Since we are sitting here this morning in the church of Jesus Christ-or Jesus Messiah-it is easy to forget what a hard won title that was at first. If events had turned out even a little differently, we might know him as Jesus the Prophet or even Jesus the first-century martyr but not as Jesus the Christ, the anointed one of God, who was and is and who shall be.
Based on evidence in the Bible, we might even be sitting here in the Church of John Christ, formerly known as the Baptist, whom many believed to be the true Messiah of God. According to Luke, John’s birth was also a miraculous one announced by the angel Gabriel. Unlike Jesus, John was descended from priests on both his mother and father’s sides. John wasted no time at all in a carpenter’s shop. He was an evangelist from the word go, who lived an austere life in the desert with his equally austere disciples.
While Jesus sat down to fancy suppers in town with people who drank too much and laughed too loud, John scavenged for his food in the wilderness. If he found something to eat, he ate. If he didn’t, he didn’t. He avoided alcohol altogether, the same way he avoided anything that might soften the sharpness of his focus on God.
Everything about him set him apart as a holy man: his way of life, his clothing, and above all his message. No one had heard anything like it in five hundred years. Ever since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Israel had been passed from one superpower to another-from Greece to Egypt to Syria to Rome. All those powers came with their own gods, of course, as well as their own laws and customs. The promised land had become a tarnished trophy handed from one empire to the next. The chosen people had become a conquered people, whose value lay chiefly in their ability to pay taxes. What was missing in all of this was any reaction from God. Hello? Is anybody there?
Where were the prophets who had once spoken for God to the people? Where was Nathan, opening King David’s heart to the consequences of his affair with Bathsheba? Where was Elijah, calling down fire from heaven so that no one who saw it could doubt the power of God? Where was Amos, shouting himself hoarse about God’s disgust with Israel’s obscene wealth and empty religion?
Those voices had been missing in Israel for five hundred years when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness sounding like God’s own air raid siren. Finally, someone was speaking God’s language again-talking about sin instead of profit, about repentance instead of compromise. John was not interested in helping people become more productive members of society. He wanted them poised to enter God’s coming kingdom and he was more than happy to pronounce judgment on anyone who stood in their way.
John let King Herod have it for being an all-around evil man. He let the Pharisees and Sadduccees have it for teaching religiousness instead of righteousness. He promised everyone that God was coming with a sharpened ax in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, to clean up a world that had become impassable with dead wood.
It was an invigorating message that won John a lot of converts. A helicopter flying over desert east of Jerusalem would have looked down on a colorful string of pilgrims that stretched from the city to an encampment by the river-John’s church-where he heard people’s confessions and renewed their hope that God had not abandoned them. It would not be long until the world was a different place, he told them. He was the beginning of the transformation, and God had already chosen someone else to complete it-someone who was walking toward John even as he spoke.
When Jesus and John met, the air between them must have crackled. Finally, things were getting off the ground. Finally, God had sent the chosen one. It would not be long now before things got rolling. The Messiah was about to establish justice on the earth.
At least that was the hope, right there at the beginning. Then Herod’s soldiers came with a warrant for John’s arrest, and the man who had lived as far as he could from human corruption found himself caged in Herod’s basement like a rat. The good news was that he was alone there. Jesus was still free, still hastening the kingdom, which may have been the only consolation John had.
Somehow or another, John kept up with what Jesus was doing. John’s disciples found some way to get messages to him, and to carry his messages back. The early reports of Jesus’ ministry were encouraging: miraculous healings, exorcisms, plenty of signs and wonders. That was good. That would get people’s attention for the big announcement. When Jesus finally declared God’s judgment, that would give him the authority he needed.
Only the big announcement never came. While John sat muzzled in jail, the only reports he received were about Jesus playing doctor with some very marginal people-lepers, demoniacs, hemorrhaging women-even a Roman soldier’s slave. What kind of witness was that to God’s justice? How was any of that going to help people know right from wrong?
