John the Baptist’s Legacy

I don’t think I realized until last summer―when I was preparing a sermon on John the Baptist for a preaching class―how many things Jesus says that are actually direct quotes from John the Baptist, at least as recorded by the gospel writer Matthew.

First I noticed that right as Jesus begins his public ministry, in the chapter directly following the one about John the Baptist, Jesus says, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). This is exactly what John was saying in Matthew 3:2. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on repentance/confession.)

I got kind of interested in this, and so it caught my eye when a commentary I was reading mentioned the parallel; the commentary then noted that this isn’t the only parallel between John’s words and Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew.

It turns out that Jesus calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers,” twice (Matthew 12:34 and 23:33). Those are John’s exact words from Matthew 3:7. (See these two earlier posts for some thoughts on this viperly brood.)

Jesus also says, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). This is repeated verbatim from John’s words in Matthew 3:10. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on good fruit.)

Given all this, it’s no wonder that some people (including Herod) thought that maybe Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead!

What’s going on here? On one end of a gradient of Scripture interpretation (from more emphasis on God’s inspiration to more emphasis on the human writers), is Matthew just being lazy, or mixed up about who said what? Or, on the other end of that gradient, did God’s Spirit independently move both Jesus and John to say the exact same things?

It seems most likely to me that Jesus heard what John had been preaching―maybe when Jesus went to be baptized by John, or maybe otherwise―and he intentionally picked up and kept on propagating John’s words after John’s death.

This is certainly what it sounds like in Matthew 4:12-17: “now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee…from that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

John’s public ministry was over, and it was time for Jesus’ to begin. And Jesus began by quoting John―and he kept on quoting John, at different points throughout his three-year itinerant teaching career. Jesus took up John’s legacy and extended it.

I think it was like Jesus was saying, this John the Baptist guy―I’m not him, but I am with him. I’m behind everything he was saying. I’m here with the same kind of message, sent by the same God. The kingdom of heaven is near. Repent, believe, bear good fruit. Fear God, confess sins, receive forgiveness. Challenge the poisonous structures and systems and ideologies around you; don’t scheme and strategize as if God couldn’t raise up children from stones; don’t be a brood of vipers.

As we think about who Jesus is, and as we try (this Christmas and beyond) to wrap our minds around the crazy idea that the God who created the universe came to us as a vulnerable baby and lived among us as a human, may we remember that John the Baptist who came before him was not just some random weirdo out in the desert; rather, John was the person whose legacy Jesus took up and ran with.

When we seek to worship, serve, love, and honor Jesus, and to live by Jesus’ teachings, we are honoring the Jesus who honored John; we are following the teachings of the one who repeated John’s teachings. We are serving the one whose sandals John recognized himself as being unworthy to untie; we are worshipping the Messiah toward whom John lived to point us.

So, this Christmas day, happy birthday to Jesus: the relative of John the Baptist, who was baptized by John and listened to John. Happy birthday to Jesus, for whom John made paths straight. Happy birthday to Jesus, who, when he invites us to take up our crosses and follow him, invites us to follow John’s example and be faithful to God rather than human authorities right up until death―just as John was when he died at Herod’s hands.

Happy birthday to Jesus, and Merry Christmas!

Ps. Thanks for reading! It’s been very encouraging to see page view numbers greater than zero :D. Whether you’ve stuck with it all twenty-five days, or have checked in here and there, or are just checking it out for the first time today, thank you―your eyeballs on this page (just kidding, but really, your time and brain and heart processing these posts) really mean a lot to me. I hope something here has been interesting, thought-provoking, or otherwise helpful.

Speaking Honestly

For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 

Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.”

The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison.

The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. (Matthew 14:3-11)

So here we are, at the tragic and gruesome end of John the Baptist’s life.

Something caught my attention while reading this passage in Greek. It might seem like a small thing, but I think it’s worth reflecting on.

The Greek text says, very clearly, that “[Herod] beheaded John in the prison” (or, if you want the whole verse 10, something like “and [Herod], after sending [someone], beheaded John in the prison”). Both verbs―the sending and the beheading―are in the active voice. Herod is the subject, John the object. Herod beheaded John. He probably sent someone else to do the physical act of killing, but it is clear that Herod is the agent responsible for it.

I think this struck me because it feels a little more direct and blunt than the most common English translations, which say that “[Herod] had John beheaded” (NRSV, NIV, ESV, CEB, NASB). Herod had John beheaded. There’s a little more distance here; perhaps even a little more moral murkiness as well. Herod didn’t really do the killing himself. Is he really fully responsible? What about the person who was sent?

Maybe this thought is more about Matthew―and just about the Bible in general, and power, and words, and history-telling―than about John the Baptist, but I found Matthew’s directness striking and refreshing. Herod beheaded John. It’s awful, it’s gory, it’s tragic―but it’s the truth. It’s what happened.

Matthew tells the story differently from how I imagine Herod might tell the story. I think most of us are are pretty good are coming up with nice-sounding justifications for our own actions. And sometimes these justifications are so nice-sounding that we fool even ourselves.

I wonder what Herod would have written if he had sat down to journal later that night, once the guests had gone and he was by himself in his palace―sitting by the fire, one year older, reflecting on his life. 

Perhaps he would have written something like this, or at least some parts of it:

I love my stepdaughter so much. It has not been easy for her to accept me, and to accept that I am now a part of her mother’s life in a way I wasn’t before. And I understand that. But I really want her to like me.

