I’ve been thinking about John the Baptist this week, partly in preparation for Sunday’s message, but also because John the Baptist (let’s just call him “John” from now on) has always been a fascinating and enigmatic character to me.
John, the cousin of Jesus, who was likewise born under miraculous circumstances. John, who “leaped in the womb” when a newly pregnant Mary visited John’s six-months-pregnant mother Elizabeth, her “kinswoman” and friend. But John is of course connected to Jesus by more than blood. John is chosen by God to be the first prophet in Israel for more than 400 years since Malachi, so the story goes. And more: after years in the desert, John suddenly appears dressed in camel-hide, eating locusts and honey - a wild and weird and hairy man. (Given this description, it is perhaps understandable why Scorsese presents John as a half-crazy acid-dropping leader of a commune of hippies in the “Last Temptation of Christ.”)
In the stories about John, which appear at appear at (or near) the beginning of all four Gospels, he arrives on the scene with almost no introduction but with an already very prominent role. John’s divinely appointed task was to prepare the way for the Messiah and warn of the impending judgement on the unfaithful of Israel: “the axe is at the root of the tree”, “the great and terrible day of the Lord is near." Not the sort of stuff that generally wins friends and influences people.
But he did. People flocked to the Jordan river to hear him preach. He caused a huge stir in Israel; even the religious leaders from Jerusalem came down to listen. Even King Herod.
“Finally, a prophet has arisen in Israel!” The anticipation that Something Was About To Happen is palpable in these stories.
The people cry out: “What must we do?” How do we prepare for what is coming? John called them to repentance and baptism; to a renewal of faithfulness to God. This is what we’ve been longing to see for four hundred years! Get ready: prepare your hearts.
One Christmas when I was about six or seven, I received a huge and richly illustrated book called The Life of Christ, which I still have to this day. Alongside the text are full-colour plates of famous paintings based on four Gospels, including a very disturbing one of John the Baptist’s recently severed head on a silver platter, being presented to Herod by his daughter Salome as a birthday gift.
As a young boy this image both repulsed and fascinated me. And it still does. Then it was probably due to the “gore factor,” but now it is for a different reason. Namely, how is it that John the Baptist, the chosen forerunner for the Messiah, ended up like this? At (if our timing is right) barely 30 years of age: arrested, imprisoned, and eventually executed by Herod before John has even had a chance to experience what he was announcing, except very briefly. This seems hardly fair, but as troubling as John’s short life may be, it is not as troubling to me as what happens just prior to his death.
John, rotting away in an awful first-century prison, probably aware that he is going to die, naturally begins to doubt. So John sends word to Jesus via one of his few remaining disciples and asks:
“Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for someone else?”
Actually, ‘doubt’ doesn’t even get to the heart of this question. This is a full-blown existential crisis. I wonder if John, lying in his cramped, dank, dark, rat-infested prison cell, is beginning to think he has made a terrible mistake. Did I get it wrong? Did I really hear God? Is Jesus really the Messiah? Was I ever truly a prophet? Am I a deluded fool? Am I not a total loser? Have I screwed up my whole life?
I don’t know if you’ve ever had an experience like this: when life seems to contract around you, you feel alone, lost, helpless against the weight of the questions. On those cold-sweat nights, thinking through all the mistakes you’ve made, the wrong decisions, the missed opportunities, you wonder if there is any hope for the future. How am I going to get through this?
How does Jesus respond to John’s question?
Jesus responds by sending John His resume. “Jesus replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’” (Luke 7:22-23)
As if to say, “What’s your problem, John? You did what was asked of you. Well done.”
I doubt this was what John wanted to hear. I imagine he wanted to hear: “Don’t worry John, you’ll get through this, I will be there for you, nothing bad is going to happen.”
But Jesus doesn’t say this, and John ends up dead.
Jesus is coming through (or so it seems) for everyone else: the blind, the lame, the lepers, the poor, but John he leaves in the prison to rot. How is this fair? It’s not fair, nevertheless, Jesus’ reply to John is:
“Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Or, Blessed is the one who does not loose their faith on account of me.
Or, Blessed is the one who does not give up on account of me.
That seems like a very hard thing for Jesus to say.
You may have heard it said or preached or read somewhere that JESUS IS ALWAYS GOING TO COME THROUGH FOR YOU. Because you’re a Christian you’ll be prosperous and healthy and everything will be awesome and go well, but if it doesn’t, if your business fails, or you get sick, or if you have depression, or if your home is invaded by ISIS terrorists, then you either don’t have enough faith or you have some kind of secret sin in your life or you didn't pray hard enough.
How did we come to this?
How did we arrive at a version of the gospel in which everything is cute and easy and upper-middle class and our lives will always have a happy ending?
The truth is this: Not every life is the same. We don’t all have the same call. There is no premium package that everyone receives when they follow Christ, which guarantees that everything is going to go exactly as we would like. There is no promise that we won’t face hardship or disappointment or tears or suffering.
In fact, if you follow Christ, that might just be what you sign up for – you can’t know.
But in the midst of the hard realities of life: Blessed are you if you do not fall away on account of me.
Read that again: On account of ME. Not because of your secret sin or lack of faith or prayer or anything else, but because of Jesus Himself. It may be that Jesus will call you to a life that will cause you to question His goodness, His faithfulness. Why would He do this? There are no simple answers to this question. Martin Luther once said:
“The righteous man always resembles more a loser than a victor, for the Lord lets him be tested and assailed to his utmost limits, as gold is tested in a furnace.”
Most days, that is not the gospel I want to believe in. I prefer the other version, the Disney version, the “don’t worry, everything is going to be alright” version. Unfortunately, that isn’t the gospel Jesus preached. Jesus said He had come to give us life, yes, and the kind of life that will endure even through death. Here is the promise of the gospel: Life Wins. Death has been swallowed up in victory!
In the meantime however, the world must run its course and finally the trumpet will sound and Jesus will return to make everything new. On that day, I imagine we will sit with John the Baptist at the great wedding feast, and he will tell us that despite everything, it was worth it.
It was worth it to become a loser for the sake of gaining Christ.
It was worth it for my life to be refined like gold in the fire.
And indeed, Jesus had nothing but praise for John: “I tell you, among those born of woman there is no one greater than John.” (Luke 7:28) Yet Jesus still did not pull off the prison-break.
Sometimes success in the eyes of God will look like failure in the eyes of the world.
Paul the Apostle once said (who knew a thing or two about suffering):
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
I know our troubles rarely seem “light and momentary”, but they are when placed in relief against the promise of eternal life. The challenge is to learn how to view the world through that lens, to see through the temporary to the eternal and to place our hope in the life of the world to come. This is something we must all do, and not only those who suffer. For those with wealth, with comfort, with prosperity: it might actually be all the more difficult.
Thankfully, we have not been left to figure this out on our own...
...but that will have to wait until Sunday.