Where’s the fire?
For the last few months I’ve enjoyed being able to be a part of the Adult Connect class. We’ve been working through the same material that the children are looking at and discussing it from the perspective of parents relating with our children over the issues that the scriptures bring up. One of the things that Suzanne Marie has us doing is to read the scripture passage out loud together. Over the last number of weeks different ones of us have gotten to be Moses, Joshua, narrator, the people, God; and, more recently, Isaiah and John the Baptist. Last week Keith was John the Baptist, reading from the words spoken by the Jordan River where John was baptizing. As Keith settled into the part, his voice transformed from the kind, mild-mannered Keith that we all know, into the…brazen, abrupt, shall we say, harsh, prophetic cry of the Baptizer. John was preaching for a complete renewal of his people who, he says, are like trees who have forgotten how to bear any fruit, falling far short of their calling to be a light to the nations. John’s marketing strategy for his mission is not to softly persuade people of the error of their ways, but to sharply critique the spiritual and ethical failings of his people. In a style that may be the equivalent of 1st century Palestine trash talk, John calls to the Pharisees who were coming to be baptized: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John’s tone continues to intensify as he talks about the One coming after him more powerful than he who baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire. As Keith read the part his voice carried the intensity through to the final confident crescendo. “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.” The appropriately intense reading of this passage gave us all a little pause, including, I believe Keith, and led into our discussion of trying to work through some of what might have been going on here and how John’s message does or doesn’t line up with our Advent expectations of the One who is to Come.
After such words, John the Baptizer is then off stage for eight chapters in Matthew. And the next time we hear from him, in chapter 11, there is a completely different tone to his character. John is in prison. He’d gone a little too far in his strong speech for the likes of Herod, who he had spoken out against. We don’t know how long John was in prison but we do know several chapters later that he will not make it out alive. Herod has him executed. A prison cell was the final stop for John, and we hear from him out of this struggle.
To get a sense of the thoughts John might have been experiencing in prison, I think of the letters and poetry that were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while he was imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII. Bonhoeffer had been a leader of the Confessing Church in Germany, the church body that was actively resisting Hitler’s leadership. After the seminary where he taught was shut down by the authorities in 1937, the church went underground and Bonhoeffer continued to pastor and teach, emphasizing a life of discipleship to Jesus that reflected the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. He was arrested in April of 1943 under the charges of subverting the armed forces – discouraging his students from participating in military service. He was in prison for two years, and he, like John, did not make it out alive. He was executed in April, 1945, only days before allied forces took the prison from the Nazis. While he was in prison, he wrote. This book, Voices in the Night, is a collection of his prison poetry. Here are some lines from his poem, “Voices in the Night:”
“Stretched out upon my prison bed, I stare at the empty wall.
Outside, summer evening, regardless of me, goes singing into the country.
Softly ebbs the tide of day on the eternal shore. Sleep awhile!
Refresh body and soul, head and hand!
Outside, people, houses; hearts and spirits are aflame…
In the stillness of the night, I listen.
Only footsteps and shouts of the guards,
a loving couple in the distance, stifled laughter.
Can you hear nothing else, you slugglish sleeper?
I hear my own soul totter and tremble.
I hear, I hear, like voices, like shouts, like cries for help, the waking dreams of fellow-sufferers, dumb thoughts in the night.
I hear the restless creaking of the beds, I hear chains.
Night and silence. Only footsteps and shouts of guards.
Do you not hear it in this silenced house, shaking, breaking, collapsing, as hundreds kindle the glowing ember of their hearts?”
I’d invite you to open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 11 as we’ll be digging into the passage some together.
Matthew 11:2-3 says, “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?’” The confident, brazen Baptizer is undergoing a trembling and tottering of the soul. He had spoken of Jesus as the One to come, more powerful than he, baptizing with Spirit and Fire…and now he wonders if what he is hearing about Jesus is really all to expect of him. In response to the question Jesus, in his indirect yet very direct manner, tells the disciples to report to John what is happening through him – the blind receive sight, the lame are walking, lepers and cleansed, the dead are raised, and good new is preached to the poor. This may sound like an impressive, even miraculous list of activities to us. Jesus is doing a lot of important things. Things that come right out of Isaiah’s vision of what God’s Spirit would be doing in the world. But for John, imprisoned and facing death, this is an incomplete list. Embedded in his question to Jesus ‘Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?’ is another question. “Where’s the fire?” “Where’s the power?” It’s fine to do these local acts of kindness, but where’s the judgment against evil? Where’s the separation of the wheat from the chaff, the just from the unjust, and the baptism of fire that will finally put an end to all this madness? When are you going to do that Jesus?
