John the Baptist is now in prison and his confidence is shaken. In Last Sunday’s reading he was the confident man in the wilderness denouncing the Pharisees and proclaiming one to come who will “baptise with water and with fire”.
Today we meet him again, but this time speaking from his prison cell, and we hear a man suddenly full of doubts.
Doubt is of course a natural thing and I think that it would have been entirely natural that sitting in chains, a prisoner of a murderous erratic king like Herod fears and doubts would come crowding in on anyone. Of course we know that John was soon beheaded and his head served up on a silver platter - so any fears he had were well founded (!) – but knowing something drastic might happen at any time he needed to know for sure about Jesus.
But there was another reason implied in the text. John like most Jews was expecting a very particular kind of messiah. They were expecting a political figure, a warrior king who would fight and defeat the Romans and re-establish an independent Israel by force. His rule would be fierce – a cleansing fire that would burn through not just Rome but all the rich corrupt political and religious Jewish hierarchy as well. Anyone not bearing good fruit would be cut down with an axe. As John foretold and expected the messiah would baptise with water and with fire.
But Jesus’ ministry wasn’t like that at all. Of course he was a challenge to the establishment – that is why eventually they felt they had to crucify him – but his challenge was a peaceful one. He challenged people’s perception of what a Messiah might look like as well as challenging the Status Quo, challenging people’s personal morality and challenging their understanding of God.
He reaches out to the margins of society to heal rifts, he brings healing to those who need it in the widest possible sense. The message he gives to John’s disciples to take back to John to try and convince him that yes, he really is the one is a quote from Isaiah that illustrates just those kinds of qualities.
After John’s disciples had gone when addressing the crowd, Jesus says plainly that John the Baptist is indeed a great man in Israel’s present scene – a necessary precursor to what was going to happen next but the very least in the kingdom of God ( new order of understanding and revelation) was greater than John.
You see at that point, Jesus is saying that John the Baptist stands outside the Kingdom of God. I always used to have great trouble in understanding this. This great icon and necessary ingredient in the Christian story lying outside the Kingdom of God.
The only way I have been able to understand this is to understand that to be inside the kingdom of God is about the quality and nature of our relationship with God, and the nature of the God we know and the perception of God’s presence and character.
To be born again to a different understanding of God, his purposes and our relationship to him puts someone in the kingdom of God. It also entailed coming to a different understanding of the nature of the Messiah to the Jews of the 1st century.
Probably my greatest objection to the idea of a literal second coming is that the Jesus that is expected is exactly the same kind of Messiah that John was expecting in the first place. The avenging angel, saving the faithful, taking an axe to the root of those who don’t bear good fruit, toppling the kingdoms of this world and reigning as king in their place.
But that kind of messiah God did not provide. I believe that the way of Jesus is the decisive revelation of the character and will of God. God has already revealed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus, the revelation of the first coming, that what the Jews (including John) were expecting was not what God would provide. That might be what you desire, but it isn’t what you are going to get.
What we got wasn’t a warrior king, but a man of peace who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Not a man who would defeat the armies of Rome, but a man who suffered and died at their hands. His victory is of a very different order revealed in the mystery of the resurrection.
There was nothing deficient in the first coming. There is nothing left to be completed. Everything that needed to be done was done. The rest, as I never tire of repeating, is down to us.
If we want God’s kingdom to come we have to, in God’s help and strength, bring that kingdom in ourselves as God’s agents, the body of Christ using Jesus’ methods and his example.