What is Jesus up to?
That’s the question that John the Baptist asked, the question that we heard in our gospel lesson today.
You probably know that John was a man of the desert, a man who was a bit rustic, shall we say? John was a man who was so authentic that hoards of people visited him in the desert to hear what he had to say.
And John had a lot to say. “Repent!” he would thunder. This was a doom and gloom message, a message that is not very popular today. But back then people came in droves to hear what John had to say.
In our Bible studies this week we thought about who, today, we might be willing to go to an out-of-the-way place to hear. Maybe Pope Francis in Southeast Washington, praying with the drug dealers and others who are so devoid of hope there. Maybe Archbishop Desmond Tutu, cradling AIDS patients—children all—in his arms in downtown Detroit. Maybe Nelson Mandela, if he could somehow appear hale and healthy anywhere on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
As we heard last week, John told those who came to the desert to hear him that there was an “axe lying a the root of the trees.” (3:10) John’s message was clear, “Repent, or else! Repent, or you will be cut down!”
But John isn’t in the desert in our gospel lesson today, is he? John is in prison.
If we flip ahead a few chapters, to Matthew chapter 14, we find out WHY John was in prison. John was all over Herod because he had taken his brother Philip’s wife. John’s message was very stark, “Repent!” Never mind that Herod was the king, “Repent!” John told him, and probably in a loud and commanding voice.
Well, apparently Herod didn’t like this message. And, to show John who was King, Herod had John thrown into prison. At that time people didn’t get to stay in prison long. There was no rehabilitation; prisoners were either exonerated or—more likely—found guilty and executed.
So John was awaiting the trial he would never get. After all, Herod WAS king and he could dispense with a trial. But, while Herod was deciding what John’s fate would be, John heard news of what Jesus “was doing.” So John sent Jesus a message.
“Are you the one who is to come—the Messiah—or what?” John asked Jesus. In other words, “What is Jesus up to?”
This was a very curious question. Earlier in Matthew, we heard of John baptizing Jesus. THEN John had known exactly who Jesus is. “I need to be baptized by you,” John had said. And then, after doing the deed, John had witnessed the heavens opening and raining down divine approval on Jesus, like a dove.
Yes, John should have known who Jesus is. So what had changed?
Well, first, things generally look very different when we are in prison, just like they look different when we have a scary diagnosis, or a failed marriage, or when life doesn’t turn out the way that we want. Things we are very sure of may appear different when viewed from these perspectives. Perhaps John may have blamed Jesus in some way for being in prison. We don’t know this, but we humans often think this way:
“Wait a minute,” John might have thought. “If Jesus is the Messiah, and he came to me for baptism, why hasn’t he rescued me from prison? Doesn’t he know that Herod might just have my head?”
Some people have another idea about what might have changed. Matthew tells us that after hearing what Jesus was up to, he began to have doubts about whether Jesus was the Messiah.
So what was Jesus up to? Jesus was healing the sick, eating with questionable people, and stirring up the powerful by preaching salvation to the poor. This isn’t the message that John had expected to hear. John had expected the Messiah to come wielding John’s doom and gloom agenda. John had expected Jesus to come wielding the axe.
How many times has this happened to us? Just when we figure out what Jesus would do, Jesus surprises us. We expect Jesus to think and act the way that we think and act, and we are constantly surprised when he doesn’t. And when Jesus’ agenda doesn’t match our own, we begin to question whether Jesus is really who he says that he is.
This is what John did. He sent word to Jesus asking him to explain what he was up to. In response, Jesus gave John a scripture lesson. Jesus quoted back to John portions of the prophet Isaiah, reminding him of the Messiah’s job description: “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.”
For good measure Jesus told John that whoever took no offense at him would be blessed, suggesting that the reverse would be true. The axe is at the root of a very different tree now, at the root of John’s tree!
I hadn’t noticed this myself, but one commentary noted that when Jesus quoted Isaiah 35 to John, he left out, omitted, the portions of Isaiah’s prophecy that mentioned judgment. What this means is that, in Jesus’ time, people had selective memory about what had been prophesied. People had forgotten that the Messiah was to be a healer, yet they remembered that the Messiah would be our judge. Jesus had other priorities: healing, not judging.
After reminding John about the full prophecy, Jesus then praised John, identifying him as the one foretold of old who would “prepare the way for Jesus.”
Doesn’t Jesus do this for us, today? Give us our identity? Doesn’t Jesus also identify for us what our purpose is in life? John’s purpose was to prepare the way for the Messiah. This means that we can’t discount John’s message, of the need for repentance. After all, Jesus himself will soon curse a fig tree for not bearing fruit. So there IS an axe at the root of the trees that do not produce God-fruit.
And yet, in Jesus, the blind DO receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news, and those who are disheartened find new hope. What Jesus is up to is healing those who need to be healed.
This is very good news. Repent; the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Come, be healed.