Summary: John the Baptist understood the power of the miracles, but wanted judgment to accompany them. He was having trouble waiting for justice -- as we do.
I was cleaning out some things this week and came across some papers, among which were some cartoons I had saved. I must have been having a bad day, for one of the cartoons was Ziggy sitting at a desk with two letter trays, each piled high with papers. One tray was labeled “Trials,” and the other was labeled “Tribulations.” I’ve sat at that desk a few times.
The other cartoon was an old knight with shattered armor sitting against a tree. His horse was gone, his lance was broken, and the caption read, “Some days the dragon wins.”
When I saw that cartoon I thought about the Gospel reading for today concerning John the Baptist. John was a brave old knight, but he was broken and beaten, sitting in an underground dungeon. John had felt invincible. After all, his parents had told him about the miraculous events surrounding his birth that had left everyone buzzing for years — his mother’s pregnancy in old age, when everyone assumed she would always be childless; his father’s speechless condition after a visit by the angel Gabriel, during Zechariah’s service as priest in the temple. Gabriel had told Zechariah hat John would have the spirit and power of Elijah, preparing people for the coming of the Messiah. That’s heady stuff. What can happen to you when God has chosen you for that kind of a special purpose? After all, Elijah went up in a chariot of fire at the end of his ministry after facing down the political powers of his day. How could it not be the same for John, especially now that the Messiah had been revealed to him at his baptism? It was obvious God’s hand was on John in a powerful way.
But now the unthinkable has happened — the dragon appears to have won. Herod, whom John had publicly excoriated, was sitting comfortably in his palace watching his dancing girls, and John was feeling the lash of the flesh tearing whip and laying in an underground cell. John, who was a fiercely independent person living out in the wilderness, is now confined with all freedom gone. He is a wild man living in a cage. He was not a reed shaken by the wind; his convictions were fierce and his preaching came down like a hammer. He was not like a courtier, dressed in fine clothes and flattering the king in order to obtain favors. No, he was a prophet who had the courage to get in Herod’s face. And he wasn’t an ordinary prophet, he was the herald of the Christ, announcing his advent into the world. John was not able to understand the situation. He was to be the herald of the Christ and Jesus was to be the Messiah. If that was true, then how was it that the dragon appeared to be winning? It didn’t make sense. But what if he had been told that he would not only be imprisoned, but beheaded? If he was having trouble with the reality of his own imprisonment, how would he have handled the news that Jesus was to be imprisoned, beaten and crucified? It takes the air out of the triumphalism John had nurtured.
The epistle reading today has James saying to us to be patient in suffering. It is not something we like to hear. It doesn’t sound like good news. We don’t want to be patient in suffering, we want to be triumphant over it. We want to win and our enemies to lose, or even be destroyed. But James gives us three examples of patience: a farmer, the prophets, and (if you read one more verse) Job. A farmer knows that the condition of the field at the beginning of the season is not what it will be at the end of the season — when it’s harvest time. Now the land may appear barren, but then it will yield its full crop. The prophets spoke realizing they were talking of things not yet here, but were certain to come about in God’s timing. The prophets were also an example because they patiently suffered while they faithfully spoke God’s truth and carried out his will. Even so, they, like us, often complained to God because they could not understand why he did not act more immediately and forcefully. Jeremiah said, “You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jeremiah 12:1). Job suffered the loss of his children, friends and possessions, but as he sat in the ashes, scraping his festering sores with a broken piece of pottery, he said to his wife, who had suggested that he curse God and die: “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” That is the existential question. All of these people struggled and suffered, yet these strugglers are given to us as examples of faith and perseverance.