Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Are you the One?"

Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matt. 11:2-11
by Rivkah

Poor John the Baptist has landed himself in prison. No more desert wandering for a while for him. Of course, that’s what he gets for pointing out Herod’s indiscretions with his sister-in-law. Yet, locked away as he is, he is still able to prepare the people for Jesus’ ministry. He, like Jesus, has disciples to go out for him. So, while he is cooped up in prison, they go on an errand to find out a little bit more about Jesus and what he is doing.

"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for someone else?” It seems like John more than anyone else, ought to already know the answer to that question. It reminds me of the words of Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” “Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold to me?” Even though he can see quite clearly that it is a spirit and he knew to expect it, he still has to ask. I almost expect to hear the spirit spit back, "Well, yeah, who else would I be?”But Scrooge, even knowing the spirit would be there, asks because it is always hard to believe when a spirit shows up.

The same is true for John. He knows that the Messiah will show up. He even knows who it is. After all, he baptized Jesus only recently. But it is a little hard to grasp when he finally shows up. “Are you the one who is to come?” The question is more along the lines of: “Is it really you? I see you, but I hardly believe my own eyes!” What John sees is Jesus performing miracles and teaching in the temple. Perhaps he only asks so his disciples to go find Jesus so they can go find out what Jesus’ own answer is. Or perhaps he was getting a little antsy that Jesus wasn’t doing what a Messiah ought to be doing. Certainly not healing the sick, and teaching about helping the poor and oppressed.

From all indications, this is not what the first century Jews expected from their Messiah. They wanted justice and punishment for the criminals (read the Romans) and probably some theatrical raining of fire and brimstone, a burning bush or two, and maybe even a fiery sword to smite their enemies. So it’s no wonder that John is asking, "Are you the one, or are we supposed to wait for somebody else?” Maybe even somebody better, with a little more flash.

And admittedly, he was probably not surprised by Jesus’ answer, but maybe a little disappointed. In fact, most of the Jews were disappointed. Where was the mighty ruler of armies? Where was the warrior to overthrow their oppressors? From the perspective of those Jews, Jesus had more of an air of prophet than Messiah. Even Elisha had cleansed a leper and raised a boy from the dead. Of course John asks, “are you the one?” Even if he knew the answer, it never hurts to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. And of course, in typical Jesus fashion, he never just says, ”yes,” or “no.” He actually just tells John’s disciples to go and report what they have seen and heard. That makes for significant room for interpretation, especially since what they have seen and heard looked a lot like what the prophets of old were doing. But it also looked a lot like what the prophets of old said the Messiah would be doing. Isaiah says that the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame shall leap, and the mute will sing for joy. All of these, and more, are the signs of the Messiah. But Jesus leaves the interpretation of the signs up to John and his disciples. It makes sense that way; people will believe what they want to believe. Either way, the Messiah has come to make the final judgment. Only it isn’t the way that the Jews originally thought it would be. To John, a fierce denouncer of the sins of the people, a Messiah would be the type to lay waste to those who commit wrong, especially those who commit wrong against Israel. John was a fiery sword, “woe to you,” kind of guy.

I have to admit, I hope that’s not what we get for Jesus’ return. Flaming chariots and raining brimstone aren’t my thing. Maybe it’s the fire hazard, but I’d rather we see the healing and teaching, personally. Though probably not if my people had spent hundreds of years under oppressive rule and were waiting for a liberator. Not if my city were under a corrupt authority, cheating me and my friends out of a hard earned wage that was way below what was paid to the Roman citizens. No, if that were the case, I’d feel just like John and the rest. I’d want someone to come and sweep it all clean.

“Are you the one?” It’s a very legitimate question when what you are expecting gets turned on its head. I don’t know what to expect anymore. What will we get when Jesus returns? Will we get the Gospel Jesus, healing and teaching peace? Will we get the Messiah that the Jews expected the first time around, brandishing a flaming sword and stamping out corruption and oppression with death and destruction? There are a plethora of theories out there about Jesus' return. Some think he has already returned and spoken to their leaders. I, personally, have stopped trying to imagine what it will be like. Once I conceded that God’s capabilities were beyond my comprehension, I decided that it was pointless to try and imagine what God could do.

