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“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Is this a word from a renowned skeptic? Is it a word from someone who only distantly knew Jesus?
No. These are the words spoken by John the Baptist’s emissaries who were reading aloud a letter John had sent to Jesus from the prison cell where Herod Antipas had chained him.
It’s so sad for me to think of this sentiment coming from John.
John, whose own predestined purpose as forerunner to the Messiah, was announced by Angel Gabriel, to his father Zachariah at the altar of God.
John, whose mother Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin, and who rejoiced about their miraculous pregnancies together in the months leading to delivery.
John, who led a movement of repentance in the wilderness, convincing the people from every part of society that they should repent and turn around.
John, who proclaimed there is one stronger than I, who is coming after me, and I am not worthy to stoop and untie his sandals. His winnowing fork, separating the wheat from the chaff, will be in his hand, and he will baptize with fire.
“Hey Jesus, John the Baptist wants to know if you are the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I wonder if John’s question is asked after months of torture in Herod’s dungeon. I wonder if John’s question was asked after being waterboarded, or subjected to shock, or extreme cold, or lashes.
“Hey friends, can you check in with Jesus? Is he going to make a Messiah move? Where is that winnowing fork? Where’s that baptism with fire? Can you make sure he is the One who is to come? I don’t know how much longer I can hold out here.”
I’m not really sad about John expressing doubts. I’m sad thinking about the kind of experiences of suffering John had been going through that could lead to doubt.
I’m sad because it reminds me of the times some of you, and sometimes I, have had things so knocked out of whack in our lives that all our old confidences have vanished, all our certainty and sense of refuge—gone. Messiah, where are you?
Uncertainty happens, and it especially hurts when it’s driven by suffering.
Maybe it was the combination of the suffering he was facing in prison, coupled with some of the sporadic news he was getting, about Jesus’ work, that left him wondering. From what he was hearing Jesus was just traveling around Galilee, teaching mostly.
This wasn’t the Messianic revival and triumph that John was expecting. Maybe John would have been more patient, waiting for Jesus to move in Jesus’ time, but John could tell time was running out for him. This political prisoner thing was dicey.
And Jesus responded by saying, “Go tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news brought to them, and Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison forced labor camp.”
Tell John this: The President of the United States of America, in the middle of wartime, cared enough about this black woman–this black lesbian married woman; this black married, lesbian woman with lots of tattoos; this black, married, lesbian woman with lots of tattoos and who got caught in a “drug charge”–that he negotiated with arguably the most offensive despot currently on earth to get her released.
Tell John that this President got Brittney Griner released while the despot is carrying out a grotesque war that is dehumanizing on so many fronts. And yet, the President managed to humanize this situation, and have a human interaction with the despot, without disrespecting the nation that is being invaded by the despot.
Tell John that the despot assumed he could sow ongoing division in the United States by arresting and targeting this “poster child” of every polarizing issue that would further disrupt the political and electoral process of the United States.
Tell John that this despot went from making fake Black Lives Matter social media platforms to forcing a nation to ask if this particular black woman’s life mattered. And his efforts didn’t lead to polarization, instead, overall, it led to support and concern for this black woman.
Tell John that the nation largely stood beside Brittney Griner. Tell John that Brittney Griner’s wife was honored and listened to, and worked carefully with the White House, and joined the President and Vice President in the Oval Office for a moving speech at the news of Brittney’s release.
Tell John that a married lesbian woman speaking in the Oval Office is hardly news now. That God’s kingdom must be coming, for up on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans just worked across the aisle to protect the marriage of these two women with federal legislation after a few rogue judges threatened to undermine it.
Tell John that Vladimir Herod-Putin is still holding tight to his Cold War human action figures, as if they are worth gold. But you can bet that the people of Russia, when they learn of the choice of who and what is of value, will love the new world where Brittany Griner is more valuable than an arms dealer from the underworld.
And tell John that the United States, and even the international community, were already familiar with Brittney Griner because women’s sports have been elevated so much from even a few years ago, that she was a household name, a hero especially to young girls and to the LGBTQ community.
Tell John that. Ok. Tell John that.
As John’s disciples prepared to head back, but before they did, Jesus stopped and spoke a beautiful and affirming word about John.
Tell John, “Blessed is he who will not be scandalized by this order of choices, who will not take offense at me.” I imagine Jesus adding, “and I know that this will be John’s perspective as well. He’ll appreciate this order of things, even from his chains.”
He then turned to the crowd and said,
“You know, I love John, and I loved everything about him, way out there in the wilderness. So many of you went out to be with him. Was he a reed shaken by the wind?” (Herod’s coins, by the way, had a reed on them. The people often critiqued him, like we critique politicians today, pointing to that reed and saying “his opinions shake like a reed the moment the political winds start to change.”)
