He’s easy to pass by. That forerunner of Christ tends to make brief, odd appearances.
John the Baptist wore the kind of clothes Goodwill would reject for a donation. He survived on an ancient, minimalist version of the South Beach diet. Some protein. A few carbs. Small portions. And the nasty aftertaste of those honey-covered locusts.
Yet John burned with a fiery passion for God. The sparks flew in his preaching. He described a kingdom coming that would leave everyone in shock and awe. The holiness. The wrath. The mercy.
Then one day something startling happened.
Jesus showed up. John’s fiery preaching cools in humble acknowledgement that the Promised One is here:
“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy spirit—will change you from the inside out.” (Mark 1:7-8)
When Jesus approaches John to be baptized, the prophet resists. Jesus should be baptizing John, not the other way around. But Jesus is insistent.
Yet the ministry of John and Jesus couldn’t be more different:
John preaches firm justice while Jesus preaches God as a party-thrower for his lost son.
John lives a life of austerity as Jesus feasts among the riffraff.
While John baptizes, Jesus heals.
If John is like a bulldog, growling and barking for holiness, Jesus appears more like a gentle Labrador inviting people to a new life in God’s kingdom.
Perhaps it was these distinctions that made John the Baptist second-guess. John had been arrested and thrown into prison. The grime. The filth. The disease. The darkness. All gnawed away at him until he began to second-guess.
Maybe he’s preached the wrong Gospel. Followed the wrong Messiah. Wasted his life on something that wasn’t true.
In a prison, John likely wrestled with a question that appears in most our lives sooner or later:
What do we do when life doesn’t turn out like we thought?
Those moments, much like John the Baptist, can make us feel like we’re trapped inside a penitentiary of our own making. We may be tempted to give up. Shut down. Quit altogether.
But those are the worst responses we can have when life doesn’t turn out like expected.
Instead, we are challenged by John to keep crying out to Christ. To keep turning toward Him. To keep seeking Jesus even when we don’t understand.
John sends two of his disciples to Jesus with the following question: “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?” (Luke 7:20)
Jesus turns to the Book of Isaiah to provide a coded answer:
“The blind see,
The lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed,
The deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
All refer to the six signs in the book of Isaiah the Messiah will perform when he comes. But the response is void of one important Messianic sign: Proclaiming freedom to the captives (Isaiah 61:1).
Jesus delicately tells John that even though He is the Messiah, John will not be set free. Soon after the forerunner of Christ is beheaded.*
*Stern, David. H. Jewish New Testament Commentary. p. 42.
This week I'm giving away THREE copies of Margot Starbuck's brand new book, Not Who I Imagined.
Margot (MDiv, Princeton Theological Seminary) is the confessions editor for Geez Magazine's Sinner's Corner, and a blogger for Red Letter Christians, Her.meneutics, Gifted for Leadership, and FullFill. She lives in North Carolina.
“Grace does not erase who you are. It’s not putting a shiny coat of Jesus-paint over a horribly mildewed and rotting wall. It means, instead, that all that you are is known by God—and received in full.”-Margot Starbuck, Not Who I Imagined.
I recently asked Margot how this book has impacted her spiritual life and the lives of her readers. I have a feeling her answer will make you want to snag a copy of Not Who I Imagined.
As I gathered these delicious stories, especially some folks’ near-death encounters with God—the marginal Christian who’s overwhelmed by God’s gracious love, or the non-believer who’s held and affirmed and received by someone she realizes is Jesus—I couldn’t help but be encouraged and inspired. What I suspected in my deep places, that God’s gracious countenance and loving presence are like none I’ve experienced in this world, was confirmed.
And readers? They’ve been just as hungry and thirsty as I was. When they realize that there’s this fresh possibility, that they could encounter a God who smiles upon them, they’re itchy to encounter Him.
Congratulations to the winners: Kathy, Star, Mary Beth
What are you learning as we read the #LentChallenge? How has Jesus surprised or delighted because he isn't who you imagined?