It is not possible to psychologize John without indulging in fiction. We simply do not know what went on inside of him while he sat in Herod’s jail. We do know that Jesus never organized a picket outside the jail or did anything else to try and get John released. We know that John’s disciples came to Jesus to question him about the laxity of his spiritual practice. And we know that John himself finally sent Jesus a message: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Or in plain talk, Was I wrong about you? It sure looks like I was wrong about something. If I was right about you, then I was wrong about the Messiah. And if I was right about the Messiah, then I was wrong about you. If you know who you are, please just say so. There is no time to waste. If you are not the one, then we need to re-open the search fast.
Only Jesus would not just say so. Instead, he turned John’s disciples around so that they were not looking at him but at some of the people who followed him around. It was a gimpy, twitching group, sure enough, but they were more whole than they had ever been in their lives. They knew they were the lucky ones, too. There were plenty of blind people who were still blind, and plenty of dead people who were still dead. Jesus could not get around to everyone, but he had gotten around to them and there was not one doubt in their minds who he really was.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus said to John’s disciples. “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 offense at me.”
It was Isaiah’s prophecy come to life-not the part John had been focused on, about God coming with vengeance, with terrible recompense-but the other part, about the lame leaping like deer and the tongue of the speechless singing for joy. As a loving P.S. to the one who had baptized him, Jesus added a new beatitude at the end. And blessed is John if he can handle his disappointment in me.
John had wanted a tidal wave of a Messiah-someone who would be impossible to miss, who would make a clean sweep of things, who would witness to the omnipotent righteousness of God. What John got instead was a steady drip of mercy from a man named Jesus, in whom plenty of people saw no Messiah potential at all. As far as anyone knows, John died unconvinced. He died wondering who Jesus was and what kind of joke God had played on him, to have made him the messenger for such a languid Savior.
I wish I could tell you that Jesus’ own death and resurrection changed everything-that once word got out about God bringing him back to life, everyone saw the light and repented on the spot. They revised their priorities. They reformed their values. They resolved to live the way Jesus had taught them to live and God rewarded them with lasting effect. I wish I could tell you that today everyone knows who Jesus is. Everyone believes he opened the door between heaven and earth, and that through him God is at work in this world right now, acting with great power and might so that the kingdom may come at last.
You believe that, don’t you? Maybe not everyone, but at least you. No? I will tell you the truth. Sometimes I would give anything for one fireball from heaven, for one blast of raw power from a tidal wave God who would sweep my and everyone else’s doubts away for good. What I have instead is a steady drip of mercy from the followers of a man named Jesus, who is still playing doctor to a lot of marginal people in this world.
Right after the awful floods in Honduras, I read about two paramedics who left their jobs in the States and drove down to help pull bodies out of the mud. They did not speak the language. They did not know where they would stay once they got there. They did not even delude themselves that they were saving lives. They knew they were fishing for corpses, but it was the living they were doing it for. They thought it might help the families to give them back their loved ones for burial.
In the same newspaper I read about a hay farmer in the Midwest who had a lucky summer. He grew a lot more fescue than he needed and was trying to decide how much to sell when he heard about an Indian reservation just across the border where the summer drought had hit hard. With no irrigation, the reservation’s hay crop had been wiped out and their cows were starving. The farmer spent the rest of the week driving back and forth from his farm to the reservation, delivering tons of free hay to people who wondered what part of heaven he had dropped out of.
I could go on and on. Drip. Drip. Drip. These are not big stories. They are small stories, in which only a few people at a time are saved. Meanwhile, there are many others who go on wondering if they have been abandoned by God. They listen to the bold claims of faith. They look at the modest yields. Who can blame when they ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
The only way I know how to answer them is to point out how stone is shaped by water. See that round hole there? Water did that. Drop by transparent, short-lived drop, water transforms rock as no tidal wave could ever do. For reasons beyond our understanding, that is how the Messiah has decided to come for now—not all at once but steadily, drop by drop, for millennia. Every time someone lives as he lived by loving as he loved, another drop falls. For some people, it is not enough. For others, it is the way of life. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at him. Amen.