So when we were all having fun together and she was dancing and enjoying herself at my birthday party, I thought, maybe today is the day we finally begin to have a better relationship. I thought, I want to show her how committed a father I can be to her. I can provide for her. I will give her whatever she asks. I want her to have whatever in this world will make her heart happy. Nothing is too big.

So I told her that. I thought, maybe she’ll ask for money. I can do that. The hand of a handsome young man in marriage? That can be accomplished. Maybe I can throw a big feast for her own birthday so that she can celebrate with her friends. Or I could get her a pony. Little girls like ponies, right?

I waited eagerly to hear what she might ask. But when she spoke, my heart fell within me. The head of John, on a silver platter.

Yes, I had imprisoned John. I couldn’t let him walk around saying nasty things about my wife and I for everyone to hear, could I? But I didn’t mean to kill him.

I told my stepdaughter I would do anything she asked. And, of all of the things in the world, she asked for that. What could I do? I had to keep my word to her.

I am a man deeply committed to keeping my promises. I am a man of integrity. And today that integrity was costly for me.

But I did what I had to do. The only thing I could do. The only thing that would maintain the trust of my guests. If I didn’t keep my word in front of them, what would they have thought? My people’s trust in my leadership is essential for the peace and security of our region.

And so, I sent a servant to do the only thing that could be done. My stepdaughter had to have what she asked for. I didn’t want to do it, but there was no way out. I was put in a terrible bind, and it grieved me deeply. There was no good option, but even so, I did the best thing I could do.

After all, that’s what leaders do. We make difficult choices. We do the right thing for the sake of the people, for the sake of order and stability. That’s what I did today.

Herod might have said all sorts of things to himself. And, if there were some tetrarch-friendly media outlets around at the time, they might have repeated these things. And these things might have begun to pass as news.

But the gospel writer Matthew says: Herod killed John. Herod did have a choice. He did have moral agency. Herod was not, in fact, in a difficult bind where he did the best thing he could do. Herod’s choice to kill John was a cowardly one, and it revealed how much more he cared about his dinner guests’ opinions of him―about people-pleasing―than about doing what was actually the right thing.

There is no excuse for what Herod did in murdering John, and Matthew does not try to make one.

I think that if Matthew were here in the US today, telling stories about recent history or current events, he would tell them in the same sobering yet refreshingly straightforward way. And I think we need this.

When a police officer kills a black man, I think we need to say so. “It was an officer-involved shooting” doesn’t quite cut it. (And “well, the black man was [insert completely unrelated previous petty crime or other character defamation here]”―implying that the murder was somehow understandable, or somehow not quite actually murder―definitely doesn’t cut it.)

When a man commits sexual assault against a woman, I think we need to say so. “He was such a promising athlete―we don’t want to ruin his life and career just because he made this one mistake” doesn’t quite cut it. (And “well, the woman had had a bit to drink,” or “she was wearing something provocative”―implying that the assault was somehow understandable, or somehow not quite actually assault―definitely doesn’t cut it.)

When speaking about things like these, we can use language to exonerate people’s actions, or to hold them appropriately accountable. Matthew does the latter, and in so doing―in telling the story of John the Baptist’s death with all of its horrifying and gruesome reality, and in holding Herod completely responsible for it―I think he honors John the Baptist’s own spirit of tell-it-like-it-is bluntness.

May we too have the courage to use language that does not minimize tragedy but speaks of it honestly and directly, and that refuses to falsely exonerate its perpetrators.

Troubled (White) Consciences

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:1-2)

Guilty conscience, much?

King Herod hears that there’s this guy named Jesus who is going around teaching, telling stories, healing, casting out demons, and generally doing all kinds of miracles. (From what Herod says about miraculous powers at work, it sounds like he mostly cares about the miracles, not so much about the teachings.) Herod hears these things and immediately thinks of John the Baptist―the guy he had imprisoned and then killed. Some new prophet-type person is gathering a following and doing supernatural things? Oh no, it must be John! There’s no other explanation for it.

John the Baptist troubled people’s consciences during his life, and it seems that he is still troubling people’s consciences―or at least one person’s conscience―even after his death.

While John was living, he stirred up the consciences of many crowds of people, telling them they needed to repent and be baptized; and he tried to provoke the consciences of the religious leaders by calling them a brood of vipers (Matthew 3). Later on, as we’ll see in the next few verses of Matthew 14, John troubled Herod’s conscience by telling him it was not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife.

If we’re willing to try to empathize with Herod for a moment here, I would suggest that sometimes we need people like John the Baptist―people who trouble our consciences.

For example, as a white person in the US, I think of the prophetic black voices over the generations who have troubled white consciences.

I think of people like Frederick Douglass, who, after escaping from slavery, wrote and spoke and campaigned for abolition and equality, troubling the conscience of a slave-holding nation.

I think of Sojourner Truth, who spoke up about her experiences and identity as a black woman, troubling the conscience of a white-dominated feminist movement and its white-centered definitions of femininity.

I think of leaders in the Civil Rights movement, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who troubled the conscience of a segregated South; like Malcolm X, who troubled many consciences by taking (for good reasons) a less optimistic view of white people in the struggle for black freedom; like Ella Baker, who worked hard and brilliantly and often behind the scenes in a movement that sometimes sidelined her because of her gender; like James Baldwin, who wrote a lot of insightful and (appropriately) troubling things about race in America, some of which are summed up in the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro (worth watching!).

These are just a few examples related to black/white race relations in the US. I am thankful for these conscience-troublers. They have helped shatter the illusions held by too many white people across the generations that everything is okay regarding race in America.

