Two Sandwich Signs
So here are two sandwich signs. How do they make you feel? Does one or neither grip you? Why does one grip you and not the other? Maybe neither grips you and you just think they’re nuts or kooks or overly zealous but entitled to their opinions and free speech?
John the Baptist
Here is the story of the most successful sandwich-sign-guy in first century Judea.
Matthew 3:1–12 (NIV)
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The Last Prophet
John comes not with a sandwich board, which would be the expected end-of-the-world prophesy for our times, but with clothes of camel’s hair, a leather belt eating locusts in honey. His listeners would get the picture. What is easy to picture is something like the movie Legion from 2010.
Israel has failed God, again, and judgment is on the way.
Instead of some super-hero angel to offer shelter John invites people to a baptism of repentance. It is not too late to turn and get on God’s good side.
This isn’t just a watery “get out of the apocalypse quick” scheme, there is an ethnic to go along with it. Matthew I suspect assumes his readers already had the picture. Luke fleshes it out a bit more for his non-Jewish audience.
Luke 3:10–14 (NIV)
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Unlike the plot of most Hollywood movies where the goal is to stop “the end of the world” which is imagined basically like the naturalist narrative of the end of the universe.
The “end of the world” for John the Baptist is really the beginning of a new world, a better one, a world without sin and suffering.
John the Baptist is not talking so much about killed by climate change or the famine caused by it, but rather a different regime, one that will discriminate based on allegiance and behavior.
Fidel Castro just passed away and given all the hubbub over eulogy remarks by Justin Trudeau I decided to dip into a biography of a Cuban dissident Armando Valladares. While working in a post office he refused to put a the sign “I’m with Fidel” in his desk, and voiced some criticism of Communism, which at that point Fidel had not yet openly espoused, and was arrested and was given a 30 year prison sentence.
People in the first century knew all about regime change and the egos of their rulers. Crossing a ruler usually got one killed.
Talking this way of course makes God sound like a tyrant and to some he is. John the Baptists’ preaching was met with the seemingly perpetual anxiety of a world-ending intervention and many, many people flocked to hear him. As we noted last week anxiety or anticipation about the world’s end, large and small is a very real and human thing and comes in various shapes and sizes. We know that the movement started by John was very large and enduring.
Contrast and Alignment
While John the Baptist might have made for good movie content it is quite clear that all 4 gospel writers saw his ministry as an important precursor to Jesus’. If you understand John’s ministry one more obvious thing jumps about and the second is a more subtle, overlooked point.
We can imagine John as making us look towards something form the movie Legion or the space invasion in The Avengers movie. We’re expecting the sandwich-board street preacher guy but when Jesus comes he looks very different. He looks so different in fact that John himself does some second guessing.
While John and Jesus were both in conflict with the religious authorities Jesus was notoriously gentle and friendly with the kinds of morally wobbly people that expected to get the business end of an angelic-police-state-crackdown. This of course is celebrated today but caused a lot of consternation on the part of many moral people. Jesus was, it seems famously soft on those that many considered significant and dangerous sinners including the Romans occupiers and the Jews who facilitated the occupation like tax collectors and prostitutes. Today we might join Jesus in mercy towards sex workers we regard as victims but be a bit concerned if he showed softness or openness to pimps or crooked cops or politicians who let it all go on.
I do wonder how well Jesus’ reputation for tolerance would hold up with many today. On one hand they celebrate his famous tolerance towards groups we would regard as victims yet our moral codes of political correctness are increasingly noisy about those who say nothing while injustice happens. We have lots of sayings from the right and the left on this.
- silence implies consent
- “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” Edmund Burke
Jesus was hated precisely because he didn’t publicly align with a variety of factions who found him insufficiently outspoken, energetic, or even aligned with them against things that most of us could pretty easily call tyranny, evil or abuse. While we love it that he called out evil against some parties like the “sinful woman” of Luke 7 what about the evils of imperial Rome and the client regime of the Herods? Do you know what the Herods were like? Fidel had nothing on Herod the Great.
