Not waiting for another

John the Baptist is in prison. The wilderness preacher who used to sleep out by the river, under a blanket of stars – Herod has locked him up. Night and day he stares at the walls; there’s no window that would allow him to see the sun or the moon. The door is shut, and it can be opened only from the outside.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he used to declare with conviction and urgency, certain that the days of sin’s old regime were counted. So convinced was he that the reign of heaven was about to erupt, he could feel it rumbling under the soles of his feet like an earthquake. Any day now; he knew it.

John ate wild honey, but his words had little sweetness in them; he spoke with fire on his breath. One stronger than himself would come after him, and he would gather the wheat and burn the chaff and clean up this mess sinners had made of the world. John had seen Jesus. John had baptized Jesus. And when Herod shut him up in a cell he thought it wouldn’t be long before the prison doors would fly open. Soon, very soon, divine justice would rule and all the fruitless trees would be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

But he didn’t hear any reports of the wicked being punished. No cries of terror from the threshing floor of divine judgment, no shouts of vengeance from the streets of he city. I can see him pacing up and down his cell, barely four steps to the door, he turns, another four steps back to the wall; he’s being tormented by questions, “What is Jesus doing? What is taking him so long? Where is the fire?”

Then reports began to trickle in about Jesus’ work in the towns of Galilee, bits and pieces about him healing the sick and forgiving sinners—what had happened to the ax that was lying at the foot of the trees? John was confused. I can see him sitting in the dark, waiting for the walls of his cell to crumble and light to pour in; but the only thing crumbling was his certainty; disappointment and doubt were creeping in. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Everything is at stake in that question, and not just for John but for anyone who has encountered Jesus since.

A year ago yesterday a boy named Adam threw a blanket of death over a school, a town, and a nation. We sat in the dark, our hearts broken, waiting for light to pour in. Defiantly we lit an Advent candle that Sunday and with shaky voices we sang of peace. Faithfully we lit a candle of remembrance Sunday after Sunday, praying for healing for the families of the victims and for all the brokenhearted, and honoring the women who had given their lives to protect the children. Many of us thought that such a horrifying act of violence would certainly, finally shake the conscience of the nation and move us to talk about weapons in our culture, about the sorry state of our mental health services, and about the violence and vengefulness that saturate our imaginations. Appallingly little has changed, and perhaps one more moment of silence yesterday was the most honest and honorable thing our leaders could ask us to do.

But some of us sit in this darkness and wonder, “Did we get it all wrong? Is it really just the same old mix of fear and self-interest that determines our being, our thoughts and our actions? Are we so trapped in ourselves that the gentle and courageous way of Jesus will always remain just a side road for dreamers?”

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Are we to wait for one who doesn’t tell Peter to put away his sword? Are we to wait for one who will call for legions of angels for one final battle of cosmic proportions in which evil will forever be eradicated?[1] Is Paul proclaiming a fantasy when he urges us in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[2] Are we fools when we insist on seeking non-violent responses to violence? Are we to wait for another?

John looked at Jesus when he came to the Jordan to be baptized, and he just knew that this was the one whose coming he had been announcing. John saw the one whose power he had envisioned, the one carrying the winnowing fork in one hand and the ax in the other. John looked at Jesus on the river bank, and he knew that the reign of God, the new regime of everlasting righteousness was now but a fire away. But then Jesus insisted on being baptized together with all the sinners, and perhaps that was when John started to wonder. But he wasn’t puzzled enough to allow the Messiah’s complete identification with sinners to call into question his own ideas about divine vengeance. He still waited for the fire to be kindled. Locked up in Herod’s prison, with little waiting time left, he asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

We take the question with us to Bethlehem, on to Galilee, and to Jerusalem. We look at the child and ask, “Are you the one?” We spend time in the company of the friend of sinners and ask, “Are you the one?” We look at the curious king riding into town on a donkey and being crucified under the old regime, his head crowned with thorns, and we ask, “Are you the one who brings the kingdom of heaven to earth or are we to wait for another? One who is more powerful than you? One with a bigger hammer, a bigger sword, a bigger army?”

Jesus’ response doesn’t take the answer away from John or from any of us; we still each give it with our lives. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he says. And pointing to the life erupting around him, Jesus sings a few lines from Isaiah: 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. Tell John what you see. Sing him a song of heaven embracing the earth with grace and compassion. Sing of showers of forgiveness falling on thirsty ground. Sing of streams of mercy refreshing the parched places. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Jesus’ presence transforms lifeless wilderness into a lush garden; his deep knowledge of our brokenness opens the gates of healing in a thousand places. We are still only beginning to grasp that Jesus didn’t come to bring the fire, but to be the fire that burns in our hearts and the water that makes the desert sing. Jesus didn’t come to bulldoze a highway across the mountains and valleys of our life, but to be the way that leads us all from sin and death to righteousness and life. In him the consummation of God’s work has burst into the world and is wondrously unfolding in and around us.

John was bewildered because in the reports he heard about Jesus he didn’t recognize the Messiah whose coming he had announced. I think of John as the embodiment and voice of our longing for the world made right. He is Advent in person, preparing the way, watching, waiting, wondering. I don’t know if his eyes were opened to recognize the glory of God’s reign in the words and deeds of Jesus, but I like to think that he began to open up to the possibility. I like to think that his expectations only for a moment got in the way of seeing the fulfillment of his hope in Jesus. I like to imagine it for John in his dark prison cell, because I have the same hope for you and me in the darkness that surrounds us: that we may have eyes to see and ears to hear how in the coming of Jesus the end time of God’s mercy has entered into our history. His coming, his Advent calls into question everything we think we know about God’s power and justice and then our notions of human power, human justice, human judgment.

“The ransomed of the Lord shall come to Zion with singing,” Isaiah declared. “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Sorrow and sighing are still present, but there are weak hands that need to be strengthened and feeble knees that need to be made firm. There are fearful hearts, our own included, that need encouragement against the temptations of cynicism and despair,  “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”

A year ago yesterday, a boy named Adam threw a blanket of death over a school, a town, and a nation. We can’t pull it away, but we can refuse to sit under it. We can refuse to let the twisted logic of violence determine our actions.

We can declare with our lives that the gentle and courageous way of Jesus is not some obscure side road to nowhere, but the highway to Zion. That’s why we decided to observe this painful anniversary with small acts that affirm life in community, small acts that express our shared commitment to nurturing our children. We could of course call it a school supply drive, but that doesn’t get to the heart of it. Faithfully and defiantly we light candles of hope and peace and joy and love, and we declare that we are not waiting for another.


[1] Matthew 26:52-53

[2] Romans 12:17, 19, 21