At the later service, I will be talking about a feast day that the captures the imagination of much of the world -- the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. That sermon will be posted later this afternoon.
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It’s all about showing up.
Today the lessons have an outwardly simple theme: Showing up.
But let’s back up.
To set our stage: We meet again John the Baptist, only this time when we meet him, he is in prison. The placement of this passage in our weekly lectionary is a bit odd, because last week he was standing in the River Jordan calling people vipers, and this week he is already in prison.
We have skipped past Jesus coming to him to be baptized – we will circle back to that part of the story on another Sunday. The passage comes this week because it helps set the stage for Christmas, the birth of the messiah. But we aren’t quite there yet.
Today, John the Baptist is in jail and he sends a message to Jesus:
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
He wants to know, who are you? Who has shown up?
John’s question is jarring. Doesn’t John already know the answer?
According to Luke, John has always known Jesus. They are blood relatives. Even before he was born, John knew it was Jesus in his mother’s womb when Mary came to see John’s mother Elizabeth.
John had leapt in his mother’s womb when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, entered the room. And they were cousins, and probably grew up together.
So it’s a very odd question from someone who supposedly knows the answer.
One way to read this is to hear John expressing doubt – and I take comfort in that. He’s experienced Jesus first hand, and still he is not sure.
Maybe even John the Baptist, this strident prophet of God’s kingdom, had his moments of doubt. From our moments of doubt can come moments of clarity.
Paradoxically, doubt can be a tool pushing us to a deeper place of faith by compelling us to ask hard questions and not settle for pat answers.
Yet John may be asking a more nuanced question, and the nuance can be found in Jesus’ answer.
John is really asking: What kind of messiah are you? Are you the one we have heard about: A messiah who will raise an army and vanquish the Romans with a sword in your hand? A messiah like King David who will bring us back to the glory years? Are you that kind of messiah?
That is the kind of messiah people yearn for in the time of Jesus.
By one estimate I’ve read, two-thirds of the Jewish population of the Middle-east was annihilated by the Romans in the century of Jesus. It was the first Holocaust, and we do well to read the New Testament with that backdrop in mind.
John the Baptist’s question is not unreasonable.
There was another “messiah” – Shimon Bar-Kokhba – who led an uprising against the Romans that briefly gained momentum before he and his followers were crushed by the legions.
John the Baptist wants to know: Are you this kind of messiah? Or are you something else?
Jesus replies, I am something else.
“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.”
Jesus is a very different kind of messiah.
Then he lobs a wonderful inside joke. Like all inside-jokes, you have to have been there to get the humor, and this joke is 2,000 years old, so you can be excused if it flew past you.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Jesus asks, “A reed shaken by the wind?”
The reed was the symbol of Herod Antipas, the Judean king who is a puppet of the Romans. Herod’s reed was stamped on coins to show his strength.
Jesus takes a dig at Herod by calling him a “reed shaken by the wind.” Jesus is calling Herod a wimp.
That is an outlandish statement on the part of Jesus. After all, Herod is part of the Roman machine that will put Jesus to death. So what to make of this?
Jesus is saying that he is a messiah that stands outside of the human social and political order. We get a messiah who is pointedly not a politician with his symbol on a coin, not someone “in soft robes” – another dig at Herod.
Jesus is not using his messiahship as a place of power, but quite the opposite. He is saying I am the messiah who brings healing and health and life now.
The values of the world – power, possessions, violence – have nothing to do with what this kind of messiah is. Power, possessions and violence are but empty idols.
Jesus makes his claim of messiahship by standing outside those values, and by standing inside of God’s unlimited Grace that has no boundaries in this world or in the next.
The values of Jesus, the One for whom we are waiting, are the values of healing, wholeness, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Salvation comes not as a reward for standing in lock step with a political leader, or strictly adhering to a set of doctrines.
Salvation comes not from a human economy based on reward-and-punishment.
Rather salvation is gift from God’s unlimited grace-filled abundance. By saying so, Jesus is deliberately setting himself up outside the social order of this world.
Jesus’ position is profoundly threatening to the powers of this world because he is declaring that our salvation is not dependent on those powers.
His position brought tension in his time and brings tension in ours. We still live in a world dominated by politics and economics. We need social order. We still need police officers to patrol our streets and show up at this church when we have a break-in.
We need schools to educate our children, and yes, we still need the Congress to pass laws to deal with complex issues like health care, energy, national security, economics and global warming.
But we should not mistake our social order as being our messiah. Or to put this another way, our limited social constructions, even at their best, are not the best God has for us. They can become empty idols if we are not careful.
And that brings us back to Jesus, the One whom John wonders: What kind of Messiah are you?
Jesus replies with his life-giving actions, demonstrating that God’s gift of eternal life begins now, not in the future, but now. Healing and wholeness are ours, now.
That, too, is an outlandish statement.
We all know that people get sick and tragedy happens. So how can Jesus make this claim? I believe Jesus is showing us that there is a continuum from this world into the world just beyond the horizon of our experience.
There really is more to this Creation than what you see now. Healing does come, sometimes here, sometimes there – but healing comes.
God’s creation is all connected in this world and in the next. So be awake, look for the salvation that is already yours.
Life eternal begins in this place and dwells with each and every one of us. The One who comes is already here. The dawn soon arrives, and the blessing is ours forever. Amen.
Icon above of John the Baptist.