I’m sure that’s how the first Christmas felt, too. A virgin having a baby, putting him in a manger, angels singing to shepherds, wise men traveling from far away with only a star to follow. It’s beyond what anyone could have imagined, especially for the coming of the Messiah. It’s no wonder John asks, “Are you the one?” And who wouldn’t be confused? Jesus doesn’t even use language that would seem appropriate to a Messiah. No warrior language, no might and power here. Just language drawn from the lives of shepherds and fishermen. It’s no wonder so many people missed it. It’s no wonder that even John is questioning him. Wouldn’t we miss it too? Or perhaps, dis-miss it, even? Often when people speak about peace and justice they are easily ignored as idealists. Do they live in the real world? Can’t they see that it will never happen? It would take the world turning upside down before we could have peace and justice as the rule rather than the exception.

But that is what our job as Christians would have us do. We are to work to turn the world upside down until Christ can come again and finish the job he started. Jesus began the work of turning things on their heads. Of course it is upside down to hear the muted tongue speak or see the lame leap like deer. Of all the things we don't expect, we can expect the Messiah to turn things on their heads. And Jesus is so good at that. Even from the start, from being born of a virgin and laid in a manger with shepherds to welcome him into the world to speaking in parables that upset much of the Jewish Scripture and preaching to crowds of thousands while feeding them with only a few fish and some bread.

I can only imagine the number of people who asked Jesus, “Who are you?” even after seeing the miracles he’d performed and hearing the parables he preached. And then after considering for a moment those same miracles and parables asking, “Are you the one who is to come?” John had to have had some doubts, I think to ask that question of Jesus. Even if he was sending the disciples to get an answer for their own sakes, he must have wondered on occasion if he’d gotten the right guy at the River Jordan. He could have just sent the disciples, saying, “Go and see what the Messiah is up to.” But instead he asks, “Are you the one who is to come?” He needed to make sure for himself as well as his followers. Maybe he just needed to know if he was wasting his time. “Should we wait for another?” If Jesus was the real McCoy, John needed to know. It was John’s job to know since he was supposed to be preparing the way for the Messiah. John needed to make sure he was preparing the way for the right guy, even if this guy didn’t act much like a Messiah ought to.

So if even John the Baptist, the one who was supposed to be preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah wasn’t sure who he was looking for, how are we supposed to know who to look for? Would we even listen to someone like John if he came to tell us that the Messiah was coming again? Probably not. Most likely we’d shake our heads at the poor crazy or lock him away out of sight and mind. We come with our own notions of what we think the Messiah ought to be doing to save the world. We even have our own thoughts about who should and shouldn’t be saved, as well as how and when. And it's precisely those notions that the Messiah will turn on their heads. Is it any wonder that John had to come first to get people ready for Jesus’ message?It would take anyone some time to let the idea of the Messiah sink in. Of course, we’ve had two thousand some years now to get ready for his return. Yet, I’m still not sure we’re prepared for that momentous event. We might be looking to our left and the Messiah will appear on our right. Even when they were told what to look for, the people of Israel still doubted. They had in their minds what they thought the Messiah ought to be and do. They had forgotten what the prophets had told them. They had ignored the signs that were given to fulfill the words of the prophets. Even John the Baptist was not immune to it all.

We cannot and should not be complacent thinking that we will just know the Messiah when we see him. Even the Jews who were told by Isaiah and several other prophets what to look for did not recognize him in their midst. Only when we see the world being turned upside down, can we start asking, “Are you the one?” And, like John, we will probably have to decide for ourselves if we want to believe that actions speak louder than words. Even if the Messiah returned right now, even if he fulfilled the prophecies to a T, I think we would still be justified in asking, “Are you the one who is to come?” Do my eyes deceive me, or are you really the Messiah?

John, even with his doubts, I think wanted to believe that Jesus was “the one who is to come.” Haven’t you ever asked a question that you were pretty sure you knew the answer to, just to be absolutely certain you were right? That may have been what John was doing. Just like Scrooge’s spirits, he can see that Jesus is indeed the one “whose coming was foretold,” but it is still hard to believe when the miraculous occurs. For us, it is even harder. Do we even know what signs to look for? Do we look to the same prophecies that Isaiah gives us or will they be different this time around? Do we look for another John the Baptist to herald the second coming? What are we to look for? What has been foretold to us? Well, it’s hard to say, honestly. That’s why I think it is always ok to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” At least if we are asking, we are not forgetting that God’s promise of the return of the Messiah will, indeed, be fulfilled. At least if we are asking, we are seeking the Messiah’s return. Asking means we believe that it will happen, that God will indeed be with us again. O come, O come Emmanuel! Amen.

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