John the Baptist asks this question from the bowels of Herod Antipas’ prison, because his disciples have been bringing him news of Jesus that isn’t matching his expectations of the Messiah. John hears that Jesus is eating and drinking with tax collectors, who work for Rome, sex workers who satisfy the worst desires of men, and the poor and the sick!
Jesus should be leading all those who gave their lives to God through John’s baptism in a rebellion against the forces that occupy Israel. He should be preaching against Herod and Caesar. And he should be working to free John from prison. In short, Jesus should be preparing the ground for God to kick out the Romans, replace the accommodating teachers of Israel, and usher in God’s Reign on earth, as in heaven.
So, Jesus responds by saying his ministry is a fulfillment of the vision of the Prophet Isaiah, who said that when God comes back to save the people, it will look like the ministry of Jesus, where “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.”
I have a lot of sympathy for John’s burning question. After all, what good does it do to heal blind Bartimaeus, 10 lepers, a woman with an issue of blood, a boy with an epileptic spirit, and a centurion’s slave, and even raise poor Lazarus from the dead, if the Roman Empire is going to continue to subjugate and oppress its conquered peoples? It’s like a having a doctor fix a paper cut on your finger, while ignoring metastatic cancer in your brain.
“Great, my leprosy is gone, but my village and country continue to be under the Roman boot and the Roman cross.
John needs to know if Jesus is a local, small-time healer or God’s man to change the world. And we need to know the same thing!
In quoting Isaiah, Jesus reveals he is in line with the eternal purposes of God. His is to bring God’s people into New Creation, where God is King and Caesar is not. His means are the Way of Love—which is applied, not from the top down in a show of force, but from the bottom up in a show of motherly love. Jesus gives healing to nobodies, in order to change the world for everybody, so the poor do not once again get left out of the gains of the rich.
But there are too many poor and sick folk that need help, surely Jesus is wasting his time.
This reminds me of writer Anne Lamott’s story: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
But Jesus can’t possibly overthrow the Roman Empire curing one person at a time, can he? Yet in the year 312 the emperor Constantine is converted to Christianity and makes it the official religion of the empire shortly thereafter.
While this is far from the end of Christ’s work, it shows there is a force here greater than we can imagine, but when we do imagine it, amazing things happen.
Jesus acts out his vision on Palm Sunday by entering Jerusalem, not on a War Horse, but on a donkey. He challenges Caesar, not with military force but with soul force. He lets Rome do its violent worst to him and by Friday afternoon Jesus is dead and Rome wins.
But then on Sunday morning…God vindicates Jesus and his bird by bird program of healing, teaching, and self-giving love. With the gift of the Christ-Spirit communities of practice grow up around the empire and multiply the power of healing and teaching of the Way of Love. Now some are given the ability to heal individuals and others the ability to ask the Powers that Be why there are so many poor and sick among us and what needs to change.
Unfortunately, once Rome embraces Christianity some take it as a sign that God now wants the church to abandon Jesus’ program and take on empire’s program of top down control. Whenever the church embraces the love of power, it loses the power of love, the power to heal, the power to make new, individuals and communities.
In so far as we buy into the illusion that the power of rulers is greater than the power of Christ, there will continue to be the last, the least, and the left out with no one to hear or heal them.
So, I want to suggest that showing love to even just one person is a political statement on behalf of the Kingdom of God. Giving a meal to one hungry person in our Food for Friends program at Eliot Presbyterian in Lowell; giving a gift to one prisoner’s child through our Angel Tree program, releases into the world the transforming Christ-Spirit, the soul-force of King Jesus.
I choose to believe Jesus’ answer is all John needs to hear. As John lies in prison, he knows God is at work in Jesus to bring the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. John knows that the power of love in Jesus is greater than the love of power in Herod.
John knows love wins, and vainglorious leaders do not.
John breathes a sigh of relief and offers his gratitude to All-Loving God. Twenty years later the apostle Paul sums up the Way of Jesus in his word to the Church in Corinth: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….”
So, in this Advent season, be a healer, not a hater. Live out of the Mind Christ, and not out of Mortal Mind.
Let the transforming Christ-Spirit flow through your life to the next person in need that you see, then the next one after that and soon enough we will notice a change in ourselves, our church, and our country.
As Martin Luther King, Jr says in Washington in August 1963:
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”