Year A, Advent 3
I like to think of this Sunday in Advent as portraying the kinder/gentler side of John. Last week we had a rather intimidating John who was shouting at the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come to see him. He called them a brood of vipers. Sometimes insults get lost in translation and things that might seem insulting to us, were not so much in the time of Jesus. That is not the case in this situation. Calling the leaders of a religious movement a brood of vipers is always a pretty significant insult. Then he went on to talk about baptism and the way that Jesus would baptize people. “I baptize you with water for repentance…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
If I was one of the people being baptized by John, I would have thought, “Thank goodness I am being baptized by John and not this other guy he is referring to.” Fire, while a lovely image, sounds like a rather painful way to be baptized. The winnowing fork does not sound very comforting either. I have seen picture of those things. Picture a really huge fork. A winnowing fork is what was used to separate the wheat from the chaff. The farmer would lift the harvested grain with his winnowing fork. Then the wind would blow the chaff away and the wheat would fall to the ground. People who were listening to John the Baptist were no doubt familiar with this image. It seems to me that even if you manage to escape the unquenchable fire, you are still being thrown around by a long and pointy fork. Neither option is very appealing to me.
Soon after John’s pronouncement, Jesus appeared on the scene and chose to be baptized by John. It is clear that John immediately recognized Jesus for who he was, the Messiah. We know this because he said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And if that was not enough, the heavens splitting open and the voice of God should have convinced him that the man that he was baptizing was no mere man, he was the Messiah, the savior.
What happened between that moment and the story we have from the Gospel today? All of a sudden, the once convicted and doubtless John is now having second thoughts. Some hypothesize that it was the emotional and physical torment of being in jail that made him question. Yet being in jail should not have come as a shock to John. He had criticized Herod, the ruler at that time. He knew there would be ramifications. He was prepared to suffer. The man ate locusts and lived in the wilderness. It’s not like he was accustomed to the Ritz.
The text indicates that there might be something deeper at play here. Matthew wrote, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” When John heard what the Messiah was doing…It would appear that John was not satisfied with the way Jesus was spending his time. It’s not that he was carousing, turning water into wine every night. He wasn’t doing anything immoral. He was healing, preaching, teaching, and ministering to the poor and the needy. Yet for some reason, this was not enough for John.
You might note that Jesus did not even answer John’s question. He did not tell John what his title was or whether he was the Messiah who they had been waiting for. He told John’s disciples what he had been doing: giving sight to the blind, enabling the lame to walk, cleansing the lepers, restoring hearing to those who were deaf, raising the dead and bringing good news to the poor. These probably sound like pretty Messiah-like actions to most of us. But this is not what John wanted to hear. We can be pretty confident in that because John already knew about Jesus’ public ministry. That was the reason he sent out his disciples in the first place.
Voltaire once wrote that, “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.” We have a tendency to want to visualize Jesus and God as the kind of God we want, perhaps even a God a little like us. For instance, when God talks to me, he usually has a slightly sarcastic sense of humor. He is also an Episcopalian, obviously. While it is important that we try to connect with God (and sometimes we do so by identifying with him), it is also extremely important that we do not limit God by our expectations of God.
Do you remember how John first described Jesus? He was supposed to baptize people with fire, separate the wheat from the chaff….essentially making judgments on those who were lacking. By the time John landed in prison, he had probably spent some time observing the ministry of Jesus and Jesus had not behaved as John wanted and expected. Jesus had not rained fire on anyone. He had not condemned the corrupt leaders or tried to overthrow the Romans. He was not spending his time with the powerful people. He was healing the people who could not help themselves, and probably could not do much to help Jesus. He had spent his time with those who everyone else had forgotten. He had brought them good news. Some people think that John was having doubts about Jesus. Perhaps. More likely, he was having doubts about his own conviction of who this Messiah was supposed to look like, act like, be like. I wonder if John was reassured when he got Jesus’ answer. I wonder if he remembered the Jesus who knelt before him and insisted that John baptize him.
I suspect that Matthew did not write about John’s reaction because that was not the important part of the story. The important part was Jesus response to John and Jesus response to all of us who try to pigeon hole him or define him by our own standards and expectations. It is we who should be defined by Jesus, not vice versa. Yet in this day and age, we are so accustomed to having things our way. You have the iphone, the ipad, me-tv, my-space. Everything is custom tailore to what we want. Why listen to the whole album when you can create a playlist on itunes of just the music you like?
People often refer to their God…who their God loves or does not love. There is the liberal God…the conservative God, the people’s God. But here’s the thing, there is only one God and that God has his own plan and his own identity and unlike every other aspect of our world, God will not be defined by what our culture needs or wants at the time. While that might feel a little rigid to some of us, it’s also incredibly liberating to know that there is something steady out there, someone who is timeless and does not depend on us. There is a line in the communion hymn today, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met with thee tonight…” Jesus is our great hope, but also a fear because we cannot define him and sometimes we cannot understand him. That’s ok. God is big enough to handle our insecurities, our fears and our disappointments. Jesus was not the God who John expected, maybe not even the God John wanted, but he was the God who John needed, the God who we all need.