The Contrast illuminates the Alignment
So Jesus on one had seemed to contrast the vision that John lays out, often to our applause, but Jesus was also fully capable of being more strident and dramatic as John and in Jesus’ case he placed himself in the judgment seat pronouncing sentence upon those who refused to align with himself. Jesus is the one who says “depart from me I never knew you” and says things about being tied to a millstone and gouging out eyes and cutting off hands. Our culturally appropriate Jesus can only be maintained by reading selectively from the gospels. It is Jesus that doubles down on things like sexual sin and greed in some ways making even John the Baptist look like a soft touch.
Many of us are natural dualists and contrarians. We have trouble seeing more than dualities in our minds and we often like to “yeah but” a position that is even just a little off of our own. We see this all the time. The mob out there demanding love, acceptance and tolerance pretty easily breaks out in violence against those they label as non-loving or intolerant. It’s very very easy for each of us to justify being unloving to those we deem as unloving. Ideas like loving enemies seem unaffordable and therefore we justify our own violence in the name of love.
If John the Baptist can be faulted on the simplicity of his sandwich board in failing to understand Jesus’ mercy he does so probably because he’s as human as we are. He, like us, has trouble imagining how Jesus can hold these diverse excellencies of Jesus.
We like to imagine the world is divided between people who believe in love and those who believe in law. Those who fly the flag of love believe that people are basically good and with some education and understanding will naturally and consistently do the right thing.
Those who fly the law flag believe that people need incentives, carrots and sticks to do right and so therefore things go better, people are happier and safer if we are suspicious and cautious unless there is a order enforced to help people do right.
We find that those under the love flag, however, are ready to adopt the most dramatic language and even violence in the name of their flag while those in the law camp are ready to excuse their own allies from consequences if they break the rules. Performance tends to track more from ingroups and outgroups than the actual flags they fly.
Jesus seems to frustrate it all by being both capable of demanding law and lavish mercy at the same time. We have real troubles perceiving this. John might have gotten the demanding part right, even fallen short on that if compared with the Sermon on the Mount, but was rather blind to the mercy angle leading to his from-prison-delegation in Matthew 11.
Particularly impressive to readers over the centuries has been what one writer has called “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.” 19 That is, in him we see qualities and virtues we would ordinarily consider incompatible in the same person. We would never think they could be combined but, because they are, they are strikingly beautiful. Jesus combines high majesty with the greatest humility, he joins the strongest commitment to justice with astonishing mercy and grace, and he reveals a transcendent self-sufficiency and yet entire trust in and reliance upon his heavenly Father. We are surprised to see tenderness without any weakness, boldness without harshness, humility without any uncertainty, indeed, accompanied by a towering confidence. Readers can discover for themselves his unbending convictions but complete approachability, his insistence on truth but always bathed in love, his power without insensitivity, integrity without rigidity, passion without prejudice.
Keller, Timothy. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (pp. 232-233). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
What is probably most difficult in this passage for many of us is that we can’t simply connect with John or the response he brought on. What on a sandwich board would move you? What would it move you toward? It should.
The invasion of the kingdom of heaven has started, and the invader is both more demanding and more forgiving that our small minds can put together. We keep trying to split him up, to divide him down the lines that we have created between us and he simply won’t have it. He demands that we lay down our lives for him and he proceeds to lay down his life for us.
When I was teaching my Sunday School class last week we talked about Paul praising the Thessalonians for imitating him as he imitated Christ. This was the week after Fidel passed and everyone was figuring out how to talk about it. Let me illustrate how Jesus and Fidel are different. Fidel didn’t want imitators, he wanted followers. He wanted sheep who would lay down their lives for him, and who would give him wool and meat. Jesus wants his followers to imitate him, freely, willingly. Jesus knows we are sheep and he lays down his life for them.
John says that this Jesus will baptize us with Holy Spirit and with fire.
Some see the fire as a reference to the fire of Pentecost. Could be. Some argue that the fire is the refining fire of persecution and trial. That is true too.
In this world where many people are in a frenzy to “have it all” because “you only live once”, the promise of Jesus, his death and resurrection offers radical freedom. Christ followers have the promise to reign with him over a new heavens and earth, when heaven and earth of reunited. What this does is free us up to radical grateful living in the midst of the death in this age.
This God who comes and gives his life to us by giving his life for us offers us the gift of giving back to him what we cannot keep but also can’t lose.