John sat in a dark cell. Every time the prison door opened, he would instinctively back against the corner of the cell, as far away from the door as possible. He always feared the worst, whenever it banged open. More torture. Beatings. Maybe even his last moments on earth, before they led him to his execution.
But this time, when the door opened, he was overjoyed to see familiar and friendly faces. The guard led in a handful of his disciples. They ran into each others’ arms, and embraced. It had only been a few weeks since John had first been imprisoned, but it felt like an eternity. They knew they wouldn’t have long, so they sat down quickly in the cell and began to fill him in on the latest news. The Messiah was teaching, healing, drawing crowds by the thousands, they told him. Story after story, they reveled in the details. But then, after their report, though, there was an awkward silence. John saw the joy on their faces, but couldn’t match their joy with them.
He slowly began to speak. “I understand the…Jesus is doing amazing things. But…look around you. Look at where I am! The Herods still on their thrones and me in the prison cell? This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. This isn’t what I signed up for! What any of us signed up for! Something is wrong here. Is this what the Messiah’s Kingdom is supposed to look like? You heard the voice when he came out of the water, didn’t you? You heard him preach about the Kingdom coming, didn’t you? Then where is it? Maybe…and I hate to say this…maybe he isn’t the One. Maybe he is just another prophet, come to announce the One. He is doing amazing things, but surely this isn’t all there is.
I need you to do something for me. Ask him. Leave here right away and ask him, ‘Are you the One or is there another?’ Ask him if we are all just wasting our time. If we are all just wasting our lives.”
Something like this must have been what took place prior to today’s Scripture passage. John is in prison and sends word through his disciples to Jesus that something has gone terribly wrong. “Are you the one?” Because it sure doesn’t look like it. Jailed, arrested, and sitting on the floor of a dark prison, John was at a loss. He had proclaimed and claimed a power to defeat the evil of the world around him, but now that power seemed weak, if not doomed. John doubted Jesus.
We get it, right? Maybe we aren’t physically in prison cells, but how many of us knows what it feels like to live imprisoned lives?
We are imprisoned financially. We struggle to make it through the end of the month, asking when the debt will stop, when the unexpected expenses will stop. And the holidays make things even worse. Every January we say that we are going to be prepared this year. Every December we ask how we are going to make it. We feel like failures as we look around our “cells” and cry out that something is wrong here.
We are imprisoned emotionally. We struggle through pain of grief, the helplessness of mental illness, the frustration of structures and systems that seem slanted against us. We try to bring healing to ourselves and those who we love, but it feels like we are banging our heads against the wall. We are at a loss in the face of something that we know is wrong here.
We are imprisoned in the socio-political climate around us. We see what seems to be clear evil – we watch the video of white supremacist rallies and read about anonymous letters sent to people of minority religions, telling them that they are no longer welcome in this country. The Baptistness in our gut – the heritage which has always fought for 400 years for religious freedom for minorities – tells us that something is wrong here. The Christianness in our gut – the heritage which has for 2,000 years preached “love your neighbor…love your enemy…” – tells us that something is wrong here.
So, what do we do? Distract. Distract. Distract. I know I do. And so, instead of deal with that helplessness, I work to distract myself. With sports or Christmas decorating or hiking in the woods.
But it doesn’t work. Even when I work hard to distract myself, I still come back to that feeling that something is wrong. No amount of reading Jayhawk box scores or hot stove reports on the Cubs trades will make it go away. I can count all the birds in all of the trees in all of the woods, and I still come back to reality. No volume of Christmas music is loud enough to drown out that anxiety. Something is wrong here.
John is a proxy for us. In the darkness of our own cells, we cry out, “are you really the One worth following, or is there another? Because something is still wrong here.”
But look how Jesus responds to the question. First, he tells them to look around them and report what they have seen. “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.” Jesus is talking to John, through these messengers, but also to his listeners, the crowds, to anyone who doubted that Jesus really knew what he was talking about. “Look around you. Is this not the promise of Isaiah and the prophets, come to fruition? Is this not the Kingdom that was prophesied? Is this not what you signed up for?”
