Claire went to Charleston on Thursday to go with our daughter and two year old grandson to see a Disney show that was called something like “Mickey’s Magical Adventure.” When I first heard that name I was suspicious that one of the presidential candidates was just trying to lure people to a political rally with that.
Are you the one we are looking for, or should we keep looking for someone else? Our church was a polling place yesterday for the first time, and from listening to people as they came in and out it was clear that this question is being asked quite a lot as people prepare to vote.
You may recall that John the Baptist endorsed Jesus as the Messiah very early on, when Jesus came to be baptized. John had been telling people that someone greater than he was coming; John baptized with water, but the one who was coming would baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. And when Jesus showed up to be baptized, John said, “This is the one.” He said to Jesus, “You should be baptizing me instead of me baptizing you.” You could even go all the way back to when Jesus and John had not yet been born, when their mothers met and John leapt in his mother’s womb in recognition of Jesus.
But as Jesus began his ministry, things were no longer quite as clear cut. John the Baptist was thrown into prison, for meddling in politics. Some of John’s disciples either began hanging around with Jesus some or at least kept tabs on what he was up to and reported back to John. You will remember from last week’s passage that some of them were around when Jesus went to the banquet at Matthew’s house with tax collectors and other assorted sinners. They asked Jesus why they fasted and the Pharisees fasted, but Jesus and his disciples were out partying. Eventually, John heard enough of the reports and sent some of his followers to ask Jesus point blank, “Are you the one we are expecting, or shall we look for another?” Are you really the Messiah?
How did it come to this? How did that initial certainty turn into such grave doubts? It all has to do with expectations that are not met, and we are very well acquainted with that problem. It usually says more about our expectations than it does the person we are disappointed in.
So what was John expecting from the Messiah? We get a good clue from his preaching at the Jordan River. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John was a bridge figure between the Old and New Testaments. He is in the mold of the Old Testament prophets, trying to shake people out of their status quo doldrums into spiritual renewal with some fire and brimstone preaching. Repent! Get your life in order, or something terrible is going to happen! The Messiah John expects is a figure of power and judgment, who will separate the good people from the bad and burn up the bad ones. “What do we need to do?” the people asked John? And he gave the prophet’s answer: “Don’t cheat anyone, share with those who are in need, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” The coming of the Messiah was going to be a decisive moment in history where people were rewarded as they deserved for their good and bad deeds.
What other expectations were out there in Israel that Jesus was having to deal with? A lot of the expectations were of a political and military nature. That the Messiah was predicted to be a ruler from the line of David fed that expectation, because David was the legendary king of Israel’s glory days when Philistines were defeated and borders were secured and even expanded, and there was prosperity. So to borrow a contemporary slogan, the overwhelming expectation of a Messiah in first century Israel was that he would “make Israel great again.” That meant driving the Romans out and restoring self-rule. The brutal oppression and taxation of Rome would be ended. Puppet rulers would be kicked out and local folks would be put in charge.
In order to fulfill John’s expectations Jesus would have needed to pack a little more punch, knocking tax collectors’ and sinners’ heads together instead of welcoming them into the fellowship and inviting them to be disciples; calling out politicians and religious leaders and common folks alike for their shortcomings; rewarding and punishing in accordance with deeds. In order to fulfill the other expectations, Jesus would need to be recruiting an army and stockpiling weapons and training people for the coming revolution; or even better, he would be a superhero who could do it all himself, some first century manifestation of Superman or Batman.
But none of these expectations were in line with what Jesus knew to be his calling from God. The army he recruited were the sick, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the poor, the outcast. Actually he tried to recruit everyone, but these were the ones who responded. Instead of focusing on separating the good and the bad he wanted to unite everyone under his Father, who desired that not one single soul be lost or excluded. His message in preaching was, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” The whole of his life and his teaching were aimed at showing what it means to be a part of that Kingdom of Heaven.
When Jesus read Scripture in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he told the world clearly what we should expect from him. The passage, taken from Isaiah, said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And when he finished he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I can understand the doubts and frustrations of John the Baptist completely. He was human, after all, and he was languishing in prison out in the middle of nowhere. If Jesus was truly the Messiah, surely he had enough power and cared enough to do something to set his cousin John free from prison. And surely his ministry would look something like John’s, and surely John still had a role to play in this revival that he had set in motion.
The message Jesus sends back to John echoes the Isaiah passage he read in the synagogue and it unlocks a whole series of messianic passages from the Old Testament which have nothing to do with a strong military, securing borders, or dividing people into wheat and chaff. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Blessed is the person who can let go of their expectations of what they thought I would be and accept the kind of Messiah they get in me.
The nations of the world are going to fight wars and jockey for land and position and dominance, that’s what nations do. Just because we get all caught up in that doesn’t mean Jesus has any more interest in it than in who wins the Super Bowl.
The churches of the world are going to set up litmus tests to categorize people as good and bad, as ones to associate with and ones not to associate with, as people to include and people to exclude. They will be eager for “the others” to be judged. Just because we get all caught up in that who’s in and who’s out business doesn’t mean Jesus is any more interested in it now than he was then.
The challenge for us still today is to not follow the Messiah we expect or want, but to follow the actual Messiah as he was and as he is, the friend of sinners and Savior of the world; the one whose kingdom is not of this world and has no plans to grant us a kingdom in this world. As we continue through our Lenten journey with Jesus towards the cross, let us pray that we will be able to accept this Messiah whose way is through suffering and love rather than shock and awe.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 21, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church