When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2-1)
Whenever I read this gospel passage, it’s hard for me to get past the sobering news it opens with: John the Baptist is in jail. I imagine him there, pacing in his cell, railing against the powers that arrested him, see him squatting in a corner, staring at the consequences of his conscience. But sometimes I can’t see him. I don’t want to. It’s just too sad to think of such a vital man confined.
And he was a vital man. John was no cartoon crazy-man waving a placard, menacing the downtown crowd with threats of doom. He had substance. The size of the movement that sprang up at his preaching testifies to a spiritual genius. Jesus always loved him. In this gospel we read the Lord’s praise of him: John, Jesus says, is the greatest man alive.
But now John is in jail. That old fox, Herod, put him there. John could never be bought off. He was no reed shaking in the wind. Herod was the shaky one. When John criticized his corruption, Herod arrested him. He wanted to kill him, but because he feared an uprising, he didn’t dare. Instead, he decided to let John rot in jail. That’s not the way it ended, of course. Eventually Herod had to kill him, for reasons so tawdry you can’t help feeling outrage two thousand years later.
But now John is in jail. And as John languishes in a cell, Jesus moves center stage. John’s absence from the scene gives a boost to Jesus’ ministry. In the swelling crowds around Jesus, some of John’s followers begin showing up, ready to switch loyalties. More will follow. John’s influence is waning.
Jesus takes no pleasure in John’s decline. His reverence for John goes deep. He may even have been a follower. He was certainly responsive to his preaching and showed it by presenting himself for John’s baptism. All the same, Jesus does not try to save John’s movement or protect John’s leadership. Instead, he begins to speak of John’s ministry as a preparation for his own.
John is not the one who will bring in God’s new age, not even to his own followers, all those people he had baptized in the Jordan. Jesus puts it this way: “John is the greatest man who ever lived; but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Anyone who accepts the message Jesus preaches will receive a healing even John can’t imagine, a freedom even John can’t grasp, a joy even John can’t deliver.
So quickly does Jesus’ star rise that everyone starts to wonder whether he is the messiah. In jail, John gets wind of the speculation and wants Jesus to confirm it. He sends envoys to him. “Tell us: are you the one?”
Jesus replies: “Go tell John this: the blind see, the lame walk, the dead rise, and the poor have God on their side.” The gospel doesn’t record John’s reaction when he heard this message back in his cell, but the Baptist knew his Bible. Jesus was roughly quoting Isaiah, who said that when the blind see, the lame walk, the dead rise and the poor get mercy, it’s a sure sign that God is nearby, and will soon set about removing the wicked and breathing new life into the whole creation.
When John hears what Jesus says about himself, he must realize that the sad estranged past between human beings and God is coming to an end, and that a joyous future is dawning, a new day ushered in by none other than Jesus of Nazareth.
But that line from Isaiah is not all Jesus said that day. What if, as they turned away to return to John in jail, the emissaries overheard the conversation between Jesus and the crowd? That stunning line—“No one ever born is greater than John.” And the addendum—“but the least in the kingdom is greater.” What if they reported that to John, too? In that dismal cell, would he have been glad to be praised so highly? Or might that praise have sounded like a eulogy? A kind word spoken over the grave of his movement. John is great! Bur John is yesterday! Long live John! Now, let’s get on to Jesus.
The handwriting is on the wall. John knows it. Something new is afoot, and it doesn’t include him. He has done his part. He is not needed for what God is doing now, nor for what God will do tomorrow. Like the sad past he longed to see come to an end, John sees that he too is passing away. The world will not turn to him in that jail for its healing. It will not find in his prison a durable hope. And it will not search for a key to release him. John has to stay in jail. And Jesus has to leave him there.
Leaving John in jail is hard. It seems heartless, ungrateful, unfeeling. There will always be good reasons to stay behind with him. You want to get him out of jail so that he can keep doing the good work he was doing. You want to honor his contributions, to let him know you care about what happens to him. But it can’t be that way. You have to go on without him if you want what Jesus promises, the new life he wants to give you from God.
Still, it’s not easy to leave John in jail. If you ever tried to leave some John of your own behind, you know what I mean. If you ever tried to break from an okay way of life that was keeping you from a great one, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever tried to let go of something solid, a bird in the hand, to take that risk that’s been calling to you for a long, long time, calling you to stake your life on a promise or a dream, you know what I mean. You need to leave John in jail and go forward.
Leaving John in jail is not easy. You know what I mean if you’ve ever been forced to consider that a cherished tradition may not serve a purpose anymore, or that a hard-won opinion may now be off the mark. You know what I’m getting at if you’ve ever had to change your mind about something that matters, put old certainties on the shelf.
You know what it means if you’ve ever had to fight against a fierce desire to be right; a desire so strong it compelled you to lay down rut after rut on already well-worn ground in a daily effort to preserve things the way you need them, the way you want them, the way you think they should be.
You know what I mean if you’ve ever admitted that what was first is not always best, what used to be is not always right, what you’ve always known is not all there is to know, not all God has in store.
You know what it means to leave John in jail if you’ve ever looked an old enemy or a misplaced love in the eye and offered to start over, to find a way, to go forward and not look back. You know something about how necessary it is to leave John in jail if you’ve ever been on your knees pleading for things to be different; praying that the heaviness in you might shift, that a steadier light might shine from your spirit, a forgiving voice emerge from your throat.
You know what I mean if somehow, even once in your life, you had the strength to let the burden of your past just go, and step into a breaking day.
Christmas is just a couple of weeks away, and most of us are up to our necks in sweet angels, fluffy sheep, good will toward men, gingerbread and drummer boys. You don’t see spiky desert stubble at the mall. The hard prophets of Advent don’t put in guest appearances on TV talk shows. You can’t order a leveled Advent mountain on the internet. You can’t email a jacked-up valley or a superhighway made straight for God in the nowhere of starved and broken hearts. You can’t download the messianic hue and cry that alerts us to the appearance of the Lord’s Great Day. The only appearance causing any real excitement is the appearance of the latest greatest gadget under the tree.
We settle, most of us, for the tried and true at Christmas — a favorite carol, a nostalgic replay of a perfect childhood memory, that cup of eggnog, a pious cliché. Comforting things. Good seasonal routines. They do the trick, they make us warm, they take the edge off our deeper sadnesses. Even the terrors of the holidays — estranged siblings, abandoned parents, the pleas of the needy, consumer madness — have their own predictability, a perversely familiar feel.
No, there’s nothing really unsettling in sight; it’s a soothing time, same old same old. Assembly required. Batteries not included. Been there, done that.
But meanwhile, back in the scriptures, and somewhere deep in the human heart, God is calling for a break in the usual action. God is working with a beginner’s mind. A new thing is coming. Contrary to TV specials and most Christmas sermons, it is nothing like anything you already know, it is nothing you have ever seen, it is not what you are used to, what you bank on, it has little to do with the way things were, once upon a time.
It is a real human being with a face on fire from tomorrow’s light. It is a real divine savior who can make the difference you are dying for, the difference you are dying without. He is just and he is free, and he walks closer than is prudent to the edge of love, for you and for your healing. He is so new, so real, that he is the scariest man who ever lived. It is the great irony of faith that we will be safe only with him.
The scriptures say he is coming soon. He has bright morning in his eyes.
When he comes, leave John in jail and follow him.