Tag Archives: public witness

Sunday, July 26th

NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. Grant that we may know your Son to be the true bread of heaven and share this bread with all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

John’s account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand differs from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke in several respects. Perhaps the most significant detail we learn from John is that the people Jesus fed in such a remarkable way responded by trying to seize him by force and make him king. And why not? Jesus would likely make a great king, wouldn’t he?

Yes and no. Jesus understood only too well the nature and pitfalls of empire. He was well aware of the criticism leveled by the prophet Jeremiah against the kings of Judah reflected in our lesson for this Sunday. But he was not about to identify with the “righteous Branch” from the line of David for which Jeremiah longed. Jesus understood that the flaw lay not merely in the character of Judah’s kings, but in the monarchical system itself. A king’s integrity cannot transform the imperial machinery of injustice into the gentle reign of God. A government that rules through coercion backed by violence cannot bring forth justice and peace-even in the hands of a good ruler. That is why Jesus would not be king, would not permit his disciples to raise the sword in his defense, would not invoke angelic power to deliver him from arrest and execution. In so doing, he would only have become another tyrant. Under the reign of Jesus, we might have seen, relatively speaking, a “kinder, gentler” empire. But it would nevertheless still have been the same oppressive and dehumanizing governmental machinery that runs on war, exploitation and blood.

Yet in the proper sense, Jesus is a king. When Jesus informed Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world,” he did not mean to say that his was a kingdom of the afterlife or of inward spiritual perfection. He said rather that his kingdom does not operate under the same violent ideology of empire that props up the nations of the world. If it were such a kingdom, then of course, Jesus’ disciples would be expected to take up the sword in his defense. Pilate simply cannot comprehend how Jesus can be so indifferent to his power. “Don’t you know,” he fumes, “that I have power to release you, and to crucify you?” John 19:10. The threat of violence is the only weapon in Pilate’s quiver. When it fails to intimidate Jesus, Pilate suddenly finds himself powerless and he knows it. Rome is face to face with the ruler of a kingdom it cannot defeat. The empire crumbles when nobody takes its threats seriously anymore.

It is hardly the case that Jesus is indifferent to actual, physical hunger. He recognizes, however, that the machinery of empire cannot finally redress injustice, oppression and violence that cause hunger among the greater part of humanity. The systemically evil empire cannot be reformed. Nor will it do to sweep it away with violence, thereby sowing seeds for the rise of a similar imperial regime. The allure of empire can only be dismantled by the creation of a new regime in its midst unmasking it with truthful speech and refuting its claim to allegiance by its existence as a peaceful and just community allied solely with God’s just reign. Empire is undone when the church begins to live as though Jesus really did rise from death and that his resurrection makes a difference.

This story, as John tells it, has radical implications for a consumer culture with an economy driven by greed, where economic growth is measured in terms of corporate profitability while the availability of good jobs with benefits evaporates, wages decline and working hours increase. “Food insecurity,” which is a euphemism for malnutrition and hunger, is increasingly prevalent in our country even as the market indicators reach historically high levels. Stimulating this perverse economy will do nothing to bring about bread for all. It is time we all stop pretending that it will and recognize that a radical reversal must take place in order for all to eat. The Bible has a term for such a reversal: repentance.

Repentance is, to be sure, a change of heart. But a genuine change of heart cannot help but have societal ramifications. The call here is for a church that identifies with the hungry, not merely to solicit their votes in a campaign to reform the empire, but to enlist them as partners in dismantling the machinery of oppression. While it is hard to imagine a church such as mine, that is so far removed from the realities of hunger, engaging the hungry in such a way, imagination is precisely what we need. Faithful, prophetic imagination is to the church what the sword is to the empire-the weapon of choice.

