Advent III

From Matt 3 to Matt 11: A complete reversal of situation for JB. On the outside but also on the inside. Last time we saw him he was this wild prophet, free from all powers religious or politics, people were seeking after him…And now JB is in prison, on his own, got arrested by Herod. Inside he is changed too. Not so assertive, he has doubts, has to ask his own disciples for reassurances about who Jesus is. JB starts second guessing himself, not so sure anymore about what he has seen, heard – about what he has said.

Maybe it was nothing but a dream, seeing the Messiah.

– First observation: This passage is very realistic about what it is to live in this world. We all have reversal of situations. For the best and sometimes for the worst. Whether it takes a lot of times or whether it is very sudden, we experience ups and downs / more accurately situations where we think we are all what we can be to situations where there is nothing we can do / limited (JB in prison – it can be also for us sickness, aging, depression, financial problems that consume us). We all at some point come to a dark place. Dark place in our lives, but also dark places in our souls.

It’s not so much the suffering but “suffering the suffering”: When we suffer, we start asking What did I do wrong? Basically what JB is asking is: Did I miss something? Misunderstood? Did I lead people to follow the wrong one? What does it mean about my mission and my life?

Doubts about God are never only intellectual. If there is no God or if God isn’t who I believed God to be, what does it mean about who I am, my purpose in life?

– Jesus breaks the cycle of doubts by reminding the disciples that JB is the greatest of all. Greater than the kings, greater than the prophets. JB’s situation may have changed but he is still a great prophet even if he isn’t preaching / teaching anymore like he used to do. Even if he has questions, doubts. Even if he is in despair.

Do we believe that this is the way God looks at us? That we are always who we are / who we are meant to be, whatever life throws at us? We can spend so much time eating our own hearts out with guilt, shame, doubts – could Jesus’s words bring us peace? If being in a dark place is something that happens even to the greatest, then why do we so often believe that is we were wise enough, holy enough, good enough, nothing bad would ever happen?

– Second observation: I think I’ve already mentioned that sometimes bad things happen to you not b/c you did something wrong, but b/c you did something right. That’s actually the case with JB. He lived under an unjust political system and as he denounced it, he was bothering those in power (they were actually afraid of him!) and he was arrested to be silenced.

What happened? We learn later that JB condemned Herod for taking his brother’s wife. It’s not a detail, as with other sexual misbehavior, even if sometimes we want to make light of them. But what we often miss is that it’s not the sexual acts that displease God, it is the abuse of power. The big deal with adultery in the Bible is that it is the taking somebody that does not belong to you / no acknowledging that other people’s bodies are not in your control.

JB said to Herod: You have no right to your brother’s wife / it is unlawful. It’s not about respecting the rule for the sake of respecting the rule. It means: Even if you are the more important man in the country or even in the world, they are limits to your power. Even if there is nobody more powerful than you, you still have to respect the law / the law is bigger than you.

Even the kings don’t make the law. They can make rules but there is a law: Other people’s bodies are off limits – which condemn sexual violence and all other forms of violence.

– Third observation: JB condemning Herod’s behavior enables us to understand better something about John’s testimony and about his ministry, something he may not have understood himself at the time (which would have led him to doubt and even despair): His job was to tell the truth and not necessary to make a lot of disciples (These days, it seems that church’s success is only measured by numbers and attendance!).

JB had to say something when he witnessed Herod’s immorality. JB was close to the poor, the crowds of those who came to see him in the wilderness. He couldn’t stand the abuse of power. Now Jesus still acknowledges him as this great prophet. JB did the right thing, even if he lost his job / his ministry / his reputation.

Barbara Brown Taylor: You don’t become a martyr b/c you want to be a martyr. You become a martyr b/c you get so caught in serving God and following Christ that you stop being careful. That you just do what you have to do w/o caring about the consequences for yourself.

What about us? Is truth telling important to us? Doing the right thing that is right in front of you? Have you noticed how often people advise us (and we even tell that to ourselves) that maybe we shouldn’t do/say something for a greater good? Do you think maybe JB should have said nothing about Herod so he could have continued his job baptizing and witnessing to Jesus in the wilderness?

Yes, but what kind of ministry would it have been? Being on the side of the poor, w/o standing up when there is an abuse of power in the land? Again and again, the Gospel calls us to integrity vs hypocrisy.

When in conflict with two possible courses of actions, we often think we should pick the greater good, but maybe we should pick the “nearest good”. The right thing to do right now in the present, instead of the right thing to do in a hypothetical future. That’s where a lot of people who want a career in public life get caught: They accept compromises to be able to apply their program once they have more responsibilities, but often when they get there it’s too late, they are corrupted and they continue to accept what’s immoral for a “greater good” that ends up being always delayed…

JB lost his career for the sake of the truth. How many times at work, with our families, have we been told to not “rock the boat” so we can secure what we have?

– And yet…Fourth observation: With Jesus’s words come reassurance. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed…” It is all happening (The Messianic time), even if it’s happening in a way you cannot understand or control or even appreciate.

It is all happening, even if it’s happening in a way you cannot understand or control or even appreciate. Well, that’s probably words we also need to hear for ourselves when we are in dark places. It does no mean Jesus asks us to feel good when we feel awful. But Jesus asks us to trust. And this is really what following Jesus is about. There is a story of Jesus talking to a Saint (a nun in the 18e century) and what he said to her is that what is the most important in his disciples isn’t for them to be perfect or to do a lot of prayers or even a lot of good deeds. What is necessary is to trust. B/c w/o trust Jesus can do nothing. But also b/c trust is the sure mark of love. If you think you love someone but you don’t trust them, think twice – You may not love them as much as you think.

The disciple needs to grow / be perfected by learning trust.

Jesus says that JB is the greatest of all, and yet the last one in the KOG is greater than he. KOG: this place where God is fully present / perfect state of our lives w/ God / Eternal life. What we call “sanctification”, “being made perfect” still needs to happen for JB, for all of us. As long as we live this life.

It is great to baptize people, to preach, to be a political activist, but there is something even more important: It is to learn to trust God. And so, if this time in prison seemed completely wasted on John, he was actually doing the most important work of his life: Learning to trust God and let sanctification happen. Famous preacher in DC (Rev. Howard-John Wesley) announced this week his Sabbatical: “I feel very far from God”. “The worst thing we can do in ministry is to think that b/c we work for God, we are close to God”. True for pastors but isn’t it true for a lot of us who “work in the church” / give so much of our time and energy to the church? When do we “refill”, when do we let God nourish us?

– Last and fifth observation: How do we learn how to trust? If I had the answer, I would be greater than JB! But today Jesus points to the Scriptures (Isaiah) to help us discern signs of hope / see the desert blossom. Needs the ability to ponder / pace ourselves to see them. To spend “free” time with God / with the Scriptures / looking around us. At night, remembering the events of the day, the people we have met, things said etc.

James: reminds us three times to be patient. Impatience for God isn’t always wrong, Jesus at some point also confesses he is impatient (to see God’s K on earth). We pray: Your kingdom comes. But JB was so impatient he thought of Jesus as an “obstacle to faith” (“You take offense at me”) b/c Jesus instead of bringing judgment and establishing his kingdom “just” hung out w/ people! Impatience can lead us to despair, to a very dark place when things do not come our way / the way we want them to come to us. This is what Advent is meant for: to learn how to wait. We have to wait 4 weeks when the prophets waited two thousands years. Maybe we can start being patient with little things, so we become able to be patient for God!

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