By Joe P
Life has changed for John the Baptist since our last Lectionary reading.
The last we heard about him, he was the ‘new kid in town’ prophet, preaching – literally – in the wilderness to all who would come and visit him. We saw him referring to members of the religious establishment who were present as ‘a brood of vipers’ and asking people why they wanted to be baptised. He was also pretty ‘hard core’ about what might be expected; “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – and John reminded his audience that the fires were already being lit.
This was certainly what his audience would expect from a prophet, even if it was quite uncomfortable and scary!
But today – John’s in jail. Some of his preaching hit a little too close to home for King Herod, and John experienced the usual consequences of preaching truth to power.
But he is still in touch with his followers, and sends them out to find Jesus, who John has heard of. And the question he asks is “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Those of you with a long memory may recall that when I preached about John the Baptist some years ago, I mentioned the following observation made by John Meynard Keynes about Sir Isaac Newton:
“He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance.”
Newton’s work started the changes in scientific thinking that led to where we are today. And similarly, John the Baptist; a wildman, a voice crying out in the wilderness, carried on in the prophetic tradition of God’s people, whilst at the same time looking forward to something new; the presence of God incarnate amongst the people.
Like Newton, John sits between two traditions; he is in many ways the last traditional Hebrew prophet, looking out on the relationship of God with His people like all the people and prophets before him. But he is also looking forward to the coming of Christ, and the changing of the relationship between God and His creation that Jesus’s coming will bring about.
In this season of Advent, John’s prophetic ministry provides a pause, a wait, a sense of anticipation between the Old Testament and the Gospel. And John is now doing that waiting in jail, hearing about what’s happening through his followers, unable to preach himself.
John’s followers turn up at one of Jesus’s gatherings. We hear:
Jesus answered them, ‘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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
They leave to go back to John and pass Jesus’s word on.
Now, does Jesus explicitly answer John’s question?
John asks is “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I get the feeling that John’s followers, taking Jesus’s message back to John, might have said to each other ‘John isn’t going to like this…’
After all, John has been preaching his version of ‘hellfire and damnation’ to the people. He’s been the wild man of the wilderness, preaching wrath towards those he felt needed it. He’s been threatening the unrighteous with God’s axe and winnowing fork, and reminding them that the axe is nice and sharp at the foot of the tree, and that the flames are good and hot.
And this Jesus fellow – who looks like he could be ‘the one’, is going on about healing people and preaching good news to the poor.
We don’t hear what John himself has to say, but after John’s followers have left, Jesus speaks to the people about John the Baptist – some of whom will have been to see John speak.
“A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”
He suggests that what the people expected to see when they went to hear John is not what they got – we gathered that from our earlier readings about John’s preaching style. But they did go to see a prophet, and he was the prophet that spoke of Jesus’s own coming.
Not mentioned in our reading today, Jesus finishes his words to the crowd with the sentence:
“Yet Wisdom is shown to be right by what it does.”
Wisdom is shown to be right by what it does.
And surely – healing the blind, the lame, the deaf is good and righteous. It is a sign of Wisdom.
We should be able to see Wisdom by its actions. And it might not always be what we expect it to be.
He’s not said it explicitly to John’s followers, but I think that Jesus is expecting John to take heart from his words, that good things – life-changing, righteous worthwhile things – are being done for people by Jesus in his ministry.
John may be taken by surprise that Jesus’s way of bringing about the Kingdom of God is not what he expects – but he will have to admit that the good things that Jesus is doing are worthwhile.
And then there’s the last part of Jesus’s answer to John’s followers:
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
This is very reminiscent of the Beatitudes – we could add this on to the end of the Beatitudes with a small change:
“Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
I think this is John’s answer.
Jesus is saying ‘Whatever I do that impacts you, that might cause you offence or dismay, don’t be offended by it. In fact, you’ll be blessed if you’re not offended.’
This sounds a bit strange – but we need to remember that Jesus is a rule breaker; a game-changer; He is here to radically change the relationship of God and man. With Jesus, God is with us – in the flesh. Jesus’s preaching and actions would give people as many questions and concerns as John’s would.
Many would be offended; but to follow Jesus, and be blessed by him – do not be offended by Jesus’s teachings.
A lesson that should also be aware of; Jesus’s teachings may offend our personal beliefs; we may be taken aback by some of the things He says and does, but by refusing to take offence and embracing His teachings – we will be blessed.