These kinds of Messianic expectations are why Jesus follows up his statement about what he’s all about with the words from verse 6: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The Greek word used here that gets translated “takes no offense” is scandalidzo. Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me. The word is also translated “stumbling block” in other parts of the gospel. Like another Beattitude, Blessed is the one who is not scandalized, who does not stumble, who does not get tripped up by the kind of power that I bring and the kind of power that I don’t bring. The lack of fire power of this Messiah was proving to be a scandal to the Baptizer, now facing the death dealing power of the political establishment.
We begin to see here the kind of vulnerability of this One who comes to us. The fragility of a Messiah who offers himself to the world in the way that Jesus does. It’s not the kind of power we are taught to believe is real power. Abiding, steadfast, unconditional healing love. This is often seen as soft and flimsly. Able to make us feel a little better about life, maybe, but surely not powerful, like real power. It’s so easy to reject. So easy to beat down. Too easily silenced, imprisoned, and crucified. Hard to see how this is a power that saves us.
We are used to the image of the vulnerable infant Messiah of the nativity scene, but may not think of this vulnerability as also being present throughout the ministry of the adult Messiah. Jesus, as God’s Messiah, comes with a strange kind of fire and power that caused even John to question. Jesus invites the disciples to see the presence of God in these small loving acts of liberation happening around them.
It’s easy to sympathize with the struggle of John. It’s a similar struggle of anyone imprisoned by whatever forces that may be acting on them. We want a Messiah who puts a definitive end to our struggles. Who forcefully breaks down the prison walls, sets us free, and destroys the powers that put us there in the first place. We can become scandalized by God’s apparent weakness. Has gospel really come our way, or should we be waiting for something else? Is God even on the scene yet, or should we be looking somewhere else for salvation? Jesus’ mission feels incomplete to us. The broken pieces of our lives are not yet picked up and placed all back together.
It’s interesting to see where this passage leads. On this Sunday with extra music that the choir is singing, we end with a music metaphor from Jesus. For Jesus, the real danger isn’t the great struggle of faith that John was undergoing. Jesus is not down on John and does not condemn him in any way. In fact, he calls John the greatest human being born yet, in v. 11. John’s ministry of giving people a good kick in the pants, and his response to his imprisonment through wrestling with the meaning of the Messiah’s mission are vital. The real danger comes, Jesus teaches in verses 16-19, from being nonresponsive to the sorrows and joys of the world. From adopting a middle of the road kind of numbness where we aren’t in touch with pain or beauty. This is what Jesus accuses his generation of falling into. John had come to them fasting and talking about the sins of society, preaching repentance, playing a slow, mournful ballad, and the people had refused to weep. Jesus came feasting and talking about the good new of Gods love, welcoming in outcasts and sinners to God’s big party, playing an upbeat song, and the people refused to dance. Refused, or perhaps, lost their ability to weep or dance through becoming accustomed to not feeling those things that cause sorrow or joy. A safe path through life that keeps a distance from either of these responses. We don’t want to go into the darkness of the prison cell with that person behind the bars, and we also don’t want to enter into the ecstasy of other’s delights.
Maybe, in these statements to the people, Jesus is asking of them the same question that John had asked of him. Where’s the fire? Where’s the passion? Where’s the awakeness of your souls, in touch with the aliveness of God who both mourns and rejoices over creation?
One of the ways that God’s fire and power are most revealed through the gift of the Christ that we look to during Advent is when there is mourning with those who mourn, and rejoicing with those who rejoice. This is not weakness, but a great strength. Through this God continues to pick up broken pieces of lives and put us back together. Through this God heals those who are sick and releases those who are in prison. The power of being present and singing the same ballad as those who are struggling, and being present and dancing the same dance as those who are rejoicing is the fire of God that burns among us. This fits well with the imagery of the final line of Bonhoeffer’s poem that was mentioned before. In looking around at his fellows in prison, he sees “hundreds kindle the glowing ember of their hearts.” Jesus comes as one whose heart burns brightly alongside those hundreds, and hundreds others tending the flame of their own hearts. It is our privilege as those who call Jesus our Messiah to be this continuing presence of Christ in the world. Through our joining together in songs of pain and joy, the power of God’s love is being revealed to all creation.