Advent is a time of watchful waiting, of preparing ourselves for the Lord’s arrival. The message of John the Baptist is designed to enable our focused preparation. In Luke’s account we read that John clearly states that he is not the coming Messiah. Instead, John’s attention rests solely on the one who is coming after him, waiting, watching, hoping.
John confidently knows who he is and what his role is in God’s ongoing work with the people of Israel. John is also confident that he knows what will happen when that coming one finally arrives. This coming Messiah is going judge and purge Israel. The Messiah comes, ax in hand, to chop off the unrepentant limbs; he will winnow and sift wheat from chaff. It is not surprising that John speaks of fleeing from the coming wrath of God. Flight, however, is not so much about running and hiding as turning and repenting. John lays out very specific types of repentance for those who ask him, “What should we do?” He is clear that the coming one will judge and purge, but he is also hopeful that many can repent and be saved.
Not many verses after this reading ends, Jesus comes and is baptized by John. Even though Luke does not have John formally recognize Jesus as the coming one, God’s voice from heaven confirms this and we are certainly led to think that John hears and agrees. In between John’s call to repent and Jesus’ baptism, Luke lets us know that John has already invoked the wrath of Herod who will eventually throw John in prison.
John goes to jail and Jesus begins his ministry. By the time we reach Luke 7 Jesus has been moving about Galilee preaching the good news of reign of God, healing many, including a Gentile soldier’s servant. He even raises a man from the dead in Nain.
When the imprisoned John learns about Jesus’ activity, he is disturbed. Jesus wields no ax. If the servant of a Roman soldier can be healed, there is clearly no winnowing going on, no judgment, no purgation – at least not in the ways John anticipated. John was confident that Jesus is the coming one, yet Jesus is not doing any of the things John so confidently predicted of the Messiah. In Luke 7 John confronts Jesus, sending some of his disciples to ask, “Are you really the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Interestingly, Jesus never answers this question. Instead, he points to his words and deeds, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (7:22-23). Instead of an answer, Jesus implicitly challenges John. The challenge is this: John can retain his confidently proclaimed message concerning what the coming Messiah will do. In this case, he will end up rejecting Jesus as that Messiah. Or, John can hold fast to his conviction that Jesus is the coming Messiah. In that case, he is going to have to let go of his preconceived ideas about the Messiah and let the words and deeds of Jesus shape his view of the Messiah. This challenge invites John and us to put our faith in a person, not in a preconception about how God must act, about what the Messiah must do.
Although we never really learn John’s response to Jesus’ challenge, we have every reason to hope that he renewed his conviction that Jesus was indeed the coming one and that he let Jesus’ words and deeds alter his convictions about the message and ministry of the Messiah.
There is something reassuring in John’s view that God will separate wheat from chaff. It affirms a clear, just, and reciprocal order to the nature of the cosmos. The just God calls humans to live justly and will reward those who do so. Repentance of the type John calls people to is a way of moving oneself closer to God, closer to the side of justice in the midst of a broken world. From John’s perspective, the coming one is God’s gift to humans to bring the cosmos into line with God’s reign of justice. There are certainly elements of the Old Testament that affirm this way of thinking. John is neither unique nor idiosyncratic.
Nevertheless, this is not the only way to look at things. This Sunday’s reading from Zephaniah would have offered John plenty of Old Testament resources for re-shaping his views about what might happen when God intervened to save the people of God. “And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD” (Zeph 3:11-14). God’s activity in Zephaniah, as in Jesus, is not proportioned to or dependent upon anything we do.
There is a fundamental incongruity between God’s gift in Jesus and us. Like John the Baptist, this incongruity poses a real challenge for those of us deeply embedded in the life of the church. Can we recognize and receive a gift that is neither tied to nor dependent upon our own goodness or justice? Perhaps, like John, we are called to welcome and receive a person, not a preconception.