The Beginning of the Middle of the Story

Matthew 11:2-11; Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10

Imagine poor John, locked in the dungeon of Herod’s fortress, his fate hanging by the whims of people who are notoriously immoral and impulsive.  As he stares at the stone walls of his cell he has nothing but time on his hands.  Time to reflect.  Time to remember.  Time to second-guess both his mission and his memory.  Time to doubt.

Did he really see the Spirit descend on Jesus or was it just a trick of the light dancing on the water?  Did he really hear the voice of God or was it, as some said, only thunder bouncing off the hills?  He knows he is going to die soon.  He knows that Herodias will find some reason to have him executed.  If at all possible, he would like to put his doubts to rest before that happens.

So he sends two of his disciples to find Jesus and ask him:  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  

 It’s easy to brush past John the Baptist even though he comes up in our texts every year at this time.  It’s easy to think of him as a footnote in history, a wild man in the wilderness whose primary purpose was to point to Jesus.  The gospel accounts do tend to skew his story that way, but then the gospels are primarily interested in the story of Jesus, and in that story John is not the central character.

We forget that John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, had hundreds, perhaps even thousands of followers, so many that Herod Antipas saw him as a potential political threat.  The Roman historian, Josephus described John as “this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.”  Many of John’s followers remained loyal to him after his death and even today the Mandaeans, an ethnoreligious group with roots going back to ancient Palestine, regard themselves as followers of John the Baptist whom they see as the greatest of the prophets.  

Muslims know John as Yahya ibn Zakariya, and venerate him as one of the greatest of God’s prophets.  John is also revered by people of the Bahai faith and the Druze.  Clearly his call to live a life of virtue, to treat each other with righteousness, and to revere God resonated beyond his role in the gospels.  In the fullness of history, John was much more than just a prelude to Jesus.

I think one reason we tend to diminish John in our Christian traditions is that we come to him very late in his story and very early in the story of Jesus.  We forget that both of them come in the middle of a much, much larger and longer story, a story that began with God making a covenant with Abraham, a story that is carried through times of slavery and exile in Egypt and Babylon.  It is a story of a people who cling to their covenant and identity during times of foreign oppression by Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome.  It is the story of hope kept alive by the leadership, visions and prophetic voices of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Amos and others, including John the Baptizer.

It is a story of seeds planted as dreams of a better world, a world where creation, itself, is restored and renewed, where “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”  This longer, larger story plants the seeds of a vision of healing where “weak hands are strengthened” and “feeble knees made firm,” where “the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped” and where “the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  These are the seeds of God’s vision for a world where captives, exiles and refugees return home, where migrants find a place to put down roots, where all wanderers find a safe place to “obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”[1]  

This longer, larger story is scattered as seeds of peace being sown throughout the world until that much anticipated day when the flower of peace will bloom, that day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they study war anymore.”[2]

This longer, larger story is the story of hope always on the horizon.  It is the story of a people waiting for the Anointed One who will inaugurate the fulfillment of the vision.

This is the longer, larger story that John inherits.  John enters the story knowing there is so much that still needs to be repaired before the vision he has inherited can become a reality, and that the things most urgently in need or repairing are the human heart, the human way of seeing, the human way of being, the human way of thinking.  He sees the brokenness of the world clearly.  He sees the ways that those who wield power and authority are complicit in that brokenness.  He feels the anxiety and dissatisfaction of the people who bear the scars of living in that predatory and oppressive brokenness.  He sees the dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

And then he sees Jesus.  And that hope that was always on the horizon seems closer and more possible than ever before.

John points to Jesus.  But John is not done.  John sees the world, and he tells the truth about what he sees.  He calls people to change, to turn around and go a new direction because a reckoning is coming and the new day is dawning.  He speaks truth to power.  And when he publicly condemns Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas for divorcing Herod’s brother, when he publicly denounces Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, he is arrested.

Languishing in prison, bedeviled by doubt, John sends his question to Jesus:  Are you the one… or should we wait for another?

Jesus doesn’t answer John with bravado or any kind of self-proclamation.  He simply tells John’s disciples to “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 does not stumble because of me.” 

Jesus is telling John that the things Isaiah foresaw are happening, the signs generations had hoped for are being performed.  Jesus is telling John that in his work the seeds of God’s vision are sprouting and peeking above the soil.  In him the kingdom has begun to arrive.

If you have times of doubt, if you have times when the brokenness of the world seems overwhelming, if you find yourself being punished for speaking truth, remember John.  John had tremendous faith. Among those born of women, said Jesus, there has been no one greater than John.   But when the walls were closing in, even John had his doubts.

If you have times when you wonder if humanity is a lost cause, take a moment to remind yourself that the seeds of God’s vision are still growing and still being planted.  It’s up to us to keep sowing them.  “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth,” wrote James, “being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.  You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”[3]  

And finally, it’s always good to remember that we don’t know where we are in God’s longer, larger story.  Yes, the world is still broken, but there are signs of repair work in progress if you know where to look, and one of those signs is you and me.  We are partners in the repair work God is doing in the world.  And that, alone, is cause for rejoicing.  


[1] Isaiah 35:1-10

[2] Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3

[3] James 5:7-10

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