February 12, 2017
It’s Still Good News
If you ever heard Fr. McGuirk speak at a Lenten luncheon, you’ll probably remember something he was known for: He always began his talks with a joke, and those jokes were usually corny. But people would listen, just to see what he’d come up with this time.
I didn’t hear this one from Fr. John, but it’s sort of his style. What do Winnie the Pooh and John the Baptist have in common? (They have the same middle name.)
In today’s reading we see another side of John the Baptist, very different from what we saw earlier in the Gospel, when he was preaching in the desert and baptizing all comers. There John was a firebrand preacher who called folks who presented themselves for baptism a “brood of vipers.” He even went so far as to criticize the Roman puppet king, Herod, because he’d married his brother’s wife. That got him shut up in prison, which is most likely where he is when he sends messengers to Jesus with a question.
At this point his tone has changed quite a bit. You can hear his weariness and discouragement. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
But maybe discouragement isn’t all John felt as he sent the question to Jesus.
If we put ourselves in John’s sandals, we can understand his doubt.
None of the other Gospels says so, but in Luke, John and Jesus are cousins. You can imagine John having grown up listening to his parents telling the story of his miraculous conception, his father’s forced silence, how he, in Elizabeth’s womb, leapt for joy when Mary entered their house. John was something special, and he knew it; but he always knew that his cousin was even more so. Nobody would ever let him forget it.
The Gospel doesn’t say the two of them had met, other than when Jesus came to be baptized. But that’s not necessarily the whole story; the Gospel leaves out most of Jesus’ early years. We don’t know, but if the family was close, it’s not completely out of the question that they knew each other growing up. And that could actually have made it that much more likely John could wonder if Jesus was really the Messiah.
Think about the people you knew growing up, especially your cousins and other family members. If somebody told you that your cousin, a few years older than you, who as a teen had the chest x-ray of a friend who’d swallowed a safety pin hanging in his bedroom window, whose only word to you when you were a bratty five-year-old harassing his world-weary adolescent self was “Leave,” was the Messiah, would you believe it?
But John’s doubt went a step further than just disbelief that someone he’d known his whole life could be the Messiah. He knew his Scriptures, and knew what the Messiah was supposed to be like. He expresses some of it in his message at the Jordan, back in chapter 3: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” They’re images that, while they aren’t necessarily direct quotes from the Hebrew Bible, are certainly in keeping with what we see there.
Like most of his people, John would have had a pretty specific description of what the Messiah was to be like: The Messiah is to bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing them all back to their land and restoring the city of Jerusalem. He was expected to establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and Gentiles. He would rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship—in John’s time the Second Temple was still standing, although it wasn’t by the time the Gospels were written; but the Second Temple was considered to be rather inferior to the original Temple built by Solomon. He would restore Israel’s religious court system, and establish Torah as the law of the land.
Sitting in prison, John would probably have heard reports of what Jesus was doing. Maybe he heard that some people were indeed calling Jesus the Messiah, even though he didn’t exactly fit the picture John had of what the Messiah was supposed to be.
There are a lot of reasons why John would have wondered what Jesus was up to, and whether it was he whose coming he’d predicted at the Jordan. So his question might have contained some doubt, some discouragement; but maybe it also was tinged with hopeful wondering.
That’s sort of the way it is, though, isn’t it? Our faith in Christ, our hope that the Reign of God truly is at hand, is frequently mixed with some doubt. As we look toward the Reign of God, following Christ’s example, we hear the words of his servant Dr. King, about how the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Then we see the news of the day, and wonder if that arc is just a bent-over sapling that is going to spring back and smack us in the face.
Dr. King preached about, prayed for, dreamed of, and worked to build a better world, and he struggled with depression and despair his whole life. A fellow civil rights activist, singer and actor Paul Robeson, who was a few years older than Dr. King, spent the last five years of his life in his sister’s house, in bed—not because of a physical condition, but because the fight had utterly broken his spirit and his heart.
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”
If the faith and hope of great people like Dr. King and John the Baptist were mixed with doubt and discouragement, surely we can be easier on ourselves and on one another when the same thing happens to us.
Let’s look around—and encourage one another to look around—when we’re wondering whether the Jesus path is really worth it, just like Jesus told John to do. Perhaps those dark clouds will lift as we see that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them, the hungry are fed, the strangers are welcomed, the outcast are lifted up, the sorrowful are comforted, the terrified are given peace; and blessed is anyone who keeps moving, keeps believing, keeps hoping, even when doubt creeps in.
 Luke 3:1-20. Luke doesn’t say anything about the way he dressed or what he ate, as Matthew (3:4) and Mark (1:6) both do.
 That’s my cousin David, with whom I share a birthday, nine years apart; he’d probably be the first to say that he is most assuredly not the Messiah.
 Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5
 Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:10; 42:1
 Jeremiah 33:18
 Jeremiah 33:15