John the Baptist Didn’t Get What He Wanted for Christmas
Isaiah, 11:1-10 John 1:35-42
Alan Claassen January 15, 2006
JB didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas. Jesus wasn’t the powerful, wipe out all the bad guys type of Messiah he thought God was sending.
JB had good reason to expect something; he just forgot that it was going to come from something small. Something as small a new shoot that grows from a fallen tree.
Have you ever been in a redwood forest? If you have, you probably have seen or even walked inside a circle of towering redwoods. It is enough to be amazed by the size of the trees in a redwood forest, but to come upon a circle of redwoods is to walk into a sanctuary designed by God.
When a redwood tree is destroyed by lighting or cut down, what sometimes happens is that new growth will sprout around the base of that old redwood and form this circle of beauty and magnificent power.
That’s where it all begins, with God’s eternally creative spirit. It cannot be stopped. It is genetically wired into creation.
John the Baptist knew this. He lived very close to creation. And undoubtedly he knew his prophets, and this very passage we just heard read this morning. And he also could see evidence all around him, in the actions of the Romans, and his own religious leaders, that the intentions of God were not being carried out.
And so he gave these most amazing, upsetting, impolite, set of speeches and performed the symbolically rich act of purifying people in the Jordan River, in nature rather than in the corrupted Temple, and he told everyone that something is big is going to come and wipe away all the bad and lift up the good.
And this is exactly what Jesus did not do.
John didn’t get what he wanted. A powerful new ruler who would annihilate all evil. Of course, John wasn’t really around long enough to see what Jesus did have to say, and what Jesus’ program actually was. IN fact, perhaps the fact that John lost his head had a big impact upon the words and actions of Jesus.
Because the fact is that Jesus did not have coercive power. Jesus did not have financial or military power. In the ways of the world Jesus was incredibly poor and weak. And it is so helpful, I believe, to remember this, when trying to make sense of what Jesus said.
I want to talk about this power that Jesus had, this power that I want to call lamb-power, in light of today’s passage from Isaiah.
The Wolf and the lamb lie down together.
This is very good news for the wolf.
I can imagine a wolf family sitting around the breakfast table eating breakfast and reading the morning paper. Headline reads, Prophet Isaiah says, Lambs and wolves to lie down together.
Papa wolf says, Great news family. No more hunting. According to this Isaiah guy the lambs are just going to come and lay down with us, when they do, we’ll eat ‘em.
Boy this new world order is going to be great for us wolves!
The lamb and the wolf laying down together means some basic so-called laws of nature are going to have to be changed. Or else we have some very well fed wolves on our hands.
And if you read on in the passage, not only are the wolves going to be well fed, but also the lions are going to become vegetarian? What was Isaiah thinking?
This is ridiculous naive pie-in-the sky garden-of-eden thinking that won’t get us anywhere.
And what is the Papa Lamb thinking as he reads the same headlines.
The situation in Jesus’ time was that Israel was the lamb and Roman empire was the wolf, and a great number of the religious authorities, to save their own hides, wore the wolves clothing.
Jesus came onto the scene, a tender branch, a shoot from a once and mighty family, but without any power, and began talking about the power of the lamb.
Let me tell you what I mean.
Part of the problem we have in understanding Jesus is that we read the lamb’s teaching from the point of view of the wolf, and we think it is naive, idealistic, not helpful.
Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence have been perverted into injunctions to passive nonresistance, which, as we shall see, is the very opposite of active nonviolence.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your outer garment, give your undergarment as well; and if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, go two” (Matthew 5:38-41). And the crowning blow: don’t resist evil at all.
A clearer translation of this passage is given in the new Scholars Bible: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” The meaning is clear: don’t react in kind, don’t mirror your enemy, and don’t turn into the very thing you hate. Jesus is telling us to resist evil, non-violently.
Jesus gives three examples to explain his point. The first is: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Most people picture a blow with the right fist. But that would land on the left cheek, and Jesus specifies the right cheek. A left hook wouldn’t fit the bill either, since the left hand was used only for unclean tasks, and even to gesture with it brought shame on the one gesturing. Jesus is speaking about striking the right cheek with the back of the right hand. This was not a blow to injure. It was symbolic. It was intended to humiliate, to put an inferior in his or her place. It was given by a master to a slave, a husband to a wife, a parent to a child, or a Roman to a Jew. The message of the powerful to their subjects was clear: You are a nobody; get back down where you belong.
