A prophet in jail
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
There is a movie that was released in North America on December 13, just two days ago called: A Hidden Life.
I don’t know whether it will come to Edmonton, because I doubt it will be a blockbuster film. It is not action, or comic heroes or a sappy Christmas love story. Instead it is a movie about a relatively unknown Austrian peasant farmer by the name of Franz Jägerstätter.
Franz Jägerstätter was born in 1907 in a small village near Salzburg. He was born to a relatively poor family and lived a hard life as a miner and farmer. He was no angel, but his life changed dramatically when he married a Catholic woman Franziska Shwaninger, affectionately called known as Fani.
He began to study the bible, made a pilgrimage to Rome and become the sexton of his local church.
In 1938, German troops entered his village of Radegund. He had been the only person in Radegund to vote against Hitler’s annexation. He protested when the Germans came.
He deferred four time entering the military but eventually was conscripted into the German army. However, he would not take the oath to Hitler, despite pressure from fellow villagers and church authorities. He was arrested and imprisoned. In the movie, as Franz waits months for his, he and Fani write letters to each other, giving each other strength.
Back in the village Fani and his three daughters are undergoing increasing hostility for Franz’s decision not to fight.
Eventually, he is tried, found guilty, and executed in August 1943.
The story could have remained unknown because the village in which he lived treated him as a traitor and wouldn’t include him on a memorial, and his wife did not receive a pension for a number of years, but eventually the story got out.
Even the church that pressured him to sign the oath, eventually recognized his Christian conviction and he was declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church in 2007.
I tell this story on the week of Joy in advent, the week where Mary sings her Magnificat,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
…because this is the same week where John the Baptist is in prison, questioning if Jesus is really the Messiah.
Advent, as advent does, likes to keep us guessing, likes to put dissonant texts together that make us question our faith, because this Jesus who came, and comes and will come again, cannot be put in a box. We cannot make him fit our mold of what a Messiah is and should do.
And this Jesus is also a bit of a contradiction, because he comes to us and give us joy, but at the same time calls us to take up a cross…
This same Jesus comes to us in our times or joy, but is also with us in the valley of the shadows.
This same Jesus promises all kinds of wonderful things, but never promises that life will be easy,
And for all the joy of Mary, the poor girl who is lifted up and has new life in her in more ways than one…
…we also have the story of the Baptist, who has a hard life, speaks his truth, and is put in jail and is executed, and his story is as Christian a story, as is Mary’s story.
Many years ago, I attended a church where people gave personal testimony.
There would be a time in the church service for individuals to get up and share about God moving in their lives.
They nearly all were stories of joy and victory. God saved me. God healed me. Jesus restored me from backsliding. I was an alcoholic but by the grace of God I am set free of my addiction.
The doctor said there was a shadow on my lung but it is gone.
My business was failing and we prayed and things have turned around.
I remember having a good laugh one time with some friends over a young family in the church who had started a funeral business. The business was struggling and the people in the church were praying for their business to pick up. And we, with a little dark humour wondered if God was going to call a few saints home so the funeral business would pick up.
I say things not to discount the wonderful things that happened to some of those people those many years ago, but to lament the fact there really wasn’t a time of testimony for those who failed, for those who were sick and didn’t get healed, for those who lost jobs and marriages came apart etc, etc.
You see, the thinking was that if you had the faith that Jesus would turn your scars into stars…
That Jesus would turn your defeat into victory…
And so, there wasn’t much room for stories of failure and loss and pain, unless there was a story of victory afterwards.
And yet, here we are with John in jail, facing, and awaiting execution.
And so, he questions Jesus.
“Hey, are you really the one who is going to save us??? …because it doesn’t feel to me like I am being saved. It doesn’t seem like you are bringing an axe to Roman oppression and burning down all the trees that don’t bear fruit.”
So, are you the one?
Remember John’s message is a message of warning. He speaks of judgement and punishment and dire consequences and from what he hears, this doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ message, nor, what Jesus does.
So are you the one, or is there another?
And Jesus answers:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus doesn’t say yes or no. Instead Jesus points to what he does. Using the criteria John himself talked about, and that is the metaphor of bearing fruit, Jesus talks not about his titles, or his identity, Jesus talks about the fruit he bears.
Jesus basically says in chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel that you really know people by the fruit they bear. What a person does, maybe, is the best judge of a person’s character.
And what does Jesus do…? He makes people whole… whatever you are missing…
Whatever it is you are missing to have fulfillment and to be whole….
That is what Jesus brings.
