I am home this afternoon after a long and fun day at church: Christmas pageant day. I write the scripts for the pageants and plays we do at my church (mostly because I can’t find anything that fits the bill for our congregation) and so while they are always scripts in which dry humor abounds, I have at times wondered if a real message is getting through.
But today I took a risk and asked the actors (in the 10-and-under set) what they thought they’d be teaching the congregation today. A boy raised his hand and said, “That Jesus is still being born every day.” And so I thought: ok. That’s a win. The dry humor is ok. The script is ok.
All that to say I don’t have a ton of inner fuel right now to devote to the very complicated scriptures that consistently comprise our readings for Advent. But the Gospel reading today is one of my favorite stories about Jesus – so here it is.
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.”
It’s one of my favorites, I think, because I have such a complicated emotional response to it. And a lot feels unclear to me. Is John asking Jesus to come help him get out of prison? Or is he just asking to Jesus to confirm for him what John had believed? Is Jesus telling him he’s not going to help him, or is he just trying to reassure John that everything is going as planned?
I tend to read this story in the more complicated way: John is saying to Jesus, in effect, “You’re the Messiah, right? Gonna come help me out here?”
And Jesus replies, “I’m doing the work I was called to do: healing, bringing life, giving hope. Not… getting my cousin out of jail.”
Then, what I really love is the paragraph after, where Jesus says to the people around him, “Who did you think I am? Some super nice guy who never hurts anyone’s feelings? Someone who wears nice clothes and looks impressive? Sorry, that’s not me.”
I think what I like about this is that it feels like an outburst. It feels like Jesus expressing his own anger and ambivalence about the nature of his work in the world. It feels like Jesus saying, “I wish I could do everything, and be everything to everyone, but I … can’t right now.”
I like it because it’s so incredibly human, and gives me a window into the inner struggle Jesus faced. And it mirrors struggles in my own life, too, where I have had to say to myself, “I know that everyone will like me better if I fit into this mold, or don’t tell them how this is affecting me, or pretend that everything is ok. But I can’t.”
It’s not a good feeling. It’s the feeling of deeply disappointing other people. It really sucks.
And yet, it is necessary to everyone who has a sense of vocation.
Someone asked me a few years ago what my best advice for seminarians would be. I thought for a second and said, “Be careful not to confuse anyone’s best hopes for you with your vocation.”
It is something I have struggled with my whole life. Learning how to disappoint people is a tough thing to learn. I love that Jesus feels angry about having to do it, too.