John the Baptist is in prison, and like most people who are in prison, he’s got plenty of time to think. And what John is thinking about mostly, is Jesus. John got himself arrested and put in prison shortly after Jesus began his ministry. John was kind of a rough-edged fellow, both in his preaching and in his opinion, and he’s in prison because he publicly criticized Herod. Herod liked to call himself a king, but really, he was not much more than a Roman appointed county commissioner. Herod was also a murderer and a conniver, and someone who was very used to getting his own way. And John had the prophetic audacity to accuse Herod of living in adultery, which was exactly the truth. And of course this displeased Herod to some degree, and Herod threw him in prison.
And there in prison, thinking away about Jesus, John has discovered in his rough-edged way that he’s becoming disappointed in Jesus. Jesus isn’t quite measuring up to John’s expectations.
And, as it turns out, John the Baptist has a pretty personal stake in Jesus’ behavior. When John was still in ministry, when he was still out there by the Jordan River doing baptisms, John had this to say about the coming ministry of Jesus: “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 granery; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Pretty scary stuff. Lots of judgment and destruction; but stuff that John hasn’t been seeing Jesus doing at all.
And so John sends his disciples to Jesus with a very direct question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Are you really the Messiah, or is there somebody else, coming down the line that we should be looking for instead? It sure doesn’t seem like you’re living up to my expectations at least. I gave some pretty powerful prophesies about you.
Now what we really wish here is that Jesus would send back some sort of direct answer, like, now, now John, relax. You know that I’m the Messiah. Hang on, sit tight, all will be revealed. But, Jesus wasn’t known for his direct answers. He preferred to make people think. He encouraged pondering. And so Jesus sent this message back: “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.” That list should sound familiar. It’s the same stuff we talked about last week. It’s the stuff that Jesus gave his disciples the authority to do. But then Jesus adds something: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Oops. That last one is kind of a jab at John, and anyone else that doesn’t think that Jesus is fulfilling expectations, isn’t it? And it’s this offense thing that I want to talk about mostly this morning.
Jesus tells a little parable about children playing in the marketplace. It’s a parable about children who are bored and dissatisfied, which is not an unusual thing for children. Jesus says, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; We wailed, and you did not mourn.”‘
We wanted to play pretend wedding, but you said, nah, we’ve already done that hundreds of times. We wanted to play pretend funeral, but you said, nah, playing funeral is no fun anymore, either. Now what does all of that mean? Fortunately for us, Jesus tells us.
Jesus is saying that this generation, his generation, isn’t ever satisfied with anything, no matter what it is. And don’t miss that he’s describing his generation as being like children who are spoiled and bored and unresponsive, and dissatisfied. It’s not very nice to describe adults in that manner. It’s quite a slam. But sad to say, it doesn’t seem like Jesus’ generation had any exclusive claim to uniqueness. I’ve got a feeling that Jesus is talking about all of humankind in general. Every generation seems to be pretty adept at cultivating a juvenile sense of boredom and dissatisfaction. It may be why people don’t go to church anymore.
But Jesus unpacks that little parable even further. It turns out that John the Baptist represents the funeral that the kids refused to participate in, and that Jesus represents the wedding that the children rejected.
When John arrived on the scene, he was a strict, stern, hell-fire and brimstone kind of preacher. He warned of a coming judgment that would be swift and sudden and decisive. And he had a stern and strict lifestyle to match. He lived and taught out in the wild. He wore strange, outlandish clothes, and when he ate, he ate locusts and wild honey. He was known for his long stretches of fasting, and he never drank alcoholic beverages. That’s why he was called John the “Baptist.” He was a very serious person. But Jesus says, you rejected John because he was too holy and too strict, and too stern and too serious. And you even believed that he was nuts, and you accused him of having a demon.
And then, Jesus says, I came along, and I preached the good news, and I preached peace and love and compassion, but I don’t do a whole lot of fasting. In fact, I enjoyed attending weddings and banquets and parties. I celebrated life, and yes, I was known to take a drink once in a while. But you rejected me because I proclaimed freedom! (That’s a timely topic for this weekend) and I was a joyful, rather than a serious person. If John was too holy, then I’m not holy enough, and so you accused me of being a glutton and a drunkard, and you didn’t like the company I kept, unsavory characters that they were, and so you called me a friend of tax collectors and sinners.
“We played the flute for you and you did not dance; We wailed and you did not mourn.” If we are determined to reject the Gospel, we will find plenty of reasons to do so, whether that message comes from the lips of John the Baptist in stern and strict and serious overtones, or if it comes from the lips of Jesus, who spoke words of peace out of an attitude of unbridled joy.
And “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Now what in the world does Jesus mean by that? I’m convinced that it is Jesus’ heavy-duty answer to John the Baptist. John had some serious questions about Jesus’ ministry, and he had some serious doubts, too. John hadn’t yet seen any evidence that Jesus was emerging as the Messiah, at least not in the way that John had prophesied that he would. And there’s frustration and disappointment in John’s heart. John is looking for more from Jesus.
And so Jesus is responding to John by telling him to think, and to think deeply. Jesus says look at my deeds, John, ponder them out, consider their significance, and eventually you’ll see the wisdom in them. That’s quite a challenge, but its a challenge that confronts everyone of us here this morning. To think, to ponder, and then to discover wisdom.
Jesus is confident that John will discover wisdom. Jesus is confident that John will realize that Jesus is the kind of Messiah that he’s supposed to be. Jesus is confident that John will let go of his strict and narrow understanding of who and what Messiah is.
And sometimes we need to loosen up just a bit, too, when it comes to our relationships with Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Because we can have some pretty narrow and strict definitions of how we should be behaving in our own lives. Sometimes, like John the Baptist, we expect more from him. We’re disappointed or frustrated when he doesn’t deliver as we expect him to. But sometimes, our reaction is just the other way around. We’d rather that he didn’t interfere in our lives. We’d rather keep him at arm’s length. We’d rather have a savior only when we desperately need him, and then, of course, he’d better deliver, or we’ll lose whatever little faith we had in him. How quickly we run from Jesus, when really, we ought to be running to him! But like the children in the marketplace, we are fickle.
But in both cases, wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. In both cases, we need to do some serious thinking and pondering. And like the confidence that Jesus had in John the Baptist, Jesus also has confidence in us. He’s confident that we will discover that he is who he is, that he is our all in all, our source of healing and hope, but above all else the source of the true joy of our salvation. Jesus has invited us to dance and to celebrate with him. Will we? There’s a wedding going on that’s not to be missed!