At the same time, I recognize that sometimes―at least for those of us who have consciences in danger of being troubled―it is easy to look back admiringly and thankfully on the powerful conscience-stirrers of past generations, while at the same time eyeing the conscience-troublers of our own generation with suspicion.

If we approach a movement like Black Lives Matter, for example, with a default posture of critique or defensiveness rather than appreciation and solidarity, perhaps we are not terribly unlike king Herod in his fear that John the Baptist was back from the dead. Herod recognized a (holy) spirit at work in Jesus that felt like the same one he saw in John the Baptist, and Herod recognized that all was not right between him and John the Baptist, and so he was troubled.

Perhaps many white Americans likewise recognize something like the spirit of the Civil Rights movement revived in new forms in the last few years. And for many white Americans, the spirit of struggle for black equality is a spirit that challenges everything we were raised to believe―and wanted to believe―about how much progress America has made in the last generation, and how racism is dead.

In the midst of this, when our consciences are stirred, we can either receive this stirring with guilt, as Herod did―in which case we often get so tripped up by this guilt that we either ignore it or are paralyzed by it―or we can allow the stirring of our consciences to drive us to ask new questions. To see our world in a different light. To seek together to build new ways of living that are more just and equitable.

For me, having my white conscience troubled isn’t always fun and comfortable, but I would rather be aware of the actual realities than remain blissfully ignorant. Because when I do remain ignorant, my life might seem blissful enough, but others suffer―others with whom I am in fact one body (1 Corinthians 12).

I would rather not be counted among those who, as the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah said, dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. I would rather not be among those who say peace, peace…when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:11).

When I think of present-day conscience-stirrers, I think of people like Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Willie Jennings, Michelle Higgins, Christena Cleveland, Austin Channing Brown, Daniel White Hodge, Ibram X. Kendi. (This list is pretty arbitrary―I am by no means an expert here; these are just a few people whose work I happen to have either read or have been meaning to read. Feel free to add more names of present-day conscience-troublers in the comments, regarding race relations or anything else―I would love to hear your thoughts.)

Matthew 14:1-2 doesn’t tell us what Herod ended up doing with his guilty conscience. But perhaps, as we connect his story with ours, we find that this open-endedness is ours to walk into. It is up to us to do something good with our troubled consciences, up to us to lean into them rather than shove them under the rug. May we not shut our hearts and minds to the conscience-troublers, but may we open ourselves to hearing, learning, grieving, repenting, learning, changing.

Here’s to today’s conscience-troublers, and to those willing to be troubled.

When You Can’t Win

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
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 drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
-Jesus (Matthew 11:16-19)

I find this passage very relatable, and, because of that, kind of comforting.

Jesus says: John the Baptist fasted, and he gets called demon-possessed. I eat and drink, and people call me a glutton and a wino. (“Wino” is actually a pretty literal rendering of the word translated as “drunkard” above―no joke!)

For my part, I notice that sometimes I come across as kind of laid-back, or even passive (which is totally fair…sometimes, and about some things…), and sometimes people are uncomfortable with this. So they tell me that I should be more assertive. But then there are times when I am more assertive, and it turns out that people don’t actually like that. They see it as threatening, or inappropriate, or jarring.

This series of illustrations from a few years ago draws attention to just a few of the different sets of contradictory advice that women in particular tend to receive. It’s no secret that, as the article points out―whether in the workplace, dating, or other settings―women are regularly told to stick up for themselves, but then get called things like “bossy,” “aggressive,” or “a handful” if they do. Women are regularly assumed to be not as smart as men, but then are considered intimidating and out of place when they do speak up with a particularly intelligent insight.

I think about this quote (of complex origins), which, to be honest, I think I first saw in an acquaintance’s e-mail signature several years ago: “to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

I think the quote stuck with me because it struck a chord. I really like avoiding criticism. Or rather, I really don’t like being criticized. It’s no fun at all. The experience of feeling criticized tends to draw out angry, lie-filled (and typo-filled) tweets from some people―and self-doubting, quietly anxious introspection from others.

It’s worth saying that criticism, of course, can be very important and helpful. It’s good to listen to criticism carefully and engage with it thoughtfully―even though most of us don’t find that easy to do.

But criticism can also be paralyzing. It is easy, at least for some of us, to give it so much weight in our lives that we step back from something we are doing because of it. We quit speaking about something that is important to us, or we try to change something about ourselves that maybe wasn’t ever meant to be changed. It’s easy, perhaps, not to be critical enough about the criticism we receive.

Perhaps situations where we relate to John the Baptist the demon-possessed and Jesus the wino―where we feel like we can’t avoid criticism no matter what we do―can spur us to dig deeper within ourselves for a guiding compass more reliable than other people’s estimations. Sometimes criticism comes our way just because other people have a limited perspective. They may be like children calling to one another: we played the flute for you and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn. Their reactions and advice might not actually be appropriate for who we are and what we are supposed to be doing.

As someone who has now (by getting an MDiv) dipped a toe into the world of religious academia, I really enjoyed this recent podcast, where Dr. Daniel White Hodge, James Howard Hill Jr., and Jorge J. Rodriguez V have a great conversation about navigating academia without selling your soul.

One thing that stood out to me from this conversation was the idea of remembering who you are, and remembering who you’re working for. When things get confusing, and mentors and other academic/religious elders are giving you conflicting advice―or advice that doesn’t necessarily match with your own vision and hopes in life―remember who you are, and who you’re doing all this for. Remember the communities you come from. Remember your family and your spouse and their visions for what a flourishing life looks like. And if the decisions you make, based on all that, go against the wisdom of the academy, or of more experienced scholars, that’s okay. You’re not working to fuel the machine of the academy. Your life and dignity is worth more than that.

