Today is one of those paradoxical days. Throughout the world, the community of saints, the catholic church (including but also wider than the Catholic Church) celebrates the ‘feast of the beheading of John the Baptist’. John, the mysterious character that serves as a close introduction to the life of Jesus. It strikes me as odd to have the words ‘feast’ and ‘beheading’ in the same sentence. Yet, like a lot of other paradoxes in the Christ life, this is a tension that’s better left as it should be, strained. In popular parlance the slogan reads, ‘no pain, no gain.’
John lived with a lot of tension. Beginning with his disassociation from the city into a desert life, his clothing, his message, and his confrontation with Christ when he would rather have been baptized by Jesus, his eventual imprisonment, and finally his questioning whether Jesus is really the Messiah before the finality of beheading. This all testifies of a life that’s not smoothed from an ever-present battle and conflict.
The only recorded prayer we have from his mouth is the radical tension-creating words ‘He must become more and I must become less’. I wonder if this kind of prayer was the source of his peculiar journey. It’s interesting to note that a lot of books are written on some of the other prayers in the Bible, Jabez comes to mind. Yet I haven’t recently seen a mug with the prayer of John on it.
John’s life is a moving narrative of someone who ‘gives his all for Christ’ and in the end looses his head. There is no sweet ending to his tale. Being in the will of God is maybe not ‘the safest place on earth’? But it is the best way to live … and die.
One of the most instructive windows into John’s life is when he sends his disciples to enquire whether he gave his life for something or rather Someone that’s worth it. I guess if one reads anachronistically it can be said that he was wondering whether he lived a ‘purpose-driven life’. “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” And herein lays one of the great things we can learn from John, a lesson on expectations.
Imagine giving your all for Jesus, your lifestyle, your clothing, your talking – your freedom. Won’t you expect some kind of recompense? A reward? Isn’t that what we’re expecting? I think it was that way for John. The last thing he expected was to be in a jail, in Afrikaans we have a saying ‘stank vir dank’. It literally means a stench for thanks. Metaphorically it’s a fart for thanks. This is not what John expected …
Earlier this morning two of our best friends emailed from the States to let us know that their three-and-a-half year old son has been diagnosed with diabetes. They are asking John kind of questions … How can this be? Is there really a God? This is not what I signed up for! Where is God? Is there a God? At the pinnacle of John’s life, when he is supposed to enjoy ‘retirement’ – (is that a kingdom-compatible idea?) and ‘mentor’ others, he leads his disciples into a passage of his own doubt.
Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question is extremely instructive. Jesus, as a good Jew who new the Text, quotes ‘from Isaiah 61:1 and 35:5-6’ . Let me give you the original quotations and then show you how Jesus quoted it. We can then play one of those games I played as a child. Every Sunday afternoon the paper would print two pictures, one is the original and the other is a copy with the slightest of alterations. See if you can play this game with the Text (the original in my analogy) and the altered picture (Jesus’ quotation of the Text).
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,” (Isaiah 61:1, NIV)
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” (Isaiah 35:5-6, NIV)
“So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Luke 7:22, NIV)
Though you’ll find several discrepancies, the one I want to focus on is the one that John would have expected and anticipated when he heard Jesus’ statements. Don’t you think John would have ‘freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners’ as a life-verse pasted inside his dungeon? I can imagine how someone asks him how he manages to stay so upbeat in prison and how John recites this well-known prophesy, similar to how people quote Jeremiah 29:11’s often misquoted ‘I have a dream for your life’ passage.
Imagine then the shock when Jesus basically says “Yes, I am the Messiah and by-the-way I’m not going to release you from prison”. The question is whether John would accept Jesus as His Messiah even though his expectancies towards Jesus were totally smashed? Would you? Would I? Would my friends with the diabetes-suffering child? This then brings us to Jesus’ immediate comment that :
“Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”” (Luke 7:23, NIV)
The Greek word for ‘fall away’ is skandalizo where we get our word scandalized from. Happy are those who are not scandalized when Jesus doesn’t act according to our expectations. That is why I like John’s prayer; it’s raw with the reality of a kingdom that is different from the one I expect.
Enjoy the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist!