Who is this John in Prison and what happened to the fiery John the Baptist from last week who knew who he was and knew who Jesus was. Last week John proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” and was not above calling the Pharisees and Sadducees names. Can’t you just hear John shouting, “You brood of vipers!” John knew he was the one Isaiah spoke about when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John was every inch the prophet! John fulfilled the prophecies and knew it!
John knew who Jesus was too. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” In the Gospel of John when John the Baptist sees Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And Jesus knew who John was and recognized his authority. When Jesus came to John to be baptized, John tried to refuse, but Jesus said “no”, this is the right thing to do.
So what happened between last week and this week? Why is John suddenly questioning who he is and questioning who Jesus is? Is Jesus really the long expected Messiah? It is really not too surprising. Things have not quite turned out how John expected. John is in prison and probably knows the outcome will not be good for him. You don’t question the king and his choice of bride and expect to get away with it. Jesus is not exactly who he was expecting. I mean where is the Holy Spirit and the fire! Luke would have us believe that John and Jesus are cousins born within six months of each other. Many scholars believe that Jesus was a disciple of John and that over time John’s prominence diminished as Jesus’ increased. John is probably wondering if things are really turning out as planned. John probably needed a little reassurance at this point that things were going according to God’s plan, that he hadn’t chosen the wrong side. At one point Jesus even asked his disciples who people said that he was and who did the disciples say that he was and Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It sounds like even Jesus had times when he questioned who he was and was he really following God’s way.
So here we are at Advent III, two weeks to the day before Christmas. We have been busy with baking, gift buying, Christmas letters, Christmas parties, Final Exams, grading papers, decorating, but have we taken time to ask, “Who was John the Baptist? And what does he mean for me? Who was Jesus? And why do I care?”
Teachers, professors, what is your pedagogy for teaching? How do children learn? How do adults learn? And how do you apply that to your work and how do we apply that to our lives? We learn by seeing what our parents, teachers and other adults do, by example. We learn about God by hearing his story over and over again until we can repeat it. We memorize the Lord’s Prayer and know it by heart. We learn the alphabet, we learn to count, we learn the multiplication table by rote, by continuous repetition. We may know Psalm 146 by heart, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being”, but do we understand what it means. When learning to read music I learned the rhymes, “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” and FACE for the alternate keys, but that did not mean I could read music.
We hear the stories of our faith, we tell the stories of John the Baptist, but have we engaged with the story, chewed on it, struggled with it, and questioned it? There is nothing wrong with having doubts and asking questions. Was Mary really a virgin? Why is Jesus born to an unwed teenager? Was John really Jesus’ cousin? Why does Matthew include the story of the wise men and were there really only three? What is the author of the gospel really trying to tell us? It is in the questioning, the struggle with the story that we really come to understand the message.
Have you heard the phrase “Elevator Speech”? Essentially an Elevator Speech is an extremely pithy description of something, prepared in advance to be used in situations where time is of the essence. The term comes from the hypothetical situation of somebody seeing a pin or something similar on your person that arouses their curiosity while in an elevator (such as a Safety Pin), and then asking you what exactly the pin stands for. Because “Welcoming and Affirming” would be rather difficult to explain in the remaining duration of the elevator ride, the prepared elevator speech serves to provide as best of an answer as possible in the available time.
At a recent Episcopal Evangelism Conference, that sounds like a bit of an oxymoron doesn’t it, the participants were asked to create an elevator speech of who Jesus was and why they loved him. It is harder than you think. How would you explain in 30 seconds why you are a Christian, why loving Jesus is still relevant in the 21st century? Try it.
In today’s gospel, John needed to be reassured as to why he loved Jesus, why he believed Jesus was the Messiah and why he was willing to die for that belief. When John’s disciples came to Jesus to ask if he was the Messiah, Jesus did not answer their question directly. Jesus asked them to look at the evidence and decide for themselves. “Jesus answered them, ‘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 takes no offense at me.” Jesus didn’t tell them what to believe, but challenged them to think about it and come to a conclusion.
Your homework this week is to think about why you love Jesus and write a 30 second “Elevator Speech”. Start with three minutes and distill it down to the most important details. Look at the evidence, review scripture, watch for where you see God active in our community today and come to your conclusion. Is Jesus the Messiah? Why is He relevant today? And why do you love Jesus? I look forward to hearing some of your answers in the future. Happy discernment! Amen.