I think this idea suggests some potentially good ways to measure and evaluate the criticisms we receive. Does the person offering criticism share my vision for the flourishing of my life, family, and communities? What are this person’s expectations for me? Who do they want me to be―and is this who I am, and who I want to be?

If we’re attempting to do anything at all meaningful in this world, we can’t meet everyone’s expectations. We can’t avoid criticism from everyone. But we can learn to thoughtfully sort through the criticism we receive, learn from it, and not let it derail us.

My sense is that people on the underside of societal power structures often find themselves especially deep in the “can’t win” kind of bind that Jesus and John the Baptist experienced. Fast, and get called demon-possessed; eat, and get called a glutton. Be gentle and nice, and you’re constantly overlooked and underestimated; be assertive and set boundaries, and you get called crazy or disruptive or written off as angry.

For women in a patriarchal world, these kinds of perspectives and criticisms matter to us because they are the dominant ones all around us. We have been trained to care too much about what men think and how they criticize us―and this is because we have been trained to believe that their opinions matter more than ours. That their thoughts are more valuable than ours. That their perspectives are more accurate and objective than ours. (As a white person, I defer to people of color to speak about their experiences, but I imagine a similar dynamic often operates there, in which the white gaze dominates and it is difficult to break out of its inordinate power.)

These are not problems with easy solutions. But I do find hope in knowing that Jesus and John the Baptist would understand. They knew what it was like to not be able to avoid criticism. They were both faithful to God―and to their communities, and to themselves―and accepted the reality that not all of the results of this faithfulness would be positive. That it wouldn’t always (or perhaps even often) win people’s affirmation and praise.

I find hope in remembering that for me, as for John and Jesus, people’s criticism (or affirmation) is not where our worth and value lies. It’s not a good measure of success. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, not by popularity or avoidance of tension.

When criticism, or the fear of it, threatens to derail and paralyze us―keeping us small and timid and too hesitant to move or act for good in this world―may we remember who we are and who we are working for. And may we remind one another of these things, as often as we need to hear it.

Buddying Up to Power

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!”
   (Matthew 11:7-15)

This is kind of a confusing passage. What exactly is Jesus saying about John the Baptist? And what’s with the thing about violent people taking the kingdom of heaven by force?

I’m not at all sure, but I have a few thoughts (and would love to hear yours in the comments section!).

To start off, here are three quick things I noticed when I read this passage in Greek:

  1. In verse 8, the “robes” part of “soft robes” is implied rather than stated directly. Literally it’s more like “soft things.”
  2. Also in verse 8, a more literal translation of the words used for “royal palaces” would be “kings’ houses” or “kings’ homes.”
  3. “Violence” and “the violent” (in verse 12) are kind of strong and unnecessarily negative-sounding translations for words that could mean something more like “forceful,” “energetic,” or “crowded into” or “pressed into.” Thus, the verse could reasonably read something like: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been crowded into, and the forceful seize it.” (Fun fact: the Greek word that means “seize,” or “take by force,” is where we get our English word “harpoon.” So now you have a fun image of the kingdom of heaven getting caught via harpoon―by people who are very excited about catching it!)

I wonder if, in this passage, Jesus is making a distinction between two kinds of people.

The first kind are those who wear soft things and live in kings’ houses.

The second kind are those who―like John the Baptist―crowd into the kingdom of the heavens and energetically seize it.

People who fall into the first category like to have nice things. They enjoy acquiring status symbols. People who come to mind include the religious leaders who, in Jesus’ later words, love to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplace and have the seats of honor at religious meetings and banquets (Mark 12:38).

Also, people who drive particularly ostentatious sports cars, maybe with that matte black paint and extra-loud exhaust, just to make sure everyone notices them. (My husband Ken and I were crossing the street the other day, and he asked if I noticed the matte black Mustang that pulled up to the busy intersection. I said, “yeah, I saw it―I was just trying not to stare.” He said, “I think if you drive a car like that, you probably don’t mind if people stare.”)

These people who wear soft things also like having power, or at least buddying up to those who have power. They like to hang out in the homes of kings. I don’t know whether they actually live in these homes or if they just like to visit―but either way, they enjoy the feeling of being close to splendor and luxury, being close to the place where decisions are made. Maybe it makes them feel safe; maybe it makes them feel important; maybe it makes them feel better than others.

I imagine that these are people who enjoy spending time in the king’s house so much that they would never dream of saying anything that might possibly offend the king, or contradict him, or imply in any way that he might be less than wonderful and heaven-sent and flawless. They would never do anything that might get them kicked out of the king’s house. Powerful people have these soft-clothing-wearing people in their pocket.

This recent gathering comes to mind, where a group of worship leaders, many of them from Bethel and Hillsong, got together with Trump in the Oval Office for anti-impeachment prayer and a photo op (in which one worship leader near Trump reaches out to touch him, which is an especially creepy look). I appreciate this post’s commentary on the meeting―as Andy Rowell writes, it’s good to pray for the president; it’s just not so good to fawn over him like a celebrity even though he has done and is doing awful things, and to unquestioningly support everything he does just because he says he’s pro-evangelical.

I wonder if the soft-clothed people in kings’ palaces that Jesus talks about are also the people Jesus says are like reeds being shaken by the wind. Perhaps these are people who spend so much time sucking up to kings that they have in some sense traded their own agency―their God-given ability to speak truth and work for justice and co-create with God a better world―for a fickle kind of soft will that readily bends in the direction of the winds of a king’s favor.

In stark contrast, the other kind of people―people like John the Baptist―do not care about status symbols. They live in the wilderness rather than in the king’s palace.

These are people who know that it profits a person nothing to gain the whole world but lose one’s own soul (Matthew 16:26). They have seen that the kingdom of heaven is worth holding onto for dear life, no matter what it might cost―like a person who finds a treasure buried in a field and immediately goes and sells everything to buy that field (Matthew 13:44).

These are people who press into the kingdom of heaven with energy and force. They knock at heaven’s door and do not take no for an answer―like the persistent widow in the story Jesus tells, who keeps pleading with the judge until the judge relents and grants her justice (Luke 18:1-8).

They are not interested in currying the favor of the human king, but in pressing on into the kingdom of God. They keep crying out for justice and peace even when justice and peace seem impossible.

They are prophets, bold and faithful, like Elijah and John the Baptist. And they often experience poverty and risk and are followed by violence and death threats, like Elijah and John the Baptist.

Jesus says that no one has arisen greater than John. These forceful ones who are not content with the palaces of kings but instead storm into the kingdom of God, and who are not content to clothe themselves in soft things but instead long to be clothed in truth and justice―these are the great ones. These are the ones to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. May we be counted among these “forceful” ones.

John and the Bethel Worship Leader’s Daughter

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:1-6)

Today I read this passage about John the Baptist and Jesus while thinking about Bethel worship leader Kalley Heiligenthal and her two year old daughter Olive who passed away last Saturday. Kalley, as well as Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, and other popular Christian musicians with charismatic leanings such as Kari Jobe and Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood, have been praying and asking Christians around the world to pray―and are still praying and asking people to pray, almost a week later―for Olive’s resuscitation.

Kalley posted on social media, “We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life. Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life.”

The passing of a young child is tragic. I can’t imagine the family’s grief, and I mourn for them.

At the same time, the response of people who believe a certain set of things about physical healing, including revival from the dead, is disconcerting.

Christians believe in a Messiah whom, as Jesus told John the Baptist in Matthew 11:1-6, gives sight to the blind, cleanses lepers, restores hearing for the deaf, brings good news to the poor…and raises the dead. And this Messiah says, blessed are those who take no offense at me.

Am I being offended at Jesus when I read about influential Christian leaders expecting (and influencing others to expect) a two year old to be raised from the dead, even after almost a week in the morgue, and I think not so much “what faith!” as “what lunacy”?

Or perhaps, “what denial”―and if denial is part of the grieving process for the family, I think I understand. But I feel angry that so much of the charismatic Christian community around this family is pushing them to stay in that denial rather than making space for them to acknowledge and grieve their loss.

What do we do with all this in conjunction with what Jesus said about the dead being raised?

One thing to note, which I think is really important, is that Jesus’ words are in direct response to John’s question about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is not answering the question, “how should Christians respond to death?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might imply that we should keep praying for resuscitation as long as it takes. He is not answering the question, “what should a normal Christian life look like, in the US, two thousand years in the future?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might set up an appropriate expectation that untimely losses like Olive’s would be reversed on a regular basis.

Rather, Jesus is answering the question, “are you the one who is to come?” And he says, in effect: yes, I am that one. I am that Messiah, even if it doesn’t look like what everyone expected. I am the one who brings healing, and power, and life, and good news for the poor. I raise the dead as a sign that points to these things.

Jesus is the Messiah―God incarnate, God dwelling among us. Jesus has powers that we do not have. We can pray for miracles, and I absolutely believe that God still does miracles. But we do not have the power to control when or whether or how miracles happen. We do not have the ability to say with any authority something like, “it’s time for her to come back to life.” We are not the Messiah.

John the Baptist must have known this. After all, Jesus came (among other things) to set the prisoners free (see Luke 4:18-19)―and yet there John was, having to send his followers to Jesus with his questions because he himself was stuck in prison. Part of me wonders if John began to feel uncertain about whether Jesus was the Messiah because John expected that a Messiah could and would have gotten him out of jail.

Jesus the Messiah came to set the prisoners free―and yet John was thrown in prison and remained until the day of his death.

Jesus the Messiah came to raise the dead―and yet little Olive remains in the morgue, despite the fervent, days-long prayers of hundreds of thousands of charismatic Christians.

As much as we try and fail to comprehend death, and as much as we hurt from the pain of it, and as much as we may want desperately for our deceased loved ones to return, these things are ultimately beyond our control.

My prayer for Kalley and her family in this time, as well as for everyone else who knew and loved Olive, is for freedom to grieve. For love and support to surround them and flow freely, more than they ever could have asked for or imagined. For the loss of their daughter to be mourned in community, with lots and lots of listening ears and supportive shoulders to cry on, and no one suggesting awful falsehoods like “your daughter could have been raised if we had all just prayed longer or harder or had more faith.”

I believe that God walks closely with people who are mourning and grieving loss. God is present, somehow. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. Even when we have questions for God, even when we have things we would like to yell at God. God welcomes these things. God welcomes and holds our grieving selves, exactly as we are.

Christian hope―my hope, and the hope for Olive and her family―is for bodily resurrection into eternal life, the kind of resurrection that Jesus pioneered and now invites us into. The kind that does not come immediately, but when it does come, it lasts. The kind that looks forward to a day when Jesus wipes every tear from our eyes and dwells among us, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4).

Until then, may we hope in our Messiah. May we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). May we make space, for ourselves and for one another, to acknowledge loss and grieve it. May we pray and hope and keep wrestling with God regardless of whether or how our prayers are answered. May we face our grief and know that somehow God is with us as we do.

Authority Issues?

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

A month or so after I graduated from college, I started working for a small start-up company. Very small―four people, to be precise.

Often, when the company faced an important decision, the founder and CEO, my supervisor, would bring the decision before the team and ask for our input. Sometimes he would ask us to say what we thought, one by one―although among just four people there wasn’t much chance of hiding silently anyway.

It was one of those things that I didn’t always fully appreciate at the time. Sometimes I wondered why I had to weigh in on decisions for which I held little to no relevant knowledge or experience.

But then, after two years at this start-up, I began working for a Christian ministry organization. I very quickly found myself feeling blindsided by how differently authority operated there.

I realized, over time, that I came in to the ministry organization with some unspoken expectations. I expected that my supervisor would ask for my opinion, along with the opinions of the rest of our team of five, as part of the process of making key decisions. I expected that my ideas would be considered based on whether or not they were good ideas, not based on the newness (and resulting low status) of the person who offered them.

But it turned out that this ministry organization―like many churches―was structured in a highly hierarchical way. Authority cascaded down the layers of the food chain―with me, of course, awkwardly situated at the very bottom without quite being fully aware that that’s where I was. (After all, in my one previous post-college job, there hadn’t really been a bottom).

When decisions seemed to float down magically from on high without any effort to obtain input from the team, I didn’t know what to do. When I didn’t like these decisions, which happened fairly often, I didn’t know when, whether, or how to push back. And my supervisor, new to his role (but well-acquainted with and on board with the modus operandi of the organization), didn’t know what to do with me.

When I think about Jesus coming to John to be baptized, and John telling Jesus, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?―in other words, “what? No way, dude; that’s ridiculous, and wrong!”―I think about this kind of thing. I think about the awkwardness of authority structures, and the tensions and conflicts that ensue when people on the underside of these structures challenge their superiors.

I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? On the one hand, John has some nerve. What is he doing, trying to prevent Jesus from being baptized? Jesus wasn’t just any regular supervisor or authority figure. He was the authority. The Lord of the whole universe. What on earth would give John the idea that it was okay to contradict him, and to do so publicly, for all to see?

Operating under the logic of many workplaces, churches, and other power structures that humans create and maintain, Jesus might well have taken John’s comment as insubordination. John could be fired on the spot. Jesus could find another baptizer. (I probably know a few unemployed recent seminary graduates who would take the job.)

Instead, Jesus says, let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. And John says, all right, then, let’s do this. John baptizes him.

I wonder what this interaction might suggest about how we function within the authority structures in our lives―and how we influence the structures in which we have some sway.

When John thought that Jesus was doing the wrong thing―when he thought Jesus’ idea was a horrible one―he said as much to Jesus, to his face. John knew who Jesus was―or at least that Jesus was someone more powerful than him, whose sandals he was not worthy to carry (Matthew 3:11)―and still he tried to prevent Jesus from doing what Jesus wanted to do.

John did not cower in the face of Jesus’ authority. He took a risk to speak up about what he felt was right. He expressed his confusion, voiced his questions. This was a risk. We can read the story and know how Jesus responded; John, in that moment, did not. But he spoke anyway.

Jesus, for his part, showed no sign of offense. He is not the insecure kind of leader who blows up or implodes when someone seems to question his authority. Jesus explained his reasoning to John, hoping to persuade him to see things from a different perspective.

Jesus is not offended by questions. He did not want mindless loyalty from John, and he does not want that from us. Jesus looks for people to wrestle with him, for people who wrestle with God just as Jacob did so long ago (Genesis 32:22-32). Jesus does not turn away people who come to him with honest questions, doubts, concerns, and pushback.

In the case of this particular interaction, Jesus is successful in convincing John of his perspective. John ends up agreeing with Jesus and baptizing him.

On the one hand, we might say here that John just gives in to the power structure and lets Jesus do whatever he wants. But to me, the fact that John did speak up, and Jesus does legitimately convince him to change his mind, makes a real difference.

Because John spoke up, now, when John baptizes Jesus, he does so wholeheartedly. Jesus helped him see something he didn’t see before: that this baptism, odd as it may seem, is what fulfills righteousness.

If John had not spoken up about his concerns, he might have ended up baptizing Jesus, but doing so resentfully. He might have baptized Jesus the way subordinates sometimes do things just because their supervisor asked: with grumbling rather than joy, muttering behind Jesus’ back about how this wasn’t his idea. He might have started quietly looking for a new job, rather than continuing to be fully engaged in the work God called him to do.

John’s interaction with Jesus opens up possibilities for new kinds of interactions with all sorts of authority figures. These interactions are not without risk, but, nonetheless, they are marked by honesty and openness rather than resentment and fear.

And, on the flip side, Jesus’ interaction with John opens up possibilities for new kinds of interactions with people we supervise or have some authority over. These interactions are not without difficulties, but, nonetheless, they are marked by responses to criticism that are appreciative and thoughtful rather than defensive and destructive.

May we let John’s boldness and Jesus’ response to it percolate through the authority structures in our lives, workplaces, and churches.

Fire Baptism

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.  -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12)

I still remember the baptism song we would sing at the church I grew up in, even though it has been thirteen years or so since I have attended there regularly.

Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, marked with the sign of Christ our king. Born of the Spirit, we are God’s children, joyfully now God’s praises we sing.

It’s a lovely song. I like it.

I also think it’s interesting that in this song, and just in general, we like to think of baptism as baptism with water, but we’re not as comfortable with the image of baptism with fire. But baptism with Holy Spirit and with fire is what John the Baptist says that Jesus will do.

