Recently I was telling someone the text I was preaching on this week, explaining that it’s the scene where John the Baptist is in prison and he sends his followers to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
And the person I was talking to asked me, “Does Jesus say, ‘Yes, I am’ or instead does he answer in some sort of confusing riddle.”? I think this person would prefer that Jesus said, “Who’s the Messiah? This guy.”
But Jesus’ answer isn’t quite as clear as she had hoped.
In fact, this exchange between Jesus and John reminded me a bit of part of the trip I took to Myanmar several years ago. That was a country where Big Brother really existed, both in terms of informants who might be listening to your conversation at the coffee shop and surveillance, where the government might be monitoring your phone conversations and emails.
The leader of our group had been in correspondence over email with a church leader there we were hoping to meet. And she told us that he written to say that it had been “stormy” recently. And that it was particularly stormy by the train station.
What being in Myanmar reminded me, and what we can sometimes forget, is the unusual gift we have of free and unfettered speech. Generally, we can speak our minds without fear of repercussions. Yet Myanmar had many political prisoners when I was there, people in jail for nothing more than saying things the government was opposed to.
And John the Baptist also knows this situation all too well. He himself is in jail for speaking critically about King Herod and his family.
So we can perhaps better understand why Jesus answers somewhat cryptically. Jesus sends John’s followers back to report what was happening, “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.”
I hope you see the parallel to the text from Isaiah here. Isaiah says,
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Isaiah prophesied all this hundreds of years earlier. To John or anyone else who knew the scriptures, these were indicators that God’s kingdom was coming into the world. Jesus can’t come right out and answer the question. But he knows that John and his followers will understand what he means.
And yet, there’s still something a little troubling to me about all this. It does seem a bit odd, after all, that John is even asking this question.
Remember that when Jesus came down to the Jordan river to be baptized, John said, “You ought to be baptizing me!”
John even is supposed to have ‘leaped in his mother’s womb” when John was first in Jesus’ presence and both were in utero.
John had long been speaking of the one who was coming, and he seems to recognize that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah.
However, I imagine that John had a lot of time to think in that prison cell of his. And now, with all that time to think, he is reconsidering that earlier conclusion. Can Jesus really be the one they had been waiting for?
Jesus isn’t quite the Messiah John was expecting. Much earlier, John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I… His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Like many others in his day, John expected the Messiah to be a military leader. He expected the Messiah to be someone who would raise an army and violently remove the dreaded Romans and their puppets like King Herod. And certainly, in the midst of such a revolution, John expected or hoped that a political prisoner like himself would be released.
Jesus doesn’t meet any of these expectations.
And so, John goes back to the source, he sends his followers to ask Jesus directly. I have to tell you, I have a great deal of sympathy for John, and not just because he’s in prison.
I think any of us on a journey of faith find that there are times when our expectations don’t in fact meet reality. There are times when things simply don’t make sense.
I remember when I got to seminary. I had worked so long and hard to get there. I felt confident that God had called me to be an Episcopal priest. And then I arrived on campus. Some of the people were, well, different. The classes didn’t seem to be up to the same caliber as my undergraduate institution. And I started to wonder and to doubt. Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?
In a similar vein, was talking to a friend about marriage the other day and she was describing the experience of waking up 3 or 4 years into their marriage and looked at the other person and thinking “You tricked me! You seemed like someone else back when we were first dating.” And of course, this often happens in part because we project lots of things, sometimes good, sometimes bad, onto the people we’re in relationship with.
From time to time, we all experience feelings of disappointment and disillusionment. And I think that is at least in part what John is going through here. For this reason, it makes even more sense that Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. I don’t think Jesus saying, “Yes, I’m the Messiah,” would have convinced John. Just as I probably wouldn’t have trusted anyone who looked me in the eye that first week of seminary and said, “You’re in the right place.” Our hearts are more complicated than that. And we’re rightly suspicious of simple answers.
Jesus’ answer to John still resonates. What are we to do when we wonder about God’s plan? How do we make sense of the disappointing, dull or despair-inducing parts of our lives, the things that don’t make sense? Jesus says, “Look. Look for the good news in your very midst. Focus on those signs of God’s kingdom all around you.”
Jesus doesn’t lay out a complicated theory of salvation for John. He points to God’s presence already at work in the world. The blind receive their sight. The poor have Good News preached to them. God’s kingdom is all around.
As we have just passed the one year anniversary of the shooting in New Town Connecticut, I am reminded of the Mr. Rogers quote so many people posted on social media at this time last year.
In a book on parenting, Mr. Rogers words seem to parallel Jesus’, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
John comes to a place where things simply don’t make sense. He’s struggling, just as we too may find ourselves struggling from time to time, locked up in our own prisons. Jesus tells John and he tells us, look for the Good News in your very midst. Look for the helpers. Open your eyes to the miracles you miss every day. Start there. And slowly, over time, you may find your big questions being answered without you even noticing it.
Today I give thanks for our God, who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.