“Did you go out and find a ‘fair weather friend’ when you went out to see John? No! Did you go out to find a rich man dressed in soft robes of royalty? No! You went out there looking for a prophet, and that is what you found. You found a real messenger, a real vehicle to prepare the way.”
And Jesus went on, “From the days of John’s arrest, and until this very day in Advent 2022, the kingdom of heaven, the in-breaking kingdom of heaven, has suffered violence and the violent are always trying to take it by force.”
“You may not get out, John.”
Just because there are these incredible signs, just because Brittney Griner was released from prison, does not mean that violence is gone. Her release is a sign that the last are first. It’s a sign that the kingdom is here, and yet it is still coming. But it’s not complete.
Friends, we know that John didn’t get out. John’s story ended in a meaningless, cruel, mockery-ridden murder—and he deserved none of it.
We are not told how John reacted when his disciples showed up with the news of Brittney Griner’s release. What I imagine is John’s eyes welling up with tears, and him slowly nodding, ”Yes, Jesus is indeed the One we’ve been waiting for. Jesus Christ is the Messiah of God!”
God is indeed visiting the world with love—good for Brittney! Good for Jesus! Good for the arrival of the kingdom of God! Thanks be to God! Amen!
Adapted from a sermon preached at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey, Sunday, December 11, 2022
Brilliant! A glimpse of the Reign of God once again inbreaking into the world. An Advent story for sure!
Thanks so much for this, I am deeply moved. Amen and amen.
Fabulous! Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
Thank you for the inspiration.
Wow, all those kooky things conservative Republican preachers did to gush over Trump, it is good to know that the liberal side gets at least as giddy for Biden.
Seth, I enjoyed reading this article which is about Brittney but really about the whole gospel. I rejoice in her release and how you tied your message to our joy in things that happen but are not the complete answer to our questions. Life is like that. Thank you.
Wow. Just WOW! Lump in my throat. Goosebumps on all appendages. This is moving, inspiring, challenging. Thanks so very much. One more flash of Advent Joy in this season of darkness yearning for Light.
May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!
I have been planning a series for epiphany about the “now” of the Kingdom of God but I haven’t known how to do it. I’m so comfortable with the “not yet” but you showed me how to get to the now. Thanks!
What beautiful and poignant truth for us today. “Her release is a sign that the last are first”. That and so much more. I will read it again because I was reading through my tears the first time.
Thank you for this. It stimulates my mind and spirit.
Blessed Christmas and New Year.
And how does the release of Victor Bout, the merchant of death, fit into this Advent illustration?
same question occurred me. Maybe Paul Whelan is John in this story . . .
Seems like Seth has answered that. The Kingdom hasn’t fully arrived. Every prison door hasn’t yet been thrown open. As for Viktor Bout, again I think Seth has suggested that in the coming Kingdom, Black, lesbian, tattooed women are of greater concern and higher value than underworld figures.
“Blessed is the one who will not be scandalized by this order of choices, who will not take offense at me.”
That is not what scandalizes me.
Yes, and the retention of Paul Whelan – was Putin playing a cruelly clever game here?
Seems to fit Putin’s general m.o., doesn’t it?
Seth, what a fantastic piece. Thanks, and thanks for all you do that points to the One who is coming again!
Beautifully captured in every word, every line and what is between the lines.
Seth and Stephanie,
Glorious! What an actual voice, what rhythms, what timing, what courage. Yer old heretic prof is so grateful for the gift of you in his days❤️
Jack, What a joy to get a response from you! And I wish you the best this Christmas. You had a big impact on my speech, my writing, and my presentation.
You should have stayed out of this one. Makes you small. The sermon actually sounds like one of yours. Renske
Tell John that American Paul Whelan still sits in a Russian jail while the president does nothing for this veteran and plays politics with Griner’s release. Biden did this as a political stunt and nothing else. If he really cared for an American veteran then he’d have worked for Paul’s release as well.
Tell John that Biden also release Viktor Bout aka “The merchant of death”, who was an evil arms dealer. Tell John to Google his name to see how evil he is.
Wow, pretty harsh, KC, and with such insider knowledge on President Biden s motives and actions; were you also an intimate party to the previous administration’s efforts—or lack of them—to gain Whelan’s release, detained since 2018?
Does the author have this insider knowledge of president Biden’s motives?? Will you question him?
May 9, 2018 three Americans were released from North Korea thanks to President Trump. But instead of appreciation he only gets mocked. There’s hardly an article in the journal that doesn’t mock Trump. Doesn’t seem what Christ would, does it?
Beautifully written. Thank you.