Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Barbara Brown Taylor writes that that has to be one of the most haunting questions in all of scripture, especially when you consider who is asking it. It is John the Baptist.
What has happened to John that he should ask such a question? Has his memory been erased? Has someone brainwashed him? What has made him question the identity of the one person he has been waiting for all his life? He’s in jail, for one thing, put there for disapproving of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. Nothing has gone the way it was supposed to.
This Messiah was supposed to change things. He was supposed to burn all the dead wood of the world. He was supposed to separate the good guys from the bad guys once and for all. He was supposed to clean up the world, so that people like Herod were no longer in power and people like John were no longer in prison, but Jesus has utterly failed to meet John’s expectations.
He talks more about peace and love than he does about sin and hell. He spends most of his time with spiritual weaklings and moral misfits, and he doesn’t seem to be chopping up the rotten wood that John has singled out for destruction. Jesus seems more interested in poking around the dead stumps looking for new growth and in throwing parties for the new shoots when he finds them.
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? This is John’s Calvary, his moment of wondering what his life has been about and hearing that there has been an awful mistake. It is his moment of wondering if he has been forsaken, if the one he has waited for all this time has turned out to be an impostor, not the Messiah at all, but just an idealistic dreamer the world will swat down like a gnat.
In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis paints a picture of Jesus and John sitting high above the Jordan in the hollow of a rock, where they have been arguing all night long about what to do with the world.
“Isn’t love enough?” Jesus asks.
“No,” John answers. “The tree is rotten. God called me and gave me the ax, which I then placed at the roots of the tree. I did my duty. Now you do yours: Take the ax and strike!”
“If I were fire, I would burn,” Jesus says. “If I were a woodcutter, I would strike; but I am a heart, and I love.”
It is easy indeed to understand what John is going through. We have all, at some time or another, looked for a Messiah who did not come the way we wanted him to. We want clear, helpful answers. We might want a Messiah who will rescue the innocent and punish the guilty. We have a long list of people who have injured us, and we want a Messiah to expose them for who they are.
Or maybe we want a Messiah who will make us be good. We want a Lord who will take over our minds and bodies so that we cannot mismanage them anymore, a Lord who will heal us in spite of ourselves and not let us make any more mistakes.
But none of this is what we get. Instead, you and I get one who waits while we find our own answers. We get one who gives suspended sentences to the guilty, including you and me. We get one who lets humankind stew in the consequences of our actions.
This seems to be a story of crashing disillusionment – John’s, ours, everybody’s who looks for a Messiah who does not come, or who does not come in the way he was expected. But disillusionment is not a bad thing. Disillusionment is the loss of an illusion – and while it is almost always painful, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have so long mistaken for truth.
Disillusioned, we find out that God does not conform to our expectations. We find our own relative size in the universe and see that no human being can say who God should be or how God should act. We look over our requirements of God and recognize them as our own fictions. Disillusioned, we find out what is not true and we are set free to seek what is – if we dare – to turn away from the God whom we created in order to seek the God who is.
Every letdown becomes a lesson. Did God fail to come when I rubbed the lantern? Maybe God is not a genie. Did God fail to punish my enemies? Maybe God is not a cop. Did God fail to make everything run smoothly? Maybe God is not a mechanic.
Over and over, our disappointments draw you and me deeper into the mystery of God. Every time God fails to meet my expectations, another of my idols is exposed. Another curtain is drawn back so that I can see what I have propped up in place of God. No, that is not God. Who, then, is God? It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough, never complete. As we push aside all the curtains, it becomes clear that the failure is not God’s but my own, for having such a poor and stingy imagination.
Go and tell John what you hear and see. That is Jesus’ response to the disciples who deliver John’s message. Isn’t it curious that Jesus does not testify to himself? He simply sends John’s disciples back with a message to tell their teacher what they have seen and heard. Not fires and axes, but broken people being made whole, sick people being healed, and poor people being given hope.
And blessed are those who take no offense at me, he says. Blessed are those who do not let the Messiah they are expecting blind them to the Messiah standing right in front of them. Blessed are those who are not afraid to revise the hope that is in them, pushing through their disillusionment into a place of new and clearer vision.
Is he the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? That, it appears, is up to you and me to decide. To look around us, and see for ourselves.