These are words spoken by John the Baptist from death row. He had directed his fiery message of repentance towards King Herod himself, who had responded as any neurotic, insecure, and truly evil dictator would, by throwing John in prison. While he’s there, the news about his cousin, Jesus, reaches his ears…and he’s shocked. His expectations are dashed. Jesus is wandering around the Galilean countryside, teaching things like, “Blessed are the poor, the meek, and the persecuted.” John’s vision was of a Messiah wielding a winnowing fork, raising up the people, and bringing fire and judgment and revolution. When we read the Hebrew prophets, people like Amos, we can see why John was distraught. What is going on? Where’s the FIRE? So he sends word to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Many ancient commentators struggled with John’s question, because it seems like doubt. Heroes of the faith don’t doubt! The consensus view in antiquity was this: perhaps John’s simply asking on behalf of his own disciples so that they would know that Jesus really is the Messiah. Perhaps. But, I don’t think that does justice to the reality of John’s humanity, or to the witness of Scripture. Of course he’s doubting! He’s utterly alone, his life’s work seems to be in vain, and he could be executed at any moment. But, incredibly, Jesus honors John’s doubt, and his response is in fact deeply pastoral and kind (we’ll talk more about that on Sunday).
When we look at the famous figures in our Scriptures, we don’t see heroes to emulate, but rather mirrors in whom we can see ourselves. Tod Bolsinger shared this insight at our recent Diocesan Convention, and I think it’s deeply important for us to remember when we look at Scripture. In John’s question. we are invited to see our own doubts, our own incredulity, our own darkness. Perhaps the Herods of the world really do have the last laugh. Perhaps the dungeons, be they literal or allegorical, we are trapped within will never be broken down.
Except that Scripture does show us one Hero. One Hero, who changes everything, is coming into the world.