A few years ago in Reader’s Digest a lady reported searching for the perfect birthday card for her husband. She came across a promising one. On the outside it read: “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.” Then she turned to the inside, which was inscribed like this: “You’re not what I prayed for exactly, but apparently you are the answer.”(1) OK.
In a strange way, I will bet that something like that was running through John’s mind as he sat there in that prison. He and his people had hoped and prayed for years for a Messiah, one anointed by God to lead the nation, a deliverer who would vanquish occupying forces, conquer all enemies, establish a great kingdom, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. In time past, and not that long ago, John had come to believe that the prayers had been answered. The Messiah was none other than his own cousin, Jesus of Nazareth.
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As you know, John had had his own ministry until his recent arrest. Even though he located himself out in the wilderness near the Jordan, great crowds came to hear him. He had powerful words for the rapt audiences of the need for repentance from sin and right living. He certainly refused to mince words – he was abrasive, insulting, almost mean at times. And that is not to mention the wild hair and weird clothes. And what is with the diet of locusts and wild honey? Still, all sorts of people had come to hear his preaching – rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. His celebrity had become such that even the hoity-toity religious types made their way out to the desert to see him. He insulted them along with everybody else, all to prepare the nation for the coming of Messiah.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near…
The ax is already at the root of the trees,
and every tree that does not produce good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance.
But after me will come one who is more powerful than I,
whose sandals I am not fit to carry.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
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.”(2)
Dunh-da-dun-dunh! [Dragnet] Tough stuff.
Then there was that magnificent day when Jesus came to the Jordan. John knew that this was the one.
After that, the two went their separate ways – John continued with his powerful public proclamation; Jesus with his somewhat different approach. No doubt John noticed. John was out there in the wilderness with locusts for lunch while Jesus was changing water into wine. John screamed at sinners; Jesus ate dinner with them. John preached fire and brimstone; Jesus preached “love one another.” Hmm.
Now John is in prison, a hellhole of a place – filthy, nasty, foul, dark. He had preached just one sermon too many, and this one mixed religion with politics, dangerous anytime. It seems that King Herod Antipas had taken up with his half-niece, Herodias, problem enough according to Jewish Law,(3) but it seems she was already married to his own brother, making it all the worse. John was an old school kind of preacher and thundered that such ought not to be. Truth be told, powerful people do not like to be challenged by powerful preaching, then or now. They ignore it if they can, but when the people start to listen in, they do what they can to silence it. Apparently the people of Judea were listening (and probably laughing at the palace soap opera). So John is in jail.
He has time to think. He remembers the high hopes he had about Jesus being the Messiah. He had been prepared for the revolution, and would have been the first to volunteer to join Jesus’ forces. But time went on…and on…and on. No call to arms. In fact, the reports that had been coming in gave no clue that Jesus was thinking about overthrowing Caesar or Herod or anybody else. There were some intriguing stories of miraculous occurrences in places where Jesus was, but no revolution. The Messiah? The answer to our nation’s prayers? Well, Jesus, if you are, understand that you are NOT what we prayed for.
No one knows how John got his question to his followers. After all, there were no modern niceties like Visiting Hours in ancient dungeons. But he did. They come to Jesus and relay John’s question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Interesting response from Jesus, don’t you think? Instead of answering straight out, he says, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Words right out of the prophet Isaiah that indicated to an oppressed people that they were not alone; their God was with them. But no direct response to John saying yea or nay. Nothing saying “I did it” or even “I didn’t do it.” No indication that he is involved one way or the other.
Then this intriguing line, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away because of me.” More about that in a minute.
Now John’s disciples depart and, as they do, Jesus turns to the crowd that had gathered (and presumably folks who had previously gone out to hear John) and asks them, “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” This was a nature walk? Of course not. “If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces,” says Jesus. Yes, John’s clothes were unique, but he was certainly no fashion plate. “Then what did you go out to see?” Jesus asks. “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” And then he goes on to place John in the forefront of the most revered voices of God.
With the help of some historical information, there is another way of understanding of Jesus’ questions. For example, scholars tells us that the reference to a reed may be an allusion to Herod Antipas, who placed a reed on his coins. Could the wind be John’s preaching? Was Jesus asking the crowd if that is what they went out to the desert for? To watch the John vs. Herod show? To see Mr. Soft Robes quaking in his boots, the regal Reed shaken by the scorching words of the Wind? Or are you actually hearing what John is saying, not just to the royal house, but to you? Are you going out to hear him because he is good entertainment? Or are you going out to hear God’s Word to you? Penetrating questions.