It is to those accustomed to being struck in this way thus that Jesus speaks (“if anyone strikes you”). By turning the other cheek, the person struck puts the striker in an untenable spot. He cannot repeat the backhand, because the other’s nose is now in the way. The left cheek makes a fine target, but only persons who are equals fight with fists, and the last thing the master wants is for the slave to assert equality.
But the point has been irrevocably made: the “inferior” is saying, in no uncertain terms, “I won’t take such treatment anymore. I am your equal. I am a child of God.”
By turning the other cheek, the oppressed person is saying that she refuses to submit to further humiliation. This is not submission. It is defiance.
Jesus’ second example deals with indebtedness, the most onerous social problem in first century Palestine. The wealthy of the Empire sought ways to avoid taxes. The best way was to buy land on the fringes of the Empire. But the poor didn’t want to sell. So the rich jacked up interest rates—25 to 250 percent. When the poor couldn’t repay, first their moveable property was seized, then their lands, and finally the very clothes on their backs. Scripture allowed the destitute to sleep in their long robes, but they had to surrender them by day (Deuteronomy 24:10-13).
It is to that situation that Jesus speaks. Look, he says, you can’t win when they take you to court. But here is something you can do: when they demand your outer garment, give your undergarment as well. That was all they wore! The poor man is stark naked! And in Israel, nakedness brought shame, not on the naked party, but on the one viewing his nakedness. Jesus is not asking those already defrauded of their possessions to submit to further indignity. He is enjoining them to guerrilla theater.
Imagine the debtor walking out of the court in his all-togethers. To the question what happened, he responds, “That creditor got all my clothes.” People come pouring out of the streets and alleys and join the little procession to his home. It will be a while before creditors in that village take a poor man to court! But, of course, the Powers That Be are shrewd, and within weeks new laws will be in place making nakedness in court punishable by fines or incarceration. So the poor need to keep inventing new forms of resistance. Jesus is advocating a kind of Aikido, where the momentum of the oppressor is used to throw the oppressor and make him the laughing stock of the community. Jesus is not averse to using shame to kindle a moral sense in the creditor.
Jesus’ third example refers to the law that permitted a Roman soldier to force a civilian to carry his 65 to 85 pound pack. But the law stipulated one mile only. At the second marker the soldier was required to retrieve his pack. By carrying the pack more than a mile, the peasant makes the soldier culpable for violation of military law. Again, Jesus is not just “extending himself” by going the second mile, He is putting the soldier in jeopardy of punishment.” (Walter Wink, Can Love Save Us)
That’s lamb power.
The examples Jesus gives are something more than passivity. They are gutsy, courageous, and aggressive. It’s a powerful kind of power when you have not got coercive power.
They are the kind of power that the Fellowship of Reconciliation devised when they sent the Freedom Riders to the south, to sit, black and white together in restaurants, and then to sit together black and white in jails, and there to refuse bail. To stand with strength and say we will not be humiliated. And we will not resist violently. We will bring the pain ourselves in an act of courage that is meant to awaken a nation and heal the curse of racism.
That’s lamb power.
Gandhi had lamb power. He couldn’t violently oppose the British, though many of his countrymen were trying.
ML King had lamb power. He couldn’t violently oppose the racism in this country, though many of his countrymen were trying that method.
Nelson Mandela had lamb power and the whole world took part in the non-violent revolution that took place in South Africa.
Each of those leaders used great force to achieve their goals, but they didn’t use violence.
But what do we as a nation do in our relations with other nations that can be in keeping with the wisdom and teaching of the Bible?
We need to balance the wolf and the lamb.
The first section of the Isaiah passage describes this.
It describes how the king shall act and the results of his reign.
The future king would resemble David’s son Solomon, renowned for the wisdom of his judgments. No “appearance” or “hearsay” would mar his ability to judge; instead, he would go to the heart of any matter brought before him.
The poor would find in him a friend, and the ruthless an enemy. So strong would this ideal king be that the justice he meted out, and his “faithfulness” to God’s law, would be as readily seen as the royal sash he wore in public to signify his authority.