2 Kings 4:42-44

This short story is one of many about Elisha and his miraculous works found in Chapter 4 of the Second Book of Kings. Elisha, you may recall, was the prophetic successor to Elijah who was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire. He was a member and perhaps the leader of an obscure group identified in Second Kings only as “the sons of the prophets.” According to Professor Gerhard Von Rad, these groups constituted separate communities within the framework of Israelite society closely associated with local sanctuaries. Von Rad, Gerhard, Old Testament Theology, Vol. II, (c. 1960 by Oliver & Boyd) p. 26. Members of these groups were likely drawn from a very low economic and social stratum in the population lacking both power and status. Ibid. They seem to have lived together in communities. Von Rad further states that “[w]e are probably right in thinking that these bands of prophets were almost the last representatives of pure Jahwism and its divine law” in a society increasingly dominated by Canaanite religion and culture. Ibid 26-27. They were married, had children and apparently held property and so should not be understood as a monastic order of any kind. Over time, as kings in Israel and Judah favoring the traditional faith of Israel came to power, the sons of the prophets evolved into a professional guild of persons with the unique ability to speak on God’s behalf. By the time of the prophet Amos, the guild appears to have become little more than the mouthpiece of the monarchy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Hence, Amos specifically denies being the son of a prophet. See Amos 7:14-15.

Based on what proceeds in II Kings 4:38, we know that this story takes place during a famine. A man comes to Elisha with a “first fruits offering.” Exodus 23:14-19. We do not know precisely why this offering was made under these circumstances. There is no statutory requirement in the Pentateuch for first fruits offerings to be presented to prophetic communities.  As the sons of the prophets were frequently associated with shrines, however, it would not be unusual for them to take on priestly duties as well. Elisha orders his servant to share the offering (twenty loaves of bread and a sack of grain) with the rest of the sons of the prophets numbering about one hundred. The servant, quite understandably, balks at the notion. After all, the offering is not large enough to feed the whole community. It is better that the community’s leader, Elisha, be spared than that he perish from starvation along with the entire community. Elisha is confident, however, that there will be enough for the community and to spare. This confidence is based on a word he has received from the Lord to that effect. Vs. 43. Like Jesus, Elisha focuses not on the magnitude of the hunger or the scarcity of his resources, but on the promise of the Lord to provide. Once again, this story challenges us to join the psalmist’s affirmation that God can indeed be trusted to provide for every living thing.

Psalm 145:10-18

This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 25. Each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:

Awesome is our God and Creator.

Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.

Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.

And so on down to letter Z. This kind of composition assists in memorization which, in a pre-literate society, is the primary means of passing down music and literature.

The psalm as a whole extols the character of God as both compassionate and mighty. It is both an expression of praise to God as well as a confessional statement made to the people of God declaring God’s goodness to all of Creation. Prayer is fluid in the Psalms. Often the same psalm will address God, the worshiping community, the whole of creation and the psalmist himself/herself within the same prayer. Note that although the people of the covenant are in the best position to recognize and witness to this God, they are not the only beneficiaries of God’s compassion. God is receptive to all who call upon him. vs. 18. The entire earth is God’s concern.

We can see in vs 15 an echo of the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day or daily bread.”  “The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145: 15-16. It is just because sustenance comes from the hand of God that we can be content with this day’s bread without worrying about tomorrow. The assurance and confidence in God’s willingness and promise to meet our needs ties in very nicely with the feeding of the five thousand and the discourse that follows throughout John Chapter 6.

Ephesians 3:14-21

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Vss. 14-15. There is a play on words here that gets lost in the translation. The Greek word for “father,” “pater” is the root for “patria” which means “country” or “father land.” The significance of this claim would not have been lost to folks living under the yoke of Rome which claimed to be the father of all peoples. This is a question of “Who’s your daddy?” aimed directly at Caesar. Disciples of Jesus owe their ultimate allegiance only to their Master. Nationalistic loyalties cannot be permitted to fracture the unity of Christ’s Body in which there are no national, racial, tribal or cultural divisions.

When Paul speaks here of “power,” it is always the power of the Spirit that is grounded in love. Urging his listeners to “put on the whole armor of God,” Paul turns this militaristic image on its head by identifying the church’s weaponry as truth, righteousness, peace, faith and prayer. Ephesians 6:10-20. He prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Vs. 17. It is through being “in Christ,” that one becomes grounded in love; for Christ Jesus is God’s concrete expression of love.