Literally speaking, baptism with fire seems a bit dicey. I’m picturing, I don’t know, singeing a couple of a baby’s hairs with a candle instead of sprinkling water on her head, or having an adult run across hot coals instead of dunking him in a baptismal tub.

I’m not saying we should do these things in church…although it could make for an interesting service. But I do think it’s important to ask some questions. Questions like, why is John talking about baptism in fire? What does baptism with fire even mean?

Of course, I don’t have all the answers…or much at all in the way of answers…but I do suspect that it has something to do with what John says next: Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

The image is one of separating good from evil, healthful from poisonous, useful from useless.

In our world as we experience it, wheat and chaff are all jumbled up in one big pile, and it’s often hard to tell what’s what. Weeds and wheat grow side by side, and you can’t really root up one without destroying the other as well (Matthew 13:24-29). Evil things are hidden in darkness and smoothed over with nice-sounding language, and people love that darkness, not wanting who they really are and what they’ve really done to be exposed (John 3:19-21).

Yes, Jesus came to offer forgiveness. But that image―the image of forgiveness of debts, like having someone pay off your student loans for you―is only one image the New Testament offers us as we try to wrap our minds around who Jesus is and what Jesus does. As we see in this passage, Jesus came not just to forgive debts, but also to winnow. To clear. To gather. And to burn.

Jesus came to sort out and clarify what’s good and what’s evil. To name these things as such, in a way that’s completely right and accurate―which proves elusive for even the most discerning of humans. Jesus came to bring light that exposes the things done in darkness, so that justice is no longer obstructed, and people no longer suffer under oppressive systems and leaders.

We like to think that no one is above the law; unfortunately, and often tragically, again and again, that proves not quite true. But no one―really, no one―is able to avoid Jesus’ cleansing fire, no matter what kind of political office or other sources of earthly authority they might hold.

In Greek, the words used in this passage for “clear” and for “burn” are very strong. We might say that Jesus will “thoroughly cleanse” the threshing floor, and that the chaff will be “burned up completely,” or “utterly consumed.” Powerful people get away with doing evil things for now, but, in time, Jesus will bring judgment, with clarity and thoroughness―a judgment that is, finally, fully complete, and entirely good.

Of course, in our more honest moments, most of us can easily see that the line between good and evil does not run between Judean peasant and Pharisee, or between regular citizen and corrupt dictator or president, in any kind of straightforward way. We know, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

And so, John’s statements about Jesus―that Jesus baptizes by fire, that Jesus comes to cleanse the threshing floor thoroughly and burn up evil completely―offer both a hope that Jesus will judge people with power who do not do right by others and a hope that Jesus will cleanse each of us from the evil within us. The suffering we bring to ourselves and to other humans through our own selfishness will not last forever. Jesus is making us new and will make us new, burning up completely all of the chaff within us.

May we, like John the Baptist, see and welcome Jesus’ chaff-burning, baptizing-with-fire work, both in and around us.

Where have all the young people gone?

For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9b)

Right after John tells a bunch of religious leaders that claiming a lineage from Abraham can only get them so far, he declares that God is able to raise up children for Abraham…from stones.

John says, it doesn’t really matter what your bloodline is. You don’t inherit faith. Knowing God is a gift from God, offered to everyone. It is a gift that can only be received in humility and repentance, not by claiming any particular spiritual heritage or predecessor or denomination. God can raise up children from stones.

When I think of God raising up children from stones, I think of all of the concerned conversations about the vast numbers of youth and young adults leaving churches, across most Christian denominations in the US. One person inferred from a number of different studies that one million youth will leave the US church every year for the next several decades. He wrote a dissertation-sized piece about it. It’s kind of a lot.

These concerns are not exactly new―their most recent iteration has been around for at least two decades―but they are still growing.

And the church leaders and others who fret about these things aren’t making stuff up. Church attendance in the US really is declining, and at an alarming rate. (Alarming, that is, if you think that church attendance is a reasonable measure of spirituality, or faith, or faithfulness to God―which, I would say, it may or may not be, depending on the person and situation.) More young people than in recent memory identify themselves as agnostic or atheist, or just don’t identify with any particular religious tradition. The rise of the “nones” is real.

So, church leaders get together to bemoan all of this…and to strategize.

They discuss the big, existential questions. Why are young people leaving the church? Where are they going? They take surveys and worry and go to conferences and write things and read things.

They also discuss the practical, hands-on questions. What can we do about it? How can these tender young souls be saved…by us and our efforts? (Answers definitely include a new sound system, more fog lights, better church coffee, and more skinny jeans.)

Some individual churches have been able to make some changes and attract more young people. But looking at the US church as a whole, it seems like there are plenty of strategies and lots of effort expended, but nothing really seems to be working.

And so, church leaders sometimes think, we need new strategies, more strategies, different strategies. We need to gather more people, smarter people, different people, to think about these things. We need more conferences, different conferences, better conferences. More board meetings, more books, more studies, more social media use, more podcasts. (Definitely more social media use and podcasts. That’s where the young people are. That’s what the young people want.)

Strategizing and meeting and surveying and thinking and tweeting and podcasting can all be good things. But church-y people’s fears around young people’s exodus from the church can often, all too easily, provoke efforts to control and manipulate young people rather than to serve and love them.

How might reflection on John’s words―that God can raise up faith-filled children from stones―impact and perhaps redirect our responses to the reality of a shrinking US church?

