Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
I am interested in this John the Baptist. We know him from his preaching in Advent. John talks about a harsh and fiery judgment. "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Even now the ax is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." His pitchfork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor. When he's done there's nothing left, the grain goes into the silo and the husks are burnt. And that's that. The judge comes suddenly, like a thief in the night. Or like a master who returns home unexpectedly and catches the slaves eating his steak and drinking his wine, from his best china, crystal and silver. At the moment of judgment, it will all be over. We had our chance, and we either took it or we didn't. too late now.
Ah, but the Judge, who is the Judge?
The Babe of Bethlehem is the Judge of wrath. The baby Jesus is the Judge John the Baptist predicted. What God could judge us, what God has more understanding, or a better right to judge that the Incarnate Lord, the god who became human like us. A prisoner awaiting trial worries about what kind of judge she or he will get. We know who our judge will be, the one who said, "Let the one without sin cast the first stone."
I'm also very interested in the reaction of the Babe, once he grows up. We heard this on the Third Sunday in Advent.:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
There is a difference here between what you expect and what you get. John's disciples are sent to ask Jesus whether he is the one. John, you see, is puzzled; Jesus is not acting like the one he expected, the one whose coming he announced. So Jesus sends them back to John after quoting some Scripture to them that prophesied the work he was doing. Then he turns to the crowd and talks about their expectations. If they expected a Messiah King, they should look in palaces, not out in the desert. And he speaks of John not only as unexpected, but as part of God's bounty to us. Not only is John a prophet, he is more than a prophet.
Implicitly, he is speaking of himself as well. For he is truly God's bounty and surprise. He is the Babe, and Judge, of Bethlehem now grown up and showing his true colors, God's true colors of love and mercy. And it is love and mercy that were the unexpected surprise. There are more surprises to come. They are unexpected but grace-filled
All surprises, even the best, require adjustments, sometimes massive adjustments. Those of us with the most set ideas will have the hardest time with the new, the unexpected. So the Sadducees and Pharisee had very clear and definite ideas about who the Messiah would be. And it was they, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who rejected Jesus and brought him to the cross. And it was they who got the big surprise on Easter morning.
The Messiah they got was a big loss for them. The Messiah didn't support them in their power. The Messiah didn't really support their beliefs about God. And loss breeds anger. That's how we respond, you know. In loss, we go through stages similar to those facing death or those grieving the loss of a loved one. You know the list, denial, anger, bargaining, and finally acceptance as best we can.
Now I read this story from Matthew at a special time, I was in training for being an interim priest, and we used this gospel story for one of our Bible study times. And it hit me. John the Baptist was Jesus' interim, the one who went before to open the way for him. John the Baptist was between the two covenants, the old and the new, as an interim priest is between two rectors. You have just been through this process. You had an old rector who was here for a long time, then an supply priest who helped prepare the way for the new rector, and who may have had to sound a little like John the Baptist. And next week you will have a new rector.
And what happens here may be like what happened with John and Jesus. There may be the same sense of loss. Your new Rector may not be the same as the rector before him. He may not act like her. He may not think like her. He may not lead like her. Maybe no one got exactly what they wanted, or everything they wanted, in a new rector. And some may feel at a loss about this. Loss, here too, can lead to anger and acting out some anger. Maybe it was the Vestry who didn't get each and every one of you just what you wanted. But of course, it is the new rector who carries the weight, the weight of the loss and the weight of the anger.
God is full of surprises. The new Rector may be one of them. You may not get what you want all the time, but God often gives you just what you need. Remember the harsh Judge and the merciful Babe. Remember the surprise of the resurrection. God has a plan for his people of St. John's Church. He may have indeed been appointed, as Isaiah says of the Messiah, appointed from his mother's womb for this parish.
So I invite you to look for the surprise, the new, from him. Look with hope, look for God's redemption. My prayer for him is that he will fulfill the words of the Psalm:
and so I said, "Behold, I come.
In the roll of the book it is written concerning me: *
`I love to do your will, O my God;
your law is deep in my heart."'
I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; *
behold, I did not restrain my lips;
nd that, O LORD, you know.