Perhaps more than any of the other Pauline letters, Ephesians pictures the church as a counter-cultural community whose worship and practices place it on a collision course with the priorities of the Roman Empire. Though it takes different forms, empire is very much alive and well today. Multi-national corporate interests that manipulate governments with their vast resources, educational institutions that promote a violent sports culture, the glamour industry that denigrates the bodies of young girls and the banking industry that holds our economy hostage to its interests are all examples of imperial power. Because we owe our jobs, financial security and education to these entities, we find it hard to resist having our lifestyles dictated by them. Nonetheless, as I have previously noted, there are a growing number of intentional communities seeking to give expression to such radical discipleship. See my post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.

John 6:1-21

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles always trigger questions/dialogue/confrontation spinning out lengthy discourses by Jesus. This story about Jesus’ feeding of five thousand people serves as an opener for a lengthy discourse he is about to have with his disciples, the crowds and his opponents. The dialogue is rich with sacramental imagery. Just as Jesus drew a distinction in his dialogue with the Samaritan woman between regular water and living water (John 4:7-15), so in the chapters to come Jesus will distinguish between bread that is merely “food which perishes” and “food that endures to eternal life.” John 6:27. Jesus finally discloses to his conversation partners that he himself is “the bread which came down from heaven” and that whoever “eats of this bread…will live forever.” John 6:51. At the end of this discourse, many of Jesus’ disciples desert him.

Unique to John’s telling of the story is an unnamed youth. He appears on the scene just as the disciples are facing what they view as a crisis. Five thousand people have been with Jesus for a long time out in the wilderness. They are hungry and we all know that hungry masses can easily turn violent. Buying food for all these people is not an option. Even if the disciples could have scared up two hundred denaii and there had been a deli nearby, the likelihood that it would have food on hand to serve five thousand is slim.

At this point, Andrew brings the young boy’s tendered lunch to the attention of Jesus. We don’t actually know whether the boy offered his lunch or whether Andrew commandeered it. The lesson does not tell us one way or the other, but it would be just like a kid to do something like putting up his lunch under these circumstances. A kid doesn’t understand that what little he has in his lunch box cannot possibly make a dent in the hunger of five thousand people. When he becomes a man, he will understand that there is only so much to go around; that if people are hungry it’s their problem, not his; that the best chance you have of survival is to hang on to what you have got and defend it with all means necessary. But at this point, he is just a kid. He doesn’t understand “the real world.” The only thing he does understand is that Jesus wants to feed this hungry crowd. He believes Jesus can do it and that he has something to offer that Jesus can use. Small wonder, then, that Jesus tells us “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3. The first step to becoming a disciple of Jesus is unlearning all the lessons of adulthood.

After feeding the five thousand, Jesus must beat a hasty retreat to avoid being taken by force and made king. Vs. 15. At the end of the chapter, Jesus will be deserted not only by this crowd who would have made him king, but also by most of his own disciples. This discourse is therefore a microcosm of the gospel narrative set forth at the outset: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God…” John 1:11-12.

For reasons that are not clear from the text, the disciples got into their boat and embarked without Jesus. Was this because they had become separated from Jesus in the hubbub ensuing as the crowd tried to acclaim him king? Or, sensing the danger that might result from the crowd’s coronation of Jesus, did the disciples simply flee and abandon him? In either case, they were relieved to discover that the approaching figure was none other than Jesus. On their own, the disciples appear to have been struggling against the sea. But on taking Jesus into the boat, they discover that they have arrived at their destination. This is, I believe, one of the many instances in which John wishes to make clear that “apart from me [Jesus], you can do nothing.” John 15:5. As I have often pointed out before, John’s gospel ends not with Jesus ascending to the right had of the Father or with Jesus sending the disciples out, but with Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. John 21:15-23. John cannot imagine the church without the presence of Jesus in its midst leading it forward.

 

Sunday, December 15th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 35:1–10
Psalm 146:5–10
James 5:7–10
Matthew 11:2–11

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

When asked by messengers from John the Baptist whether he was “the one to come” or whether John and his followers should look for another messiah, Jesus replied: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard. 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.” Matthew 11:4-5 In a recent speech given at Biola University, Christian activist Shane Claiborne reflected on this exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples and asked whether Christians today could say of their own lives that they demonstrate the same life giving message preached and lived by Jesus. He then went on to speak about a recent survey conducted by the Barna Group  out of Ventura, California soliciting the views of young people outside the church on Christians. The results were published in a book entitled Unchristian authored by David Kinnman. They are depressing, to say the least. They tend to show that most young people have lost respect for the church. Here are the study results as summarized by Godquest, an evangelical online publication: Read it and weep.

