Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Talkin' About My Generation

It's been a while since I made any overt pop culture references on these pages, so let's start with a video shall we. It's from the BBC's 1981 version of Douglas Adam's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the galaxy" and while it's a bit long (9 minutes) it does relate to the topic at hand. It also takes a great shot at philosophy in general. If you don't have a high speed connection, don't worry, it's not essential to understand my point, it's just a bit of fun. While you watch the video - see if you can find the John the Baptist reference.

Now let's look at the scriptures: Matthew 11:16-30. This first passage is usually associated with the last episode, but I've decided to include it here.

“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying:

‘ We played the flute for you, And you did not dance;
We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth is, for me, one of the most compelling in all of scripture. Cousins by birth, they are also inseparably linked in the Kingdom of Heaven - the Herald and the Heir. John is the last of the Old Covenant prophets; living the life of an ascetic, challenging the motives of prince and pauper alike he calls the nation to repentance. He is the mourner mentioned in Jesus' brief parable of the children in the marketplace, calling the people to wail a lament for the spiritual condition of Israel.

Jesus, on the other hand, though proclaiming exactly the same kingdom, comes across as radically different. He is the flute player, inviting the people to dance with him. He shares their table, drinks their wine (and provides his own), tells them stories and gets in the occasional zing at their oppressors. There is no place for mourning in his ministry as he heals the sick and sets the captives free. His compassion knows no bounds, extending the kingdom to all who will receive it - prince and pauper alike.

And yet, despite their differences, Jesus and John have one thing very much in common; 'this generation' isn't listening to either one of them. A little 'market analysis' reveals the reason for this, neither Jesus nor John fit the public's expectations of a Messiah. Israel was indeed looking for the "coming of Messiah." It could be said to have occupied their every waking moment, but the Messiah they were expecting was neither a locust-eating, camel-hair wearing prophet nor a good-talking, party-going miracle worker. They were expecting a general!

Actually, Israel was looking for King David. They wanted the glory days of Israel back, the days when Israel was a force to be reckoned with. The hope was that David, the Warrior King, would return in the person of the Messiah, and with an army of "mighty men of valour" defeat the Romans and drive them from their land. Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus of Nazareth met these expectations, and so it is no wonder that the people had a hard time making the connection. Basically, like the people in the video, the Jews were asking the wrong question.

For those of you who haven't watched the video, a race of beings, realizing their own philosophical short-comings, built a great, sentient computer to answer the 'ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything'. After seven and a half million years of thinking the computer, named "Deep Thought" came up with the answer - "42". The computer goes on to explain that this is indeed the answer, it's just that the people did not properly understand the question they were asking.

For a hundred years the Jews had been asking the question, "When will Messiah come and save us from the Romans?" This question served to shape all of their perceptions concerning the Messiah. What they should have been asking, if they wanted to keep on track, was, "When will the Messiah come to save us from sin?" or at the very least, "When will Messiah come to save us from ourselves?" And make no mistake, they should have been able to figure out the right question. Throughout Israel's history God uses oppression by other nations and empires to correct the people after they have strayed from following God. Anyone who "had the ears to hear" what the scriptures were saying should have realized that if Israel was under the boot of another people it was because Israel itself had strayed from the true path.

Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.”

That is why Jesus doesn't stop at just pointing out to a generation that they missed the point. He goes on to warn the three communities where he has been performing his ministry that they are in particular peril. That we are not told what happened in Bathsaida and Chaorazin is testimony to John's declaration that there were many more things Jesus did that haven't been written down. But more importantly, these towns are now declared to be without excuse. Tyre, Sidon and even Sodom could at least claim some level of ignorance--there was no Torah, no prophecies, nothing to give them concrete instruction. But these three, with the testimony of scripture and the witness of the miracles that he performed, have no opportunity to make such a claim.

At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

And then Jesus, as per usual, turns the whole thing on its head. Having just lamented the spiritual condition of this generation, he then goes on to thank God that the truth has been hidden from them. This is yet another paradox in Jesus' approach to promoting the Kingdom of Heaven. At least so it seems at first, but as you think about it, it starts to make sense.

Just as time and time again Israel has failed to get the point, time and time again the truth is eventually revealed through those we would not expect. Remember, King David started out as a simple shepherd. Gideon didn't want the job of saving Israel. Jonah ran to the ends of the known earth. It is not those who profess themselves as wise that God seeks to use, but rather those who, knowing their own limitations, simply hope to do the best they can before God. They are not great thinkers, leaders or statesmen, they are just hard working everyday people whose oppression comes not from governments and princes, but from the everyday burdens of survival and conscience.

And this is the oppression that threatens more than the Romans or anyone else ever could. These are the oppressors that Messiah has come to save us from; our own sins, our own doubts, our own fears.

