09 January 2012

what were you expecting to see?

In reading through Tom Wright's latest book, Simply Jesus (HarperOne, 2011), I was struck by a few comments he makes in relation to John the Baptizer.  The Gospels demonstrate that Jesus was announcing the arrival of God's kingdom - God's rule of all nations through Israel - and that John played the role of forerunner for his arrival.  The story of John ends with his beheading while imprisoned for his outspoken criticism of Herod Antipas.

John sends his own disciples to ask Jesus the now famous question, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matt 11:3).  In response Jesus talks about the work he is doing to bring the kingdom of God into the world as a visible and recognizable manifestation of his announcement: blind see, lame walk, lepers cleansed, deaf hear, dead raised, good news coming to poor.  The answer which Jesus sends back to John is a powerful and resounding affirmation of his own role as the anointed one who is ushering in the kingdom of God.

And then, as the story goes, John dies alone in prison.

Wright's question to this scenario is raised well, "Why didn't it mean setting John free from prison?" (82). Indeed.  Jesus is telling John, and everyone who hears his words, that this is what the world looks like when God is in charge . . . yet, for John, it was enough to make him wonder about this new kingdom.  I think the same is true for those of us who struggle to grasp the coming of a new reality which we have not yet considered or experienced.  Perhaps this is why Jesus can be so unsettling even after we have wholeheartedly accepted his coming and his kingdom.  For, even when we believe we have grasped it, we so often discover that we are not quite ready for the demands it will make of us.

As someone who has walked many bloodied fields of church conflict and spiritual warfare, who often struggles with battle fatigue for continuing to labor for this kingdom, who must stop himself from coveting the 'successful' ministries that exist in the greener grass of the other sides, and whose broken humanity must again seek God's grace lest I despair of the life he has called me to, I need to know why the arriving kingdom of God didn't release John from prison.  Paul would eventually speak of all creation groaning for this new world to be birthed into the old (Romans 8), and John would have a vision that shows how dragons pursue those who give birth to the messiah (Revelation 12), and we should remember that the hope-filled Christmas story shook the darkness and evil so greatly that the baby boys of an entire village were murdered at the coming of God-made-flesh (Matthew 2).

This kingdom-come is messy.  This kingdom-come is hard.  This kingdom-come will put to death all that is in the kingdom-present, sometimes at the very cost of our lives.  Those who enter into the place of martyrdom have already relinquished their lives, following the demands of Christ and the proclamation of Paul that we take up our cross, die upon it, and live only by the presence of the risen Jesus within us.

For those who walk the challenging and lonely roads of ministry we need to be aware of John who, even with his monumental role in the gospel story, never made it out of prison.  This is not to be dismal and downcast, but (oddly enough) hopeful and steadfast.  As Wright says later in his comments, "This is the sharp edge of what God is doing" (84).  And, in Matthew 11, Jesus will further ask "What were you expecting to see?"  We must be conscious of the fact that the arrival of this kingdom of God comes with its own justice and righteousness to be established.  This will be done with equity, from the throne of God, but it will be a demanding and destructive (for all the powers of earth, even the human heart) experience leading to an everlasting peace.

Also, the arrival of this kingdom of God will not come in a vacuum - not in Jesus' world, nor in ours.  All hell will break loose when this kingdom comes, which is why babies are murdered, saints are martyred, churches are attacked, believers lose sight, and even church leaders become disheartened.  When we find ourselves asking if this Jesus is the one we were waiting for or if we should move on to another salvation, he will give us the calm assurance that his kingdom has come - with the raging fury of heaven and hell encircling it - and that it is in the effects of the kingdom that we find our answer.

In ministry there are struggles, hurts, pains, disappointments, and the like.  But there are also moments of love, grace, hope, and the unbridled kingdom of God restoring and renewing people, families, communities and, yes, even the world.  When we find that we are on the front lines of the battle we must recognize that he has called us to this place.  Here we can focus on the work of destruction or the work of the kingdom of God, which is more fully arrived today than ever before in the history of the world.

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