- Advent 3.18 “Is Heaven for Heroes or Hobos?” Luke 7:18-35
John the Baptist last week set the moral bar shockingly high for us (as Baptists are wont to do)… saying: guys, if you have more than one coat, you’re over the line for appropriate Christian sharing! Tough! Especially if you have a beloved “Hobo Jacket” because the hobos will pester you to give it up (voice of experience, here!). But, can John—no stranger to the hobo Way!—walk the walk himself? Can he live up to his own standards? Coat-wise? Bug-eating-wise? Apparently there, yes! But faith-wise? Hmm… it seems perhaps not (!).
This is a controversial passage—well, for me, though I’ve discovered at pastor’s conferences my view is in the minority (surprise!) on John. It’s a simple question and judge for yourselves: when John sends disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are You really the Messiah, or should we look for Another?” is he asking for himself or asking for a friend? It has always seemed to me patently obvious that John is asking this question for himself. He’s been in prison a good long while now, weeks or months, because of his nagging Herod on his full coat closet and loose morals. John could be a bit of a nag as we heard last week—more a law than Gospel guy. Herod, hated that at first, but oddly we learn elsewhere in the Gospels that when Herod was bored, he’d bring John in for some chats, maybe a game of chess, a beer or two, and Herod got rather to like John and their little talks. But Herod’s wife despised John’s influence because she and Herod weren’t lawfully wed (and John was very harpy on sanctity of marriage stuff), so she got her daughter (after some pole dancing or something like that impressed Herod) to make him chop off John’s head.
It seems John (as a prophet?) senses the head-chopping thing coming. And he’s wondering (because you have lots of time to reflect in prison!) that if Jesus is really the Messiah, the Son of God, an omnipotent Dude, then why is John sitting in prison? Where is the jail-break for God’s sidekick? John probably foresees that Jesus’ll bust apostles like Paul and Peter out of prison, later, miraculously. So where’s the love(!?), the miracles for the greatest of the prophets, for God’s strongest supporter? Maybe Jesus isn’t really the Messiah, after all?(!) Maybe we should look for Another—a more athletic, and rambunctious One? I can see why this would be a serious, faith-shaking moment for John, a serious question for him!
But conventional wisdom is that John is a religious hero(!) and we can’t picture our heroes as ever being weak (not like David ever committed adultery and murder in a faithless run, or like Peter denied ever knowing Jesus under pressure, right? Uh, maybe you see my point?). But no. Forget all that stuff in Isaiah about our righteous acts being like filthy rags and our works being worse than useless and all of us being corrupted by sin shtuff. From the pulpit, best paint God’s prophets as men who never run off to Mt. Horeb scared of wicked queens (like Elijah!), or guys who have trouble practicing what they preach (like John, maybe?). Such suggestions might well invite too much scrutiny for the current preacher and we wouldn’t want that, would we? At pastor’s conferences I can tell you, we don’t!
So, the conventional wisdom is the rather lame-o: “John is ‘asking for a friend’ here”; that John is rock-solid, unperturbed in prison, enjoying his little talks and chess matches with Herod, happy to get to heaven sooner rather than later (even if headless). It’s John’s disciples who have problems! They are a little weak in the knees, and so John sends them to Jesus to ask if He’s really the Messiah, so that Jesus will set these two straight right away. And it works wonderfully!
I just don’t see that, myself. When Jesus says John is great, greatest of all born of women most ancient texts say, or greatest of the prophets in some (I sense ancient scribal hedging there) but turns around and says: “but he who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he!” it seems clear Jesus reckons that John is not in the Kingdom of God at all, at this point! Now, I grant you, that’s just Jesus’ opinion—the opinion of one, Omniscient Guy!!! If we play these exegetical games where the least in the Kingdom is not least—last one in and just barely!—in order to make the prophets look always great, I fear we’re learning how to divorce “says” from “means”, stretch them so far apart that we’ll be able to make the Bible support any nonsense we’d like it to—and we’ve seen a fair bit of that in the last couple centuries I’d say and it hasn’t been pretty at all!
To me, one of the most charming, encouraging, and delightful things about Holy Scriptures is that the saints, the prophets, apostles, kings, and heroes of the Story are not always or even often saintly, kingly, and heroic! They are quite often like David, Peter, Paul, Jeremiah, Esther, Ruth, and John: people just like us: feet of clay, walking a few steps onto the stormy sea and then sinking like stones as their faith falters and they go “What the heck am I thinking here?!”. They have a few good moments when something like Faith takes over and plenty of moments they’d just as soon forget. Heaven is not for religious superheroes—for people who never make mistakes of doctrine or practice. Heaven is something just like this: a Place for hobos—for louts, losers, scalawags, pirates, and pretenders. The Church is really not a haven for saints but a hospital for sinners; more a Sinners Anonymous meeting than anything else, really!
It’s so easy to forget this, convenient to remember only our good moments, forget our faltering, failing, flailing-away attempts at following Jesus. So the Scriptures, if you take them straight, no chaser, will always remind you of this: we are not good or holy. Only Jesus is. Salvation is never something we achieve for our religious do-gooding. It is a Gift given away to hobos, the gold coins the King scatters in the streets for beggars, after all…
But we’d rather be heroes, experts, helpers rather than God’s helpees. John was great telling us how to live, how many coats we can have. But when it really mattered, it seems his own faith faltered to the breaking point.
Practicing what you preach is tough as my father discovered, once. He and my mother were non-swimmers. Their legitimate fear of drowning got me and my sister first in swim lessons, then on swim teams—my parents figuring lessons are good but serious competitive swimmers never drown, right?! So, it was at age 13, I was at an AAU regional where I missed out on the finals of the 100 fly, gassed from a 200 free prelim swim 20 minutes before. Dad was like “What was that? Your stroke completely broke down the last 25! Your kick and pull were totally out of sink, your chin was like a boat anchor.” I was like, “Butterfly is hard! It’s a stupid stroke, even when you’re fresh. How ‘bout you jump in the pool, do a couple laps fly, show me what you’re talking about?” He learned then who the swimmer and who the sinker was, as John we trust, did too, at Last…
What’s our takeaway, today? Maybe that it’s better to be martyred for clinging to Jesus as Lord, Savior (like Stephen!) than losing our head over Baptist morality? That, holiness-wise, sometimes less is more? That Heaven’s more for hobos than heroes? That any who look to Jesus, by faith alone, will never be ashamed, but will know Peace, surpassing understanding, that guards hearts, minds, heads in Christ Jesus our Savior. Amen.