Being filled and guided by the spirit of God this ruler will act on behalf of the poor, the weak. IN other words, the wolf cares for the lamb to have a world of peace
The wolf acting alone can think that power is all that is needed. I can have my way and not ask any tough questions or be responsible to other nations or the earth itself because I have all the power.
The wolf and the lamb in balance with one another can create a situation where evil is responded to but not with more evil, violence is responded to but not with more violence.
The wolf and the lamb in balance with one another realize that my well-being cannot be at the expense of another’s.
The wolf and the lamb in balance with one another. The only way for that to happen is for both of them to be well fed.
Are we confident that we are doing all we can with our great power to feed the world? When I look at the poverty in our own streets, the homelessness in our own streets, the number of children in our country that do not have a safe start, and a healthy start, a moral start and a head start, I don’t think the answer to that question can be yes.
When I hear Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said that her bill in Congress to help the children of our country is stalled in committee but Congress is willing to support repeal of taxes to our major corporations I don’t think that the answer to that question can be yes.
I can give you an example from US history when we could say yes, when the wolf did lie down with the lamb.
What do you think of this advice from a senior U.S. military officer and statesman about how the people of the United States should deal with a part of the world torn by war, poverty, disease, and hunger?
“…it is of vast importance that our people reach some general understanding of what the complications really are, rather than react from a passion or a prejudice or an emotion of the moment…. It is virtually impossible at this distance merely by reading, or listening, or even seeing photographs or motion pictures, to grasp at all the real significance of the situation. And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment.”
The speaker was General George C. Marshall, outlining the Marshall Plan in an address at Harvard University on June 5, 1947. Surveying the wrecked economies of Europe, Marshall noted the “possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned.” He said that there could be “no political stability and no assured peace” without economic security, and that U.S. policy was “directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.”
As Marshall’s words so plainly suggest, finding the terrorists should be part of a much more ambitious campaign, one in which the rich countries approach the appalling inequities of the world with the same boldness and determination that the United States brought to bear in Europe under the Marshall Plan.
The United States and the other industrial nations should launch a global “Marshall Plan” to provide everyone on earth with a decent standard of living. We can already hear the cries of people claiming that such a global plan would “cost too much.” But let’s look at the numbers.
A 1998 report by the United Nations Development Programme estimated the annual cost to achieve universal access to a number of basic social services in all developing countries: $9 billion would provide water and sanitation for all; $12 billion would cover reproductive health for all women; $13 billion would give every person on Earth basic health and nutrition; and $6 billion would provide basic education for all. 40 billion dollars.
Too much? Military expenditures by all nations? $780 billion each year.
(Source Dick Bell and Michael Renner, World Watch Institute)
This is the kind of thinking and acting that plants the seeds of peace and thinks for generations and generations not just for today. This is the kind of thinking and action that has a chance of annihilating evil.
This is the wolf and the lamb acting together. This isn’t idealism; this is spiritual, practical, earth-friendly, and the intention of creation that was planted in us by God.
What can we do, in the part of the world that we can touch that will give birth to mercy and compassion?
On the personal action level we can participate in the Mission Programs of this Church and of the United Church of Christ.
We can support organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund and Mercy Corps and the Oregon Food Bank.
On the national level we can support the Fair Wage campaign.
On a spiritual level we can ask the question, what do you seek? What are you looking for? What are our expectations? Are we willing to consider the teachings of the Prince of Peace who is as clever as a fox, and as strong as a wolf, and as powerful as a lamb.
There were men who were followers of John the Baptist and he directed them to Jesus, “Look there goes the Lamb of God.” So those men left John and caught up with Jesus who was on the move, making the road of peace by walking it. He turned, looked over his shoulder at the disciples, and asked, “What are you looking for?”
“Where do you live, Jesus?”
“Come and see,” was the reply. You gotta move when the spirit says move.
We learn by following. We learn by acting, doing, resisting without violence.
Because we trust the wisdom of the redwood tree. One may fall, but six or eight will take their place.
To paraphrase Marian Wright Edelman, I may not have the power, or the eloquence or the wealth of humanity’s great leaders
but I care
I am willing to serve
and I stand for children.
And now to close with the words of Alice Walker.
Look closely at the present you are constructing.
It should look like the future you dream of.
The Universe has a dream and we are that.
And let the people say,