Hypocritical—Outsiders think that Christians say one thing and do another. They believe we do not act consistently with our beliefs and claim that Christians pretend to be something on the outside that is not real.

Too focused on getting converts—Outsiders often feel more like targets. They feel as if we merely want to get them “saved” and then move on to another accomplishment. Few report feeling genuinely loved by Christians. According to most outsiders, we are not good listeners. The majority of young outsiders do not feel that Christians show genuine interest in them as people.

Anti-homosexual—Young outsiders largely view Christians as hateful, bigoted, and non-compassionate in their dealings with homosexuals. They tend to view Christians as focused on “curing” homosexuals and using political means to silence them. According to many young outsiders, hostility toward gays is synonymous with Christianity (91% agree with this). Christians are often viewed as self-righteous and arrogant in their dealings with homosexuals, the opposite of how Jesus was perceived.

Sheltered—Outsiders largely think that Christians have simplistic answers to the deep complexities of life. We are viewed as old-fashioned, boring, behind the times, and not in touch with reality. Many think that we live in our own world, isolated from the real problems and complexities of life. Christians are largely viewed as ignorant and uninformed.

Too political—Christians are often viewed as synonymous with right-wing Republican conservatives. The majority of young outsiders think we are largely motivated by political interests.

Judgmental—Nearly 90% of outsiders say that the term judgmental accurately describes Christians today. Only 20% of outsiders view the church as a place where people are accepted and loved unconditionally. We are known much more for our criticism than for our love.

For further elaboration, See, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, Godquest, a site maintained by Worldview Ministries.

You might argue that these perceptions are unfair; that they are the result of excessive media coverage for organizations like Christian Coalition, Women Concerned and Westborough Baptist Church that claim to speak for all Christians but propagate their hateful ideological agendas in Christ’s name. There is some truth to that, but we cannot place the entire blame for our image problem on the backs of these organizations or the news coverage they receive. At the end of the day, we are responsible for our public witness. If we are getting shouted down by the likes of Fred Phelps and his deranged disciples with their cries of “God hates fags,” then we just need to speak louder and more forcefully the good news that God loves all people-especially the hated-and be willing to stand with these children of God sharing the persecution they have known all their lives. If we don’t want to be known only for what people think we are against, then we need to start demonstrating what we are for-and show that we are ready to make real sacrifices to achieve it. Churches need to get away from the notion that they are supposed to be the guardians of decency, order and morality. Jesus didn’t care much for any of these things. What he cared about was inviting people into the life giving ways of his Father’s kingdom. That is worth getting excited about. Would to God the church would rise up and make it heard!

Isaiah 35:1–10

For a quick overview of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, see the Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. To summarize the summary: The first part of this long book (Chapters 1-39) contains messages of judgment and warning similar to those of the other 8th Century prophets against hypocritical worship, complacency, and the failure to act with justice for the poor. As illustrated by the readings for the last two weeks, the prophet also speaks poetically and with graphic imagery about God’s coming messianic kingdom. The second part of the book (Chapters 40-55) brings words of comfort and hope to the exiles in Babylonian captivity in the 6th Century B.C.E. This section contains the “suffering servant” passages we commonly read during Lent and Holy Week such as Isaiah 53. Part three (Chapters 56-65) is made up of warnings and promises for the Jewish community after its return to Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C.E.

