Why is it so hard these days for people to believe? According to last year’s census in Great Britain, only 46% of the population there identify as Christian, while 37% claim no religion at all. Certainly, one of the reasons why religion in general—and Christianity in particular—is waning in Europe and North America can be traced back to the way it’s been presented and practiced. As a collective, we Christians have been guilty of some major failures: intolerance and disrespect, seeking to change or punish rather than to understand. We’ve been guilty of arrogance and cultural insensitivity, failing to acknowledge and appreciate differing worldviews. In our preaching and teaching, we’ve failed to grasp that truth itself is dialectical—it’s a dialog between our human understanding and both the material and spiritual universe. Truth is not, nor can it ever be, static. Human understanding and its expression in language evolve continually. Therefore, our concept of truth itself must also evolve.
Is it any wonder that the Christian message of the saving power of the reign of God is being disregarded and disparaged? When Christians behave with more arrogance, intolerance, and rigidity than the Pharisees of old, then who will see in them the humility, compassion, and love of Jesus? Who will see in them the saving power of the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed? Christianity is not innocent of its own failures…however, that’s only half of the story. Spiritual seekers and would-be followers of Jesus are themselves also to blame. That’s the message of today’s readings.
Although we have no written record of John the Baptist’s preaching, the gospels give us strong indications of what the content of his message was. He preached repentance—symbolized by baptism in water. He called on his followers to turn away from self-interest and sin, and to get right with God because the day of judgment—the day of wrath—was upon them. John the Baptist was the original preacher of the “repent for the end of the world is near” message. He warned of God’s punishment of evildoers. He taught that God was about to wage war on his enemies and wreak havoc upon them. He preached the immanent coming of a messianic savior-king who would establish God’s empire throughout the world. He warned everybody, including the scribes and Pharisees to straighten up, and he even confronted King Herod who’d married his brother’s wife. That was the political message that got John arrested and thrown into prison.
In today’s gospel, John sends word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Why did he ask that? He’d already identified Jesus as someone specially anointed by the Holy Spirit. So, why his uncertainty? John was confused because Jesus didn’t preach the immanent judgment of God’s wrath, nor did he preach a war of extermination of God’s enemies, nor did he preach the establishment of a messianic empire.
That’s what makes Jesus’s answer to John so significant. Jesus preached the healing of ills—the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the diseased are cured, and even the dead are raised—and Jesus preached the bestowal of blessings—the good news of freedom to prisoners and those in the grip of poverty of body or spirit. In the Scriptures, there are plenty of references to the coming of the terrible Day of Yahweh, but in answer to John, Jesus didn’t refer to any of them. Instead, he quoted from the passage from Isaiah we heard as our first reading. Let’s listen again:
“Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.”
Even John the Baptist, the man whom Jesus called the greatest prophet of all—greater even than Moses—didn’t recognize Jesus. Why? It was because of his own expectations. That’s part of the curse of being human—our expectations determine to a very great extent what we see and hear and understand. There was once an experiment done where a lecture was recorded on audio tape. The scientists physically cut one word our from the tape and spliced a piece of tape containing a cough in its place. People were asked to write down exactly what they heard. Every person insisted that they “heard” the non-existent word. Similarly, our expectations cause us to miss seeing things that are right in front of us or to “see” non-existent things we thought should be there.
The gospel today stands as a warning not to let our expectations cause us to misjudge. At least John the Baptist was humble enough to hear what Jesus had to say before passing judgment. Most often, our judgments of others come with no such humility. How often do we take the time and energy to get to know someone’s situation—to walk a mile in their moccasins—before deciding that they don’t meet our expectations? How often do we hear people pass judgment on others, declaring that they’re not “real Christians” based on their own assumptions of what others’ motives may be…and what it takes to be a “real Christian?”
Most importantly, how easy it is to blame God, or even disparage the idea of God, because we think that God has failed to meet our expectations. In our arrogance, we humans may turn from God because we didn’t receive what we wanted when we wanted it. Those who hurt us weren’t punished, our enemies weren’t defeated, and we weren’t given the power and authority to have things our own way. When we do this, we fail to recognize that our disabilities and diseases were healed, our weaknesses strengthened, our faults and failings forgiven, and our lives restored.
John the Baptist expected the reign of God to bring punishment, and his call to repentance was born of a fear of the consequences. The reign of God that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, revealed was something altogether different. Repentance for Jesus was a change of heart that brings not only healing out of disability and disease, but strength out of weakness, freedom out of slavery, hope out of despair, and even life out of death. That is our Advent. That is the coming of Christ into our world. That is the reign of God that we’re challenged to experience. In fact, that is the reign of God we’re challenged to create. And that is the gospel we’re challenged to preach in our words and in our lives.