3rd Sunday in Advent
- Advent 3.21 “Shall We Look For Another?”
As a God and Savior, Jesus can leave a lot to be desired.
Not that I ever think that, mind you! But it does appear to be the opinion of a certain John the Baptizer (who, today, would be a Lutheran, not a Baptist, let’s be clear).
Now, the opinion that John the Lutheran held the opinion (even for just a fleeting moment) that Jesus was not the Messiah John pictured—but, left rather a lot to be desired God-wise, Messiah-wise, is, itself, a controversial opinion to hold. Because John the son of Zechariah the priest is a hero of the faith! The greatest human ever born! How can he waver—even if he is in prison and Jesus has been doing lots of miracles for strangers and can’t be bothered to conjure up a little prison-bust for his right hand man, John the OGB?
I just came up with that—the OGB—right now! (B being short for “Baptizer” not “Baptist”! and OG—for you non-hipsters—means “Original Gangster” what the cool kids say about the founder or originator of a revered practice). And… I like it, like it, yes I do! Actually, the OGB captures pretty well! how a 1st century Greek speaker transported to 21st century America would probably construe the Greek βαπτιστης. She certainly would not think of a sympathizer with a modern American sect (like you do!) when you hear “John the Baptist”, while the anachronistic irony of “John the Lutheran” is probably too subtle to to be widely appreciated, and none of the other titles sing… [it’s only rock n’roll] 🙂
Anyway, the thinking has mostly always been that John the OGB must be asking for a friend! Nearly all the old church fathers thought this—until the modern age, when rebellious doubt became more fashionable. Because; we can’t have wavering heroes of the faith, now, can we? If we allow that, pretty soon we’ll all be chilly, high-church, existentialist Kierkegaardians with a whiff of eau d’Camus and that would be… awful!
Now, I think the unbiased reader, unhindered by the weight of 2,000 years of church dogma, on reading this passage, would quite naturally think that John was asking this question for himself and that he sent these two guys because he was in prison and couldn’t get all up in Jesus’ face in-person (they didn’t have Zoom, yet :-). I always thought that (to be honest) from the first time I heard it read as a small child, all through college, grad school, and seminary exegetical classes. And when I had to preach on this text, I said so.
And then the peer pressure started! It was at a Winkle (circuit pastor’s conference) bible study years ago when I was doing a sermon study on this text. I said I’d always figured John was wavering, having a moment of doubt, thinking Jesus leaves a lot to be desired God-wise, Messiah-wise; and was promptly assailed by all the “brothers” for non-standard exegesis. Even the raging liberals, the 60’s seminex guys, jumped all over me! “For Christ’s sake! Even Luther thought John was asking for a friend! Good God, man! Get with the program!”
I would like to tell you I had a witty rejoinder and a snappy Luther (or Kierkegaard) quote to shut them up, but I didn’t. Or that I just said, “Well, even Luther can be wrong. Read the text!” But I didn’t do that either. Since I was young and inexperienced, I capitulated to my elders and meekly went along with the received opinion—largely because: if you hold the opinion that John held the opinion (even briefly) that Jesus left a lot to be desired God-wise, Messiah-wise, you will be accused of “projecting” your own weird, sketchy views onto the scriptures. And if you went to a “liberal” college, and an even more disreputable divinity school (as our Beloved Synod judges such things) you’ll cave more quickly—lest you be drummed out of the club, and/or get stuck in Akron, Ohio for the rest of your natural life. Which would be a terrible thing, Greg.
But, reading the text for this Sunday, I went, “Oh, ff… who cares? I’m going to say what I really think.” Because Jesus’ response to John compels this reading, I would argue. It brings us to grip with the real way Christ confronts and confounds us all.
The 12 Apostles are shockingly clueless and recalcitrant—when you read the Scriptures without preconceptions shaped by Sunday School leaflets. Why should John be any different? The only characters with no doubts and no sins to confess in the Bible are the Pharisees and Jesus denounces them as total hypocrites not to be emulated or admired (see Matthew 23!).
What had been reported to John about Jesus that prompted this question? Well… that Jesus healed a Roman centurion’s servant and praised his faith as greater than any he’d found in Israel! Then, he raised a poor widow’s son at Nain (hardly a hotbed of Israelite orthodoxy) from the dead! Now John seems to have been very much an “Israel first! We’ll strip-mine the other planets later” kind of guy as were most of the 12. It was only Paul and (reluctantly, post-Pentecost) Peter who considered that Gentiles might be people too, and could maybe become Xn! John was probably miffed hearing how Jesus is helping Gentiles, praising their faith as greater than Israelite!
I think this—rather than the fact he was languishing in prison—was what John was chafed about. The Messiah should save Israelites and only Israelites and to hell with the Gentiles, barbarians, and Americans! This was a widely held view and would almost certainly have made John think Jesus left a lot to be desired God-wise, Messiah-wise.
Which makes the most sense of Jesus’ response to John very own question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, the poor, are all fixed up by me, freely. Blessed is the one who is not too good for me to save!”
The offense here’s that good things happen to bad people. Israelites then mostly subscribed (as we see with the man born blind in John 9) to the notion that blindness, lameness, poverty, etc. are punishments for terrible sins committed by the sufferer, showing them unworthy of God’s presence and gifts. Jesus is like “Yeah, I came not for the good people, the healthy and orthodox, but for the bad—the sinners, the sufferers, the doubters! Blessed is the one who is not offended at me being merciful to hypocrites, but asks: “Is there room for one more?”
Jesus says (possibly sarcastically?) that John is the “greatest of all born of women” but the one who is least in the Kingdom is greater than he. Whoa! Sounds like John, with that attitude, is out of the club. The Kingdom is for the leastest, lostest, loserest. Like only those who know they deserve to go to hell (and praise God for being righteous in that judgment!) have any place in heaven.
But… by being least, lost, and out of the club, John is in pole position for salvation—paradoxically!
Jesus says our generation is like children playing the flute and demanding God dance to our tune. Jesus does leave a lot to be desired, God-wise, Messiah-wise, as we all naturally judge such things! But… for the out-of-the-box thinker, for the outsider, he’s just what the doctor ordered. When we stop calling the tune, when we pray only: “Command what you will, and make me love what you command”—happy just to be kites on Christ’s string, then we’ll find, with John, at last: Peace, surpassing all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.