If only it were really that simple! In fact, all three sections underwent editing by other prophetic authors who composed their own material or wove oracles and sayings from other sources into the collection of sayings they had received. Further editing and inclusion of sources took place as these three sections were brought together into the Book of Isaiah we have today. Thus, for example, our reading from today, though included in the collection of sayings made up primarily of the 8th Century prophet Isaiah, is likely a product of the 6th Century or perhaps as late as the 5th Century B.C.E.  The parallels between this passage and similar verses in Second Isaiah such as Isaiah 55:12-13 suggest to some scholars a connection with the prophet of Second Isaiah or his disciples. Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c. 1962, SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 128. Some Hebrew scripture scholars also suggest that the prophetic utterance is even more recent dating from after the return of the Jews from Exile. They maintain that the “Holy Way” of which the prophet speaks is not only a return route from Babylon, but a multifaceted highway leading from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem by which Diaspora Jews (“the redeemed of the Lord”) may safely travel to the Holy City on pilgrimages. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 362. A few authorities still maintain that this passage should be attributed to the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century. They interpret the miraculous highway described therein as one for the return of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom conquered and carried into exile by the Assyrian Empire around 721-23 B.C.E. Mauchline, supra, p. 228. For reasons far too boring to discuss, I lean toward the late 6th to early 5th Century dating, but all of these theories are plausible.

As far as the canonical context goes, these jubilant verses of salvation, growth and renewal follow a withering oracle of judgment decreed against the nations in general and Edom in particular. Geographically, Edom was located south of Judea and the Dead Sea. See map. From the time of King Saul, Edom was subject to varying degrees of Israelite rule and suffered severe military reprisals for its efforts to win independence. Not surprisingly, then, Edom sided with the Babylonians in their final war with Judah and joined the Babylonian army in plundering Jerusalem. This perceived act of treachery was long remembered and the Judean thirst for revenge, chillingly expressed in the final verses of Psalm 137, was deeply impressed upon Israel’s psyche.

Though some scholars characterize Isaiah 34 as “apocalyptic,” I believe the label is misplaced. While the judgment in this chapter refers to cataclysmic cosmic events such as the stars of the heavens falling and the sky rolling up like a scroll, such hyperbolic language was common to prophets of the 8th Century when pronouncing God’s judgment within the confines of history. Furthermore, while the transformation of the desert into a garden-like highway free of intemperate weather and wild beasts is surely a miraculous event, it is no more historically improbable than Israel’s rescue at the Red Sea. I therefore believe that both chapters 34 and 35 have more in common with the earlier prophets’ preaching from the Exodus, Wilderness Wandering and Conquest of Canaan narratives than with the later apocalyptic writing such as that found in Daniel.

As with the lessons from the previous two weeks, these promises of salvation, reconciliation among the nations and world peace are spoken against the backdrop of an unstable and violent geopolitical landscape. The good news for such people “who lived in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2) is that it does not have to be this way, nor will it always be so. In the very midst of all this chaos, injustice, meaningless bloodshed and cruelty, God is at work bringing to birth a new creation. Isaiah was no ivory tower theologian. He was deeply involved in the social, political and military issues faced by his country as Chapter 7 of Isaiah demonstrates. But the prophet and his later literary descendents recognized that the realities of violence, injustice and oppression were not the only and certainly not the final realities. They were convinced that the future belonged to the gentle reign of Israel’s God who alone is worthy of worship and ultimate loyalty.

Psalm 146:5–10

This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.

The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here.

But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established. This hope is sometimes expressed in military terms, though even when Israel prevailed over her enemies in war, she always understood these victories as engineered by God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 8:17; Psalm 44:1-3. Yet from the time of the Judges to the time of the Maccabean rulers, Israel’s experience with political and military rulers had been a disappointment. Even the best of these leaders had failed to inaugurate anything like the new creation to which her prophets testified. Clearly, another kind of messiah was needed.

James 5:7–10

For an excellent overview of the book of James, see the Summary Article by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at enterthebible.org.

Once again, the lectionary people have committed exegetical malpractice, cutting the reading off before the most important verse, that being James 5:11: “Indeed, we call those blessed who were steadfast…” Not in this country. We call those blessed who are “over comers,” “high achievers,” “result getters.” Too often, the church falls into step with these false values. Mission strategies too often aim at institutional growth and stability instead of faithful witness. Congregations judge their pastors on membership growth, giving levels and building projects instead of faithfulness to the work of sacramental ministry, preaching, teaching, evangelism and public witness. Congregations are judged by their ability to support the denomination’s programs and initiatives. Results, not steadfastness are the measure of a disciple’s worth in this twisted understanding of mission and church.

