to have some accurate sense of where God is calling it to go. The actor Michael J. Fox, when asked what it is like to live with Parkinson’s, said, “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.” If he was given the time, I think John the Baptist might have said just the same thing: My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance of what Jesus is doing, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.”
John managed to do great things but did not have life figured out and it tore him up. He was discouraged and disillusioned. He needed to learn that finding the Kingdom of God has much to do with laying aside your expectations and accepting what you hear and see God doing. Where are you in all of this? When have you been like John? In what ways are you still like him? When and how have you been able to let go of your expectations and accept the Kingdom of God for what it is?