Maybe we would be more willing to seek God in the wilderness, and less quick to assume that God stops interacting with young people the moment they choose not to place their bodies within the four walls of a church building.

Maybe we would be more willing to be a little weird and different, and less obsessed with trying to be cooler and more attractive.

Maybe we would feel more free to be ourselves, and less compelled to follow someone else’s ministry model, grasping desperately onto anything that seems to work in some other community (but may or may not make sense in ours).

Maybe we would be more honest about our failures and wrongdoings, and less concerned with trying to protect our image.

Maybe we would find ourselves more intrigued by and supportive of young people’s movements that operate outside of church-y authority structures, and less suspicious of or defensive against them.

Maybe we would be more interested in listening to young people talk about what they experience as healthful vs poisonous, and less interested in telling them what we think is good (and demonizing them when they don’t agree).

Maybe we would think more about good fruit, and less about good marketing.

Some of these things might resonate with young people and prove “effective strategies” for drawing them to church and keeping them there. Or they might not. Either way, that’s not the point.

The point is to do right by young people, not to manipulate them into joining our communities and staying there. The point is to be who God calls us to be and do what God calls us to do, not to do whatever it takes to get more butts into pews.

God can raise up children from stones.

May we, as individuals and church communities, live like we believe this. May we set down our controlling impulses and opt instead for repentance―for a renewed commitment to love young people, and listen to young people, and seek to be the kinds of communities God calls us to be.

Spiritual Heritage

And you should not think to say among yourselves, “We have Abraham as father.” -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9a)

The Pharisees who came against John’s baptism thought that they did not need to “make fruit worthy of repentance,” because they could trace their lineage back to Abraham. They claimed Abraham as the forefather of their religious and ethnic identity. They saw themselves as the ones who had things right, who had God figured out. And John the Baptist’s life and message did not fit into their paradigm.

When I think of the Pharisees claiming Abraham as their forefather, I think of some of the people who might be claimed as forefathers by different groups of Protestants today. John Calvin could be claimed as a kind of forefather for Presbyterians; Martin Luther for Lutherans; John Wesley for Methodists.

Some churches claim no particular forefather other than Bible itself; these churches too, of course, have their own forefathers. Many evangelical churches, for example, stem from the US revivalist tradition―a tradition that spans, over three centuries, from George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, to Charles Finney, to Dwight Moody, to Billy Graham.

Sometimes different kinds of churches and faith movements can also function as our forefathers. For me―for better or for worse, and usually some of each―the Presbyterian church is my forefather, InterVarsity is my forefather, the nondenominational Bible church movement is my forefather.

It can be good to claim our heritage and traditions, to remember the people who shaped these traditions, to declare whom we have as predecessors in the faith. Naming these things, as the Pharisees might have named Abraham, can help us understand where we come from. It builds a more secure sense of identity. It helps us wrap our minds around why our practices and beliefs are what they are. It can even aid us in imagining how we might continue to form and re-form our traditions to carry their best gifts into a new time with its new experiences and new issues.

After all, every forefather was only human. None of them was right about everything. And each of them needs to be re-examined and re-framed anew each generation, to make sense in a changing world, to offer insights that are life-giving for a new group of people in a new situation.

On top of all this, all of the Protestant forefathers I have named so far―and I’m sure we could name many more―were white men. All of them. What perspectives, insights, and knowledge are we missing if these kinds of voices are the only voices we acknowledge and invite to shape our sense of faith?

Fortunately, we live in a time when female scholars and scholars of color are many and their work is accessible. Unfortunately, seminaries do not always include much of this work in their curricula, and churches do not always include much of it in their Bible studies, preaching, book recommendations, etc.

For those of us who tend to dwell in white-male-dominated church-y spaces, expanding our sense of our spiritual forefathers to include foremothers and people of color can help us have a broader and fuller view of God. It can help correct some of the blind spots and prejudices of our white spiritual forefathers―which, in most of their cases, is sorely needed.

Ultimately, Jesus says that we are not to call anyone on earth father, because we have one Father, the heavenly one (Matthew 23:9). God in heaven is our parent, the one in whose image we are made. God, not Abraham or Calvin or Luther or anyone else, is the one we are meant to reflect. The one whose heart and mind we are to seek to embody.

God in heaven is our parent. We are all children of God, and therefore siblings to one another. We belong to each other and are responsible for one another. The Pharisees thought of religious family very narrowly, and so (often) do we―but for John, and for Jesus, family proves much broader and deeper than a claim to any particular human predecessor.

There must be a way, however elusive, to claim the gifts and strengths of our own various spiritual heritages without devolving into tribalism, without seeing others from different traditions through a competitive lens, without letting these lineages cause us to forget that at our core we are all part of one human family.

This is not to diminish the differences between faith traditions, or to say that they are all equally good. There are movements within the Christian faith that work toward justice, and movements that work against it. Not all forefathers and foremothers are equally worth claiming. Not all traditions are worth keeping alive―and even those that are worth keeping alive need to be updated and adjusted over time.

So, as we think of John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees, may we remember our forefathers and foremothers, but also remember that no predecessor in our spiritual heritage is our parent in the same way that God is our parent. 
May we remember that spiritual predecessors are not grounds for superiority but sources of strength and courage. 
May we expand our openness to being shaped by female voices and voices of color as important parts of the spiritual heritage we choose.
May we keep alive traditions worth keeping, and re-think traditions that need re-thinking. 
May we, as John wanted the Pharisees to do out in the wilderness, drop all of our various claims to holiness via association and instead come to God humbly and directly.
And, as we do these things, may we find our place within God’s family.