James points out that patience is a principal virtue for disciples of Jesus. There is nothing a disciple can or must do to make God’s kingdom come. God has that covered. Our task is to recognize the reign of Christ as the only genuine future there is and live accordingly. We don’t ask silly questions like: “How do I know that my contributions to hunger relief will bring any measurable improvement to people’s lives? How can I be sure that my efforts to achieve reconciliation will succeed? How can I know whether forgiveness of my enemy will only be seen as weakness and so invite more aggression?” The simple answer is that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Disciples feed the hungry, seek reconciliation and forgive their enemies because Jesus tells us too. That is enough reason. Let God worry about the results and how they fit into the future God is preparing for creation. That is not a bad message for those of us who have been waiting for two millennia for the consummation of God’s reign.

Matthew 11:2–11

Last week we met John the Baptist at the peak of his career baptizing the crowds coming to him from all over Judea. Now we meet him near the end of his career, languishing in Herod’s prison. We know so little about John’s religious outlook that it is difficult to know what expectations he may have had for Jesus. Like Jesus, John proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and called for repentance. Matthew 3:2. He proclaimed the coming of one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Matthew 3:11. The “you” here refers to the people as a whole rather than to individuals. Such fiery baptism would purge the people, separating the chaff from the wheat. It is in anticipation of this baptism of fire that John’s baptism of repentance is offered. So from Matthew’s perspective, John’s question seems to be whether Jesus is the one to bring about this baptism of fire that will cleanse the people of Israel, thereby making them fit for the coming reign of heaven.

There is good reason for John’s doubts. So far from separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus associates with the chaff, the “sinners” and outcasts of his people. He touches people who are unclean and violates the Sabbath-hardly the sort of behavior you would expect from someone sent to purify the people of Israel.  Though Jesus has established a following, he also faces stiff and perhaps insurmountable opposition from the powerful Pharisees and the Sadducean leadership in Jerusalem. Moreover, John’s reward for baptizing and endorsing Jesus is prison and ultimately death. It seems that Jesus has some explaining to do.

As is his usual habit, Jesus does not give John’s messengers a direct answer. He merely tells the messengers to go back to John and tell him what they have seen. “You be the judge,” says Jesus. “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.” What’s your verdict? Vs. 5. That might sound like a no-brainer. Much of this comes straight from our lesson in Isaiah and the rest goes considerably beyond. If works like these cannot convince a skeptic, what can? And yet, Jesus goes on to add, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’” Vs. 6.

What does Jesus mean by that? I suspect that part of this stems from John’s imprisonment. Jesus must be a poor sort of messiah if he cannot save his messenger, the promised Elijah, from the clutches of a penny ante thug like Herod Antipas. How will he fare against the Roman Empire? Jesus seems unaware or unconcerned that the jaws of powerful historical currents are closing in upon him. In view of all this, what difference do all these wonderful signs make? To what use is sight restored only to see more injustice and oppression? The relief Jesus provides to the individuals he touches means nothing if the rest of the vast creation remains untouched and enslaved to systemic sin. Even now the offense of the cross is in view and John’s question seems to be: “If Jesus winds up getting himself crucified, as seems likely, will there be another to whom we can look for salvation?” The answer is “no,” there will be no other and that is the core of the offense.

Jesus’ remarks about John’s role indicate clearly that something is dying with John. Notions of messianic salvation molded on tactics of violence, whether through military action or through imposition of morality, whether they are grounded in the scriptures or elsewhere, have no place in Jesus’ mission. Our efforts to build a moral society through just laws and procedures are doomed to failure. Whatever hopes we have for salvation through political or military might, through education and knowledge or through gradual human progress die on the cross. History is not something made by great societies or influential individuals. God is directing history toward his own chosen future which is revealed in Jesus’ resurrection. The way lies through the cross-suffering endured as a result of living the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount in a world that is, for now, hostile to the way of life it portrays. It bears repeating: it is not that the Sermon provides a blue print for a perfect church or a better society. Rather, it reflects the future Jesus promises and invites us to live in even now. What prophets like John could only foretell Jesus inaugurates-under the sign of the cross.