John the Baptist’s day of reckoning

They say that even the most confident, bold and courageous people have soft hearts. Those of us who may instinctively flinch at John the Baptist’s energetic – even vitriolic – outburst against the Pharisees, and loyal deference to Jesus Christ in his speech from last week’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12); those of us who would question his insensitive, uncaring, and offensive style – we might pause today in light of this Gospel story about John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).

For what we see here is a more nuanced, man of faith no longer ranting out of a dogmatic cut-and-dry confidence. But a soft, vulnerable heart. He is much more than an in-your-face, sock-it-to-them extremist and extrovert. Here we get a peek at his vulnerability and the depth of his soul. Maybe it’s because he knew he was close to his death.

At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa last week, U.S. President Obama said that Mandela’s strength was “sharing with us [that is, the world] his doubts and fears.”

In prison, John the Baptist expresses his doubts as to whether the man he had rooted for all these years was truly the Messiah. Was his entire life calling to herald the coming Christ all for naught? Like the doubting Thomas would later, John the Baptist seriously questioned whether this Jesus who ate and hung out with sinners, Romans, and tax collectors was the man whom they all expected would save them from those very sinners. John the Baptist’s insecurity is telling, especially when placed in contrast with the early depiction of him crying out brashly in the wilderness.

How does Jesus respond to John’s expressions of doubt? With not only encouragement and affirmation. But Jesus also lifts John’s ministry up. Jesus doesn’t scold John for doubting. Jesus calls him “the greatest” person alive.

I hope John heard that good news. It is a path of hardship John the Baptist undertook, without question. It was a hard path of rejection, ridicule and suffering John endured being a prophet and preparing the way of the Lord. And yet, it is also a path tempered with grace. Because the grace of God came to John in prison; when he really couldn’t do anything to change his unfortunate circumstances – that’s when he received a word of blessing from the One for whom he had prepared the way.

Proclamation and action

Be the change you want to see. I’ve heard this advice often over the past year. I know I’ve mused about this before. But watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama at the beginning of his second term leads me again to express this desperate need for leaders — for me — to be today: words are not enough.

The president’s effective leadership will be debated for centuries to come, to be sure. But one thing stands out: He will be known for his oration. He can speak. President Obama is a model for any preacher or public speaker. His ability to use words and articulate vision, and bring it from the heart is amazing. His speech writers need to be credited as well!

At the same time, he probably knows that the rubber will hit the road when executive action follows from his words. Proclamation finds its validity in the being and doing of leadership. And then the sparks will fly.

So, who one is and what one does, as a leader, will impress upon the public as much as gifted oration will ever.

Be the change you want to see. Don’t do as I say, do as I do.

I couldn’t help make the connection with the Gospel text (Luke 4:16-22) appointed for the coming Sunday — when Jesus stands up in the synagogue to read from the scroll, the scripture appointed for him to read, from the prophet Isaiah (61). Jesus announces his purpose, his divine mission in the world. Notice the verbs:

“… to proclaim …” appears twice in that short quote from Isaiah. Jesus is called by the Spirit to proclaim release to the captives and the year of the Lord’s favour. Proclamation is part and parcel of, even foundational to, the Chrisitan ministry.

I was raised by two pastors from the Lutheran tradition who taught me that the pastor’s fundamental role was to engage in “proclamation”, in the art of preaching. Homiletics professors in seminary reinforced that mission of the ordained clergy. I’ve always found comfort in that. But why?

Not that comfort is altogether a bad thing. But when the comfort means that I conveniently avoid the other part of the equation, or shy away from it, am I being faithful to that Christian ministry?

Today I notice in younger generations who do not find their heart in the church, they see Christians who talk the talk but don’t walk the talk. I don’t believe they want someone talking to them about what it means to be Christian; they want someone to show them what it means to be Christian. They would, I imagine, be more impressed by Christians and their leaders who behave and act consistently with the proclamation.

For those concerned about effective evangelism, I suspect a church that is led by example more than anything will impress those not normally associated with the church. More so than words, acting in the mission of Jesus towards the poor, the captives, with forgiveness and grace will attract and draw others into that Christian mission and identity.

Not only is Jesus called into a mission of proclamation, the other verbs in that text from Isaiah which he quotes in the Nazarene synagogue at the beginning of his ministry are telling: “…to bring good news…” and “…to let…” These are action words.

What does it mean to bring good news to the poor, and to let the oppressed go free? These compelling verbs bring to life many possibilities in fulfilling, in deed, the proclamation of Jesus Christ in his day, and in our lives together today.