A disillusioned prophet questions Jesus
On Friday night Steve and I attended a performance of Handel's Messiah at the Costa Hall. It was obvious that this was a well and truly practiced
and polished performance. Each of the participants had obviously spent hours both alone and together preparing for their roles in the performance. And being such a familiar choral piece it gave that added enjoyment often experienced by audiences who know and love the music. Now can you imagine for a moment how it would have been if one of the leading performers suddenly opened their mouth and sang different lines to a new and different albeit beautiful tune. A different tune than either the audience, the conductor or the rest of the musicians were expecting? Or a bit closer to home for us in Winchelsea imagine if Maureen King singing in John's cantata startled the choir singing a new apparently unprepared solo? Yet a solo that while shocking some by its unexpected nature was hauntingly beautiful and welcomed and applauded by the composer John. Bishop Tom Wright suggests that this is something like how John the baptist would have felt when he heard reports of Jesus ministry.
Well now lets leave the concert setting behind and let me take you now
on a bit of an imaginary trip back to ancient Jerusalem to meet another man called John. This time we are going to a prison cell no beautiful music here, just torment and deprivation and the cries of other unfortunate inmates.
Can you imagine the dark dirty and damp 1st century prison cell? No human rights conventions to satisfy in Herod's prison cells. Hardly enough room to move food if there was any served in the most unthinkable unhygienic manner. A place like that would be enough to depress and disillusion the strongest of individuals. And there sits our hero John the baptizer. In last weeks reading he was spouting with prophetic enthusiasm warning sinners to realign their lives with the vision
of God's coming Kingdom. He was confidently hurling words of judgment and impending doom at the religious hypocrites of his day.
Calling them broods of vipers and asking them 'Who had warned them to flee from the wrath to come'.
You see John had been waiting and preparing for a lifetime for the arrival of Israel's messiah. Ever since his miraculous birth he'd been told about his special mission and he didn't take it lightly. He knew deep down to the core of his being that he'd been personally sent by God with this special Elijah type task. He was no less than the final biblical, capital "P" prophet. His task was to prepare and herald in the arrival of the great King. And this task gave John such a boldness that he would even dare to take on Herod. That so called 'King Herod' who was no more than an immoral pretender to Israel's holy throne.
And now finally he had really believed that he'd seen the new Messiah he'd even baptized him in the Jordan. Although even at the time
John had had to admit he'd thought it was a bit strange that the Messiah
would submit to baptism. Yet then there was that opening of the clouds and the voice from Heaven declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, the one and only Son in whom God was actually proud. But then full of prophetic confidence he'd taken on Herod and his incestuous marriage
possibly going one time too many and a bit too personal and the rest was history.
So now sitting there in the dark feeling hungry and alone and cold and wet and miserable fending off the rats and squashing the fleas.
John began to wonder was he really mad or demon possessed like some people thought. He did have some very eccentric character traits and a strange sense of fashion. So was he just hearing voices? Had his parents been a bit demented in their old age. No! No! He had to stop that negativity he was sure he'd heard that voice. Surely Jesus was the promised Messiah. He believed God, it was just himself he was doubting.
But then if Jesus was who he believed he was why were things turning out the way they were? Why was he sitting there alone in a prison cell?
And why wasn't Jesus establishing his holy kingdom and obliterating the hypocrites who had all the stolen power in Israel. Not to mention the Roman occupiers why wasn't he dealing with that whole bad lot?
But Jesus seemed to be playing an unexpected tune. Why was he eating with the very sinners John thought he was coming to judge? John wouldn't touch wine! But Jesus did! Surely the messiah would avoid sinners. And John had even heard that he was eating even with those collaborating tax collectors. In fact it might have seemed to John that he John the prophet was putting his neck out further than Jesus. Jesus just seemed to go around offering mercy and forgiveness to the most undeserving 'low-lives'. At least John baptized them first and threatened them with judgment! Jesus just kept talking about love. This wasn't the tune he was expecting Jesus to play. Where was the fire? In fact it was a tune that might have even offended John’s prophetically tuned ears.
And I imagine at that point he might have cried out to God for help. Oh Lord help me. And perhaps it was at this time that one of the guards turned a blind eye and let one of his disciples in on a prison visit.
And John had just one thing he wanted to know, he had to know. And so he sends his disciples to Jesus with this vital question on his lips. "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" And then I imagine he sat and he waited for Jesus to give him the definite answer. Yes or no! And to pass the time he may have even dreamed a little, 'I am the one John I am the one! You have lived your whole life preparing for my arrival Any day now the trumpet will sound and you will be released from your prison and become my right hand man in the permanent Kingdom of God. Herod's throne will topple you’ll be vindicated yes John I am the promised Messiah I am indeed your man!
But then finally there's a real messenger at John's tiny window and a note is hurriedly pushed through the narrow prison bars. John opens it and reads "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 offense at me"
We don't actually get told how John reacts to this message. It wasn't the definitive answer well not to our ears that we thought John was expecting. But if you'll indulge my speculation for a moment longer. I imagine John sitting there in prison like a pauper in total poverty. Possibly remembering the stories his dad told him of going deaf and then getting back his hearing and then John suddenly realizing that he was the pauper who had been delivered the good news. And just in the nick of time or he could have become the one taking offense at the ministry of Jesus! The one who came and walked amongst the outcasts of good religious society.
And I imagine that as the good news dawned on his spiritual ears. These new reports helped him hear another equally prophetic note from Isaiah 35 in a tune that sounded like mercy and not yet judgment. The prophecies of the messiah who made the deaf hear the blind see the lame walk and cleansed the dirty lepers. And I would like to hope that John may have realized that even the power of the tyrant Herod over his prisoners, the power of the executioner could not prevail over a Messiah who could raise the dead!
But we don't really know what John thought because John's task was to go before the King and he'd done that! And its much more vital that we ask ourselves whether we have room in our own lives to follow the one who invites the outcast to eat with him and loves the sinners and offers cleansing and healing to those who come to him and do we take no offense at this merciful ministry.
The wonderful thing about these biblical narratives is that they are so easy to enter into. And the struggles we see in them are so often our own struggles. Have you ever been deeply disappointed with God? Disappointed like John may have been as he sat in his prison cell. Perhaps you’re not in a physical prison like he was but have you ever felt like you had been let down? Thought he owed you something that he failed to deliver? Have you seen the bad guy prosper? And wondered why justice never seemed to prevail? Are you putting it all on the line for God and can't understand why things are working out the way they seem to be going? John had been faithful to his extraordinary call, a call in which he appears like other prophets to have had no say. It had all been decided before he was even conceived. And when he died he didn't know he would even be remembered today. Or how things would turn out with Jesus.
Yet Jesus called John like he calls us to trust in him, even as he headed towards death as even a prophet needs to be saved by God's grace through faith. Jesus didn't give him easy answers and he doesn't give us easy answers either. Yet like John he calls us to put our faith in him, the one who even can raise the dead, that is a faith with an eternal perspective. And John played his part in God's plan for our redemption.
If you are feeling disappointed with God can I encourage you to reach out towards Jesus like John did from his prison cell and ask him to reveal himself to you in your struggles whatever they are today. And thank him for this scriptural revelation of himself as the one from whom, "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"
Let us pray.