Second, he praises John and his message. He compares him to the power structure of their day. “Who did you go out in the wilderness to see? A reed shaking in the wind?” he asked. The background helps here, because when he said this, each of his listeners would know that the Herods had recently issued currency with their picture on the front and the picture of a reed on the back. “Did you go out to see a reed…?”
Jesus was taking aim directly at the political power of his day and calling them out as failed power. In our context, it would have been like he said, “who did you go out to see? A TV star in a red ballcap? A politician in a white pantsuit?” He didn’t have to name names, because everyone knew who he was talking about. And his message was clear: the Empire – the political power structure that everyone thought was in charge was a failed power.
Jesus was redefining success and failure:
- John looked around at his prison cell and assumed that Jesus had failed.
- Jesus pointed to the healing and the hope and proclaimed that he was at the height of success!
- Jesus’ listeners assumed that John had failed because he’s in prison.
- Jesus exalted John as the most successful human ever to be born, because he had the chance to proclaim the Kingdom. He was the final prophet, ushering in a new Kingdom that would forever change the world.
- The crowds saw that Jesus was not King and John was in prison, and so assumed that they had failed in their mission to change the world.
- But Jesus invited them to look at the world with new eyes. See that the Empire of the Herods was a failed political power of Domination.
Instead, Jesus was fond of preaching, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus reframed success and failure, and invited the crowds to see through that lens as well. Through Jesus’ lens, true power is vulnerability, not domination. It is personal strength and endurance in the midst of suffering and punishment. It is living a life of trust – not in the failed structures of the Herods, and political power, and domination – but trust in God alone. That is where true power lies.
Jesus’ message to John is his message to us, as well. For we, too, look around the Empire of our world and see clear examples of evil. We sit in our “prison cells” and say, “something is wrong here.” In response, some of us believe that the answer to that evil a new Empire. To put the right people in the right places of power to defeat that evil. It’s this idea of the Christian nation. This idea that all we need to do is put the right Christians in the right places of power – the president and Congress and Supreme Court seats – and the result will be a righteous Christian Empire! But that was never Jesus’ mission. That was John’s mission! John figured by now, he would be in the halls of power, not in a jail cell. “Are you sure you are the right One, Jesus?” He didn’t understand… Judas didn’t understand…most of the crowds never understood, that it wasn’t ever Jesus’ mission to have a Christian Empire…a Christian nation. If that were his mission, he wouldn’t have come as a child to a poor refugee family, but instead to a famous and powerful family. If that were his mission, then when Satan told him he could have all of the Kingdoms of the world, he would have said “yes.” But he didn’t want a Christian nation.
What did he want instead? “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus wants to reframe reality for us. Reframe failure and success – not in political terms, but personal terms. It is within you. Not because the right people are in power, but because you can see the Kingdom and take part in its ultimate arrival. You can participate when “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.” You can be an example of the personal power of vulnerability and not domination. Of endurance through suffering and not comfort. Of justice and not protection of our own self-interests. Of trust in God and not in princes. That is where power comes from. And that is where true peace comes from. When we participate in the Kingdom. Not in the Empire!
A friend sent me a video this week. It is video of a young man at a technology conference where he trying out a pair of virtual reality goggles. Through the goggles, he can play a game in which he sees himself on a mountain, climbing higher and higher collecting points as he goes. But the higher he climbs in the game, the more excited he gets, until he leans too far forward and falls smack on his face – in real life. Of course, the video has gone viral because we love to see video of people falling on their faces.
But I use it as a way to explain what Jesus is doing here. He is begging us to take off the goggles. Take off the Empire goggles. Every time we put on the goggles of the Empire and see the world that they want us to see, we fall on our faces. Into injustice. Into fear. Into anger and hatred and rage and supremacy.
Jesus begs us to take off the goggles and see the real Kingdom. Peace comes when we open our eyes to the true Kingdom of God. When we wait for that Kingdom. When we participate in that Kingdom. When we act to bring about that Kingdom. For it is only then that we can wait in our cells, even when the executioner opens the door. For there we are, smiling in the dark. Because he cannot touch the Kingdom that is within us. For that is the ultimate peace.