And blessed are you if you take no offense.
Wow, what powerful words are those. Especially in this day and age.
The day and age you can hardly say or preach or write or do anything without somebody taking offense.
They’ll even go back thirty or fifty years just to make sure you didn’t do anything offensive back then.
Don’t get me wrong injustice should be named, and abusers should be exposed and those who preach hate or act in hate should be stopped…
But it just seems to me that so many people want to jump on the band wagon of being offended…
I am sure a preached a sermon that people get offended as a way of controlling and manipulating the situation, of gaining power, and actually using being offended as a passive aggressive weapon to actually hurt instead of bring healing….
And yet Jesus is all about healing. Jesus doesn’t get offended by what John says.
Jesus understands what John feels…
And Jesus praises John and talks about him
But what did you come to see? Did you come to see a reed blown in the wind?
Jesus asks if people want a leader or a spiritual leader, that just does what the people want whatever that is, and is blown about by the whims of people acceding to people’s wishes and whatever happens to be the current trend.
Or did they want someone who stood for something, who stood up against evil and stood for truth and couldn’t be shaken or uprooted from his principles, no matter what people did to him.
Or Jesus says did you want to see someone in soft robes? Soft robes are people in palaces wear.
Even back in Jesus’ day there was a longing to see royalty and finery and the rich. John the Baptist isn’t a celebrity. He doesn’t appear on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. We don’t see brand of shoes he wears, what kind of gourd he drinks from, and buy them on Amazon.
John really doesn’t want to be venerated. He wants us to change.
So, what then did you go to see, when you went to see John?
You went to see a prophet.
A person who speaks the truth, who points our injustice and points the way to God, no matter the cost.
You see, that is what people want. They want to know the way to God. They want to feel and experience love in all its fullness. They want to be whole, and truly that wholeness is more important inside than even outside.
They want to be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience because they know that their sins and mistakes are understood and forgiven. They want a part of the divine to be in them so they feel like they make a difference in this world by helping others.
And that is what John pointed too. That is why he is the greatest of humans, but because he was a servant he is the least of all as well.
And even he who pointed to Jesus, had doubts, suffered and was killed.
It is part of the Christmas story, and a part of the human story.
Jesus doesn’t gloss over this.
Jesus understands this and to all who are suffering, and not feeling overwhelmed with joy.
Jesus message is that he is there in your dark valley, suffering with you, sharing your burden.
I mentioned a little while ago about testimony time in a particular church.
That was a church that believed all the things in the bible happen exactly today as they did in bible days. Miracles and speaking in tongues and healings.
And many of the testimonies were about how someone was sick, they prayed and got better.
Maybe, as a minister, I have seen too many people who prayed and didn’t get better, that I am not quite so literal in my interpretation of how miracles and healings work.
But I do think that healing is one of the most important aspects of Jesus ministry and that church congregations and buildings should be places of healing.
What is missing in your life that needs to be restored.
Have you lost sight of the future?
Have lost hope? Are you missing joy?
Do you lack forgiveness? Do you need to find impulse control? Are you wondering where your patience went?
Could you use some faith?
Do you need God?
Is there a hole in your heart that needs to be filled with love, acceptance?
Has it been a while since someone looked on you with affection or gave you a hug or said: “you are the greatest.”
And on the other hand, have you put a part of your life in the trunk of your soul, because it was too painful, too humiliating, too bad… …that you just can’t be honest with yourself and deal with it.
What part of you do you not talk about? What part of you do you want to cut off, but can’t? what part of you hurts inside? What part of you is so hidden, that you don’t even know what it is?
Robert Bly, storyteller, lecturer and author in a book called A little book on the Human Shadow writes:
When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.”
Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So, we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota, we were known as “the nice Bly boys.” Our bags were already a mile long.
Today John the Baptist let it all out of the bag. He came clean warts and all, doubts and fears, and all emotions, and it must have felt good, that Jesus didn’t turn him away or put him down. And maybe he found joy in his darkness.
I am glad that Christian faith isn’t all about healings and ice cream and balloons and Hallelujahs, but also about prophets who stand for truth and are killed,
And those who never get physically healed, and about those who get sad and depressed.
Jesus just didn’t come for good little boys and girls to give them presents under the tree…
But to help us all be whole. What is it that need deep down? One thing we need is to be loved.
And maybe what we need is to let it all out of the bag. To come completely clean with Jesus about everything, and find the joy of being understood, accepted, forgiven and healed.
And then our souls will really magnify the Lord.