When you went out to John [the Baptist] in the desert, what did you expect to see? A blade of grass bending in the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in fancy clothes? People who dress like that live in palaces! Tell me, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes indeed, but you saw much more than a prophet. For the scripture says: “God said, I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you.”
[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]
If there is one thing that can really trip us up it’s our expectations. If there’s something we don’t know, our imaginations go to work and make something up. We can create entire scenarios in our minds, which can be fun or even comforting. The challenge is to let go of our imaginings when they don’t conform to reality.
In this scripture Jesus challenged a curious crowd red to examine their expectations about John. He challenges them to look beyond the superficial and obvious. He warns them against judging by appearances.
First, he asked them if they expected to see “A blade of grass bending in the wind.” This, I believe, is a reference to the prophetic word in Isaiah 58:4-6. In this scripture Isaiah tells the people that their practice of fasting is ineffective because it doesn’t result in the kind of social changes that God really wants:
Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers? When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that? “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free (Isaiah 58:4-6).
Jesus asked them if they expected John to be putting on a big show of repentance like the people in this scripture. He warns the people about evaluating on the appearance of religious piety. He challenges them to look beyond John’s spiritual practices and listen to his message of liberation.
Next, Jesus asked the crowd whether they expected to see someone in fancy clothes. He tells them that money and earthly power are not an indication that someone is a messenger from God. He says that a person in fancy clothes would never be wandering around out in the desert baptizing ordinary people. A person in fancy clothes would be sitting around in his palace; he would not be out doing ministry. A person in fancy clothes would be more interested in building up his own kingdom than God’s.
Finally, Jesus asked the crowd if they expected to see a prophet. John certainly looks like a prophet. Jesus tells them, however, that they need to look beyond the physical. He says that if they look at John with spiritual eyes they will see that John is the messenger who was foretold by Malachi:
The Lord Almighty answers, “I will send my messenger to prepare the way for me. Then the Lord you are looking for will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger you long to see will come and proclaim my covenant.” (Malachi 3:1).
Sometimes we can be blinded by our expectations, especially when we get lazy and start judging by appearances. If we want to faithfully follow God we have to put our expectations aside and keep an open mind. If we aren’t careful we can miss a visitation of God.
Looking back, I remember a highly anticipated United Methodist Women’s meeting at our church in Chicago where expectations got in the way of reality. This meeting was a special one because the president had arranged for our district shepherdess to come and speak to us about all sorts of wonderful things. There was a lot of preparation for this meeting, and everything had to be just so.
The tension began to mount when the meeting started and the shepherdess had not arrived. Finally, when the meeting could be delayed no longer and it was time for the speaker to begin, the president got up and explained that there would not be a program today because the shepherdess had not arrived.
“Here I am,” said a voice from the back. Everyone turned around and watched as she slowly shuffled to the lectern. It seems that everyone ignored our shepherdess when she came in. She was easy ignore. She was a little African American woman, probably in her 70s, slightly bent with age. Her clothing was shabby and she was toting a couple of shopping bags. The shepherdess for the Chicago Northwestern District of the United Methodist Women looked like a bag lady.
It turns out she was a very good speaker and she shared about what the UMW was doing in various churches throughout the district. She also gave a great devotional and led an awesome prayer. She was a good shepherdess even though she didn’t look the part. The women at the church expected a white person, probably in a pastel business suit. With pearls. And carefully styled white hair. And a briefcase. Their expectations didn’t match up with reality.
Jesus challenges the crowd to examine their expectations and accept John for who he really was. So who was John the Baptist? What was all that baptizing about? Was he the first person to baptize people?
Tomorrow I will look at what is known about John the Baptist, who, according to Jesus, was greater than any man who has ever lived. Sounds like someone worth knowing about.
What does this scripture say to you?