Imagine for a moment, John the Baptist in Herod’s dungeon in Machaerus. He stirs from sleep and kicks at a rat nibbling on the thongs of his sandals. He takes a bite of stale crust and sips from a cup of turgid water. Out of the shadows he hears the murmuring of other inmates. One of them asks of John, the new prisoner, the inevitable question: “What are you in here for, man—murder, rape, robbery?”
John ponders the question more deeply than he might have because he himself would like the answer to that question—and he knows that telling a cell full of hardened convicts that he is there for preaching about sin wouldn’t go over well. And it is hardly better to admit it because Herod and Herodias could stand anything but a good example hanging around to haunt their sinful way of life, even though eventually that is exactly what happened. John suddenly realizes that he will be as hard to place in the prison hierarchy as he has been in traditional society. It is a sobering thought.
Previously to imprisonment, John had always felt assured about his life as a man of action, a prophet who both announced the Word of the Lord and led a popular movement of repentance. But now the doubts begin to gnaw at his soul. He remains silent at the other prisoners’ questioning. Suddenly the clear, clarion call he had received from God and strictly obeyed in the desert seems stifled. The fiery prophet who had proclaimed with wild abandon and compelling certainty: “Repent! For the Kingdom of God has come near,” must now wonder, “What kingdom?” “How near and when?”
Up until now, many even thought of John as the Prophet Elijah returned to earth. Now they must wonder who he really is—and so must John himself. His life and his ministry have been put into question. Where is God in this? Have Herod Antipas and the Jerusalem establishment triumphed? Has all his work for Messiah been in vain?
Perhaps he was just another pretender-prophet whose message had for a time captured the imagination of the crowds—but then had proven as empty as the barren wilderness from where he had come. We can imagine John at this hour crying out as Jesus did on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
What is a prophet to do? John is not an action hero who gets slammed flat on the page and miraculously reconstructs himself like a “transformer” figure to his former shape with renewed superpowers. But he does know the Source—the one toward whom he has been pointing. So he tells some of his disciples during visiting hours at the prison that they should go find this Jesus and ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for someone else?
Jesus’ answer is that the one who is to come is already present. They need only to look around them and gather evidence. He asks: What did you expect to find in the Judean desert? Not some posh ruler basking in luxury. Rather, an old-style Hebrew prophet. And that is what you found: the rough-hewn John Baptizer. Surely the age of prophecy is experiencing revival. Look around you. Tell John what you see and hear—how the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed. The deaf now hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are recipients of good news.
Classics scholar Edith Hamilton wrote in Witness to the truth: Christ and his Interpreters (W. W. Norton, 1948): “That is how Christ looked at the great mystery of life. He did not state his solution in clear words for all to understand. That was never his way…The Gospels are not an explanation or a theology. They are the record of a life. (People)…have asked of religion what religion does not give…It does not explain why. It shows how.
“Our problem, the universal problem each one upon the Earth must solve, is how to live. To that question the religion of Christ does give an answer, adequate for all needs and in all perplexities.
…The Kingdom of God is at hand. That is Christ’s message. Everyone who seeks it can find it. No special preparation is needed, no special belief in this or that; only to turn from darkness to light, only to start in that direction.” And to that I add, “and follow Jesus.”
Jesus’ message of Good News is plain to see for the wounded ones, the little ones who are abused or have no one to care, the poor, those who mourn and weep, and the lepers of society—all those who take no offense at him, but can humble themselves to enter his Way and follow him.
So, Jesus sends his answer to John.
I don’t know about you, but I long for another John! A few churches in other parts of the country are making John-type statements with their Christmas crèches. How many of you saw the photograph in the Register Star this past week of a crèche scene? It’s not what one expects. Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus are all separated, and in locked cages.
What a damning statement of how low our beloved country has sunk! And let me be clear—I am not against an immigration policy or reform, but this action was reprehensible. I can’t help but wonder what John would be saying if he was alive. So, I for one will say it for him—REPENT United States of America! REPENT heartless government reeking of hostile discrimination! REPENT anyone who thinks this is how it should be—separating children from their parents, with little or no chance of being reunited!
And I can’t help wonder what Jesus would say. I think Jesus would weep, or as he proclaimed when hearing about John, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! (America, America) How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold your house is forsaken and desolate.”
If Jesus is the One, his presence certainly is not what was expected by John and many others. No show of power? No blasting of enemies, like getting rid of Roman occupation? John must have wondered—have I missed the point entirely? It is not dramatic enough. It is not the complete end of the old world with its selfish ways, hypocrisy, lying, corruption, enmity, and war.
What was God thinking, and how did he, John, fit into the plan? Was it all for naught?
We have a tendency to judge whether or not God is with us in a situation by our well-being—how good things are for us. We often do not realize that disturbance or upheaval in our lives is often a sign that God is present and active. We need to ask ourselves, “Are we able to put up with some ambiguity or paradox in the activity of our lives in order to find that God is also present and active in these situations?”
Think about it. Whenever you are distraught over something in life and no relief seems to come and peace seems to escape you—you wonder, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Where are you?” We sometimes don’t see that God just might be in the tempest, the upheaval, in what we least expect, because we associate ease and the music-of-waves-hitting-the-shore with peace.
We think, “If we are troubled or in pain, then God can’t be present to us.” However, it just might be an opportunity to do God’s bidding, whether it is received well or not. As a matter of fact, a call for righteousness is often met with anger, attacking the one who calls, and making up lies if necessary to bring the call to righteousness to an end.
In this Advent Season we acknowledge that God’s message is powerful, but that its expression among us is sometimes soft, subtle, requiring discernment. That is why this is a time of collecting evidence of Christ among us, sifting through Scriptural truths, disciplining ourselves to receive Christ, and allowing his claim on us to penetrate our beings, one day at a time, trusting Jesus in every situation.
It is good for us to remember that “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:12). And, that just might mean at times—the good, the bad and the ugly! God can use it all when we are committed to God’s purposes.
The only way to enter the Kingdom is through heeding God’s call as did John. Repent, turn from the way you were going and go the way the Holy Spirit helps you discern as Jesus’ Way. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Times of fearful evil and misery come, but never is there a time when the Kingdom is not at hand for those who seek it. It is here today.
Are you in prison with John today? Are you wondering what it is all about? Do you have trouble seeing Jesus around you? If that is the case, perhaps you need to do what those people did who went into the wilderness to hear John: Stop, change direction, turn aside from your lives as usual, and walk a different Way. Ask God to forgive you and show you God’s purpose for you. Trust in Jesus to be with you, no matter where it leads.
Finally, follow the God-Man Jesus. Follow the Light of his humble birth, the Light of his countenance, the Light of his message, the Light of his example, the Light he brings to all who seek him, the Light that leads to loving relationship with God, and holy, life-giving, peaceful existence in God’s Kingdom … here and now!
*Sermon adapted from text in Synthesis, “Postscript” by HKO, Advent 3, 2007.