Now, back to that unusual beatitude: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away because of me.” Other versions say, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (NRSV), or “has no doubts about me” (TEV), or “who does not find me an obstacle to faith” (REB). The Greek word behind those various renderings is skandalon, which makes the literal translation something more like, “And blessed is anyone who is not SCANDALIZED by me.” But to the ancient Greeks the word meant a stumbling block, so that the best translation is, “And blessed is anyone who does not get tripped up on me.” What is Jesus saying? That the Messiah has not come to ride into town on a white stallion, ready to lead an army or ascend a throne? That the Messiah who is the answer to their prayers is not at all what they expected? It sounds that way. It sounds as if he is saying, “Go tell John that things may not be working out the way he imagined, but more and more, in surprising places, marvelous things are happening.”
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Barbara Brown Taylor, a wonderful preacher from Atlanta (whom you may have heard at Chautauqua) interprets the passage this way. She writes,
“People who were blind to the love loose in the world have received their sight; people who were paralyzed with fear are limber with hope; people who were deaf from want of good news are singing hymns. And best and most miraculous of all, tell John that this is not the work of one lonely Messiah but the work of God, carried out by all who believe, and there is no end in sight. Tell him I am the one, if you must, but tell him also that yes, he should look for another, and another, and another. Tell him to search every face for the face of God and not get tripped up on me, because what is happening here is bigger than any of us. What is coming to pass is as big as the Kingdom of God.”(4)
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” I wonder if Jesus’ response is a way of saying don’t get tripped up on all this Messiah stuff. You might be pinning your hopes on someone dropping on to the scene like some deus ex machina in a Greek play here to magically fix things and make everything all right. POOF. Well, if that is what you are counting on, stop counting. It does not work that way. You are in this too. You have a part to play in making these hopes real.
Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and one of the true prophets of hope in today’s world, has a wonderful way of illustrating this. Politicians, he says, are all of a kind. A politician holds up his finger in the wind, checks which way the wind is blowing, and then votes that way. It generally doesn’t help, Wallis says, to change the politicians because those who replace them do exactly the same thing. They too make their decisions according to the wind. And so, “We need to change the wind!” The wind will change the politicians.
How does it work? Wallis uses the example of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was not brought down by guns or violence or even by changing the politicians, but by changing the wind. How?
In the face of racial injustice, people of faith began to pray together and, as a sign of their hope that one day the evil of apartheid would be overcome, they lit candles and placed them in their windows so that their neighbors, the government, and the whole world would see their belief. And their government did see. They passed a law making it illegal, a politically subversive act, to light a candle and put it in your window. It was seen as a crime, as serious as owning and flaunting a gun. The irony of this was not missed by the children. At the height of the struggle against apartheid, the children of Soweto had a joke: “Our government,” they said, “is afraid of lit candles!”
It had reason to be. Eventually those burning candles, and the prayer and hope behind them, changed the wind in South Africa. Morally shamed by its own people, the government conceded that apartheid was wrong and dismantled it without a war, brought down by lit candles backed by hope and prayer.(5) But those candles did not light themselves. “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Among the Jews who celebrate Passover, there is a tradition of saving a seat at their Seder feast for Elijah, the prophet who is supposed to bring the news that the Messiah has finally come, and the one to whom Jesus compared John. At a poignant moment in the service, the door is flung open for Elijah and everyone falls silent with anticipation. For thousands of years that door has been opened, and for thousands of years all that has entered has been the wind.
One Hasidic story tells of a pious Jew who asked his rabbi, “For about forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Seder night, waiting for him to come, but he never does. What is the reason?”
The rabbi answered, “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children. Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover at his house, and for this purpose provide him and his whole family with everything necessary for the eight days of Passover. Then on the Seder night Elijah will certainly come.”
The man did as the rabbi told him, but after Passover he came back and claimed that again he had waited in vain to see Elijah. The rabbi answered, “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor. But of course you could not see him.” And the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”(6)
Which leads me to one last question: Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else? Are you the one? Are you the one?
1. Barbara Bartocci, “The Unexpected Answer,” Reader’s Digest, 9/84, pp. 87-88
2. Matthew 3:2, 10-12
3. See Leviticus 18:6-16; 20:21
4. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Are You the One?” Mixed Blessings, (Cambridge MA ; Cowley Publications, 1998), p. 92
5. Ron Rolheiser, “ADVENT HOPE,” 11/28/04 http://www.ronrolheiser.com/currentcolumn.shtml