John the Baptist came onto the scene in a big way. He was a bold and unapologetic man. He wore camel hair and ate weird things like locusts. His was so charismatic that even though he preached in the wilderness, people traveled miles and miles to hear him. The message he proclaimed was as bold as he was.
John the Baptist stared people right in the eye and told them to repent. He called them vipers! He warned people to get their acts in order. He warned people someone was going to come after him and that person was going to baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire! This man was going to clear out the threshing floor and separate the wheat from the chaff.
This man, of course, was Jesus.
John put himself out there, ignoring social convention, probably losing friends. Does anyone really want to hang out with a hairy man eating bugs? John took a huge risk, which finally paid off when he met Jesus face to face.
They had a brief meeting in which John baptized Jesus. Can you imagine John’s excitement? He is a prophet who gets to actually experience that about which he prophesies!
Unfortunately, soon after he met Jesus, things went downhill for John.
This fierce Jesus about which John told people didn’t materialize. Well, Jesus materialized, he just didn’t do what John expected him too. Instead of kicking tail and taking names, Jesus went around healing people. And John himself got arrested and put in prison.
When in prison, John had lots of time to think. Maybe he started to get nervous. Maybe he started doubting his whole ministry. How ridiculous would you feel if you spent years dressing like a crazy person and baptizing people in the middle of nowhere shouting about this mythical person who is supposed to come restore Israel to its rightful place… and then you start thinking you’ve been scammed?
In any case, he sends a note to Jesus via one of his disciples. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” Ouch.
You guys, John the Baptist had a moment of doubt. John the BAPTIST! Is there anyone in the bible who sounds more confident and full of faith than John the Baptist? Every Advent we get at least two weeks on him because he is such a hero of faith. Yet, even John the Baptist’s faith fails for a moment.
St. Paul’s Church in Auckland, New Zealand puts on these little videos with their kids. One of them is an adorable Christmas pageant that takes place in heaven as God makes the decision to send Jesus to earth. In it this little blond boy wearing glasses dressed like an angel keeps saying, “Brilliant! They won’t be expecting THAT!”
Whoever wrote the script gets the incarnation just right. John the Baptist was not expecting the Jesus that showed up. His imagination was too small. John the Baptist, and many who expected the Messiah, expected someone fierce. They expected someone powerful. They expected someone who could overthrow the status quo. Jesus is fierce and powerful, but in spiritual ways, rather than political ones. Jesus is not who they expected.
In the Christmas pageant video, the angels keep trying to figure out what God is doing. When God wants to straighten things out on earth, they assume he’ll send an army of angels. When they learn he just wants to send one person, they assume he’ll pick someone big and strong. When they learn he plans to send a helpless infant, they assume he’ll send the baby to a powerful ruler who could protect him. When they assume he’ll send a normal baby, he tells them instead he’ll be sending the Prince of Heaven, his son. Every time God corrects their assumptions, the small angel repeats his line, “Brilliant! They won’t be expecting THAT!”
Jesus rarely meets expectations. But he certainly exceeds them. Jesus doesn’t directly answer John the Baptist’s question. Instead he points to his activities that line up with Scriptural descriptions of what the Messiah will do with his time. Jesus says, “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.”
Jesus’ legitimacy doesn’t come from physical, political, or military power. He doesn’t need to overthrow a government to start bringing about the Kingdom of God. In Christ’s incarnation, God shows us who he really is and what his interests are. In the video the child playing God says, “When the Prince is done, nothing will get between them and my love.”
In Jesus, God comes alongside humanity. God restores people to themselves and to community. He reverses deafness and blindness and leprosy. He changes the narrative about wealth and poverty, reassuring the poor that their poverty is not a punishment. He forgives sins. He even restores the dead to life. He wants people to be able to fully participate in life. He wants people to be able to fully participate in a relationship with God.
The tables are turned even for what it means to be holy. Prophets have always had an exalted position, but Jesus tells his followers that “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.“ He is not denigrating John the Baptist here. He goes on to talk about how important John the Baptist is. He’s just saying Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are so going to change the rules that even the least significant person included in the Kingdom of Heaven is going to have an incredibly special place with God. Because in the Kingdom of Heaven there is no significant or insignificant. We are all united with God and therefore incredibly important.
At the same time, we are ALL united with God, so none of us are more important than any other.
This is important for us to hear. We are so driven in this little part of the world. My favorite example of this recently is the controversy over whether to keep class rankings at Western. There are so many students pushing to do well that you can have excellent grades and not be in the top ten or even 25% of your class! These same students are encouraged to play school sports and club sports and do mission trips and develop interesting hobbies. They are expected to do hours of homework every night while also getting plenty of sleep. It’s all impossible! And we who parent and grandparent them aren’t much better with our striving to make more money and dress nicely and volunteer with every board that asks us. We forget that we are enough not because of what we do, but because of how God loves us.
Jesus turns things topsy turvy for us too, you know. We expect Jesus to be a certain way. We excpect Jesus to stay out of the way, mostly, except for when we need a little comfort. We don’t really expect Jesus to show up when we’re making decisions about our kids’ schedules, or about whether or not to take the promotion, or in the middle of a fight with someone we love.
But Jesus is in our lives, too. In unexpected ways. All the time. He calls us constantly to join him in the work of making the Kingdom of God a reality. He calls us to examine our culture critically and decide what parts of it work and what parts need be rejected for us to live holy lives. Jesus is intrusive in only the way someone who really loves us can be. And the angels in heaven are quite possibly looking down and chuckling as they say to themselves. Brilliant! They weren’t expecting that!”