Until next time... Shalom.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Herald Questions the Heir

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:1-15)

It seems more than just a little strange to us that Jesus' cousin John would be the one to broach this subject. After all, wasn't it John who declared to all present on the shores of the Jordan River, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" And yet now he sends two of his disciples to ask, "Are you the one? Or should we look for someone else?"

And yet, there is something oddly comforting about it as well. Who among us has not wondered, especially when things seem to be going badly, if maybe we got it all wrong. I'll be straight with you dear reader, there have been more than just a few times when I have faced stiff opposition, especially well-read, articulate opposition, that I have found myself wondering if it might not all be just some great ancient legend after all. Yes indeed, I have!

And before you get out the candles and Holy water let me say that not all doubt is the result of demonic influences and the workings of the evil one. To doubt oneself, to question the validity of one's own beliefs is all too much a part of what it is to be human. This is most often the case when things don't play out the way we expect. And prophet though he was, walking and preaching in the spirit of Elijah, John was one other thing as well -- human.

He had his expectations of the Messiah just like anyone else. When he read the prophecies found in the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, he looked for the conquering Messiah who would bring into reality the long awaited Kingdom of God and "if any nation will not listen, then I will completely uproot it and destroy it, says the Lord!" (Jeremiah 12:17 ) But that is not what he sees happening. There is no fire, no brimstone, no nations being brought to their knees for disobedience. What else is an old school, campaign weary, fundamentalist baptist going to do but ask questions?

And how does Jesus respond? Is he frustrated? Angry? Does he throw his arms up in despair and rend his garments?

No. He answers the question, gently but authoritatively reminding John of what else is written among those prophesies. "Go back" he says, "tell John what you see and hear." (Remember John's been in prison since chapter 4) "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, (can you see him counting these off on his fingers?) the deaf hear (Isaiah 35:3-6 ), the dead are raised (Isa 29:18-19 ) and the poor receive the good news (Isaiah 61:1-3 )" Jesus knows full well that in John's present situation he doesn't need rebuke because he's harbouring a doubt or two; he needs reassuring that what he saw that day at the Jordan was no hallucination. That Jesus is indeed The One.

Then, after the two men leave to take Jesus' message back to their teacher, he turns to the crowd. You can bet that those nearest to him heard the two disciples ask John's question. It would have spread through the crowd in a matter of moments - I can picture them all looking to see what Jesus will say about his cousin's "unbelief." I can also picture the looks on their faces when he asks two satirical, almost sarcastic questions.

"Who did you go out to see? A reed swaying in the wind?" Hmmpf! Hardly! John was no reed! A thorn in the side of Herod and the Sanhedrin maybe, but no reed. I mean, John was a tough man, and not afraid of anyone. He stood up to Herod time and time again; why do you think he's in prison?

"Okay, then maybe you went out to see a man dressed in fine clothing?" Oh come on, Jesus! A camel hair tunic and a leather belt? Eating locusts? Okay, the wild honey's not too bad, but locusts! Get real!

Finally Jesus gives them the answer that likely sprang into their heads the moment He asked the question - A Prophet! "Yes," says Jesus, "and more than a prophet!"

We don't really know if John tried to play down who he was or if he just didn't realize the full scope of his role in history, but Jesus makes it clear that despite his denials, John was indeed the Elijah that Israel had been waiting for; the empty seat at the Passover table was John's!

But that is not all he says. He pays John the greatest compliment that anyone had likely been paid up until that moment. John, son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, cousin to Jesus, baptizer of sinners, and conscience of puppet monarchs, is declared to be the greatest human being that has ever lived since Adam and Eve! "Among all those born of a woman, there is none greater than he..." Remarkable! But even more remarkable is the last half of that sentence, "But the one who is least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he!"

There are many who will tell you that this is an indication of just how great Jesus thinks you are! It's a very egocentric and arrogant way to interpret this passage and I will admit that I fell into the trap myself for a while. But I have come to realize that it is really a far more remarkable statement than that. It is not about Jesus' opinion of me, or you or anyone else. In fact, it's not even really about John. It's about the Kingdom!

The kingdom of God, the kingdom that the Heir will establish when he takes his rightful place upon his Father's throne, will be so unlike anything that has appeared before, there will be no comparing it. Everything that has gone before, from the day when Creation was finished until the present moment, will seem like Nothing compared to the Kingdom founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ! It will be so great, so mind boggling, so far and above all that we could imagine, that the smallest, most insignificant citizen of that kingdom will be greater than John the baptist simply by virtue of the fact they are invited to be there at all!

And if that is true, then what can be said of this generation? Or of the one that witnessed John's ministry? We'll look at Jesus comments on that - next time.

Till then - Shalom.