John was disappointed; He had wanted Jesus to be the mighty warrior who drove out the Romans. He believed that the Messiah would bring the reign of God to the earth with power and triumph and glory. Instead, Jesus had wandered around the countryside teaching and healing and bringing reconciliation. There was no army, no battle, no victory. And John began to doubt that Jesus was really the Messiah after all. So he sent a message to him, a message which was both poignant and desperate. “Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?” And Jesus puts the question right back in John’s lap. “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.”
The proofs of the Kingdom are the works of the Kingdom. If you want to know who Jesus is, pay attention to what he does. Jesus is showing the power of God and beginning the reign of God by what he says and what he does. And, the power of God is not the same as human power. Jesus is not about raising armies or winning wars. The power of God is the power of love. John doesn’t get it.
He can’t see that Jesus’ power is far greater than human power, and it looks so different that he completely misses what it really is. One of the ironies of the Gospel story is that the people who should most easily understand what Jesus is really about, like John the Baptist and Peter, for example, miss the point so often. And the people who really do get it, who understand that the power of God can change the world, tend to be people like the Romans and Herod, who are threatened by the message and ready to kill Jesus. One of the stories of Jesus’ birth that we conveniently skip over is Herod’s massacre of the children, which was done simply because Herod understood that Jesus’ power threatened his own. Entrenched power – economic or political or social – always has to work very hard to keep that power. It is one of the things that makes it so different from the power of love, which grows by being given away.
But as distracted as we get by human power, we still hunger for the power of God’s love. Two things this week brought that home to me. The first was the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela. It seemed as if the whole world turned out for that event. Television and social media were packed with remembrances of this extraordinary person, someone who did the works of the Kingdom – who met evil with good and hatred with forgiveness and reconciliation. South Africa could so easily have disintegrated into hatred and war after the end of apartheid, but under the leadership of people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, the country has managed to stay intact and even to begin to narrow the terrible gap between rich and poor that exists there. It is so different a story from so many other countries that we are forced to acknowledge the power of love to change history. And though most of us struggle just to love our friends, much less our enemies, the life of Nelson Mandela proves that regular men and women like you and me have the power to live lives of extraordinary love and power. All we need are the courage and imagination that God is always ready to give us.
The second event was Time Magazine naming Pope Francis its Person of the Year. This man does something almost every day that surprises and delights me. The problem with the Church – and I am talking about the Christian Church, not just the Roman Catholic, but all of us – the problem is that the Church is an institution. And institutions have ways of being and behaving that are pretty much standard. Institutions have a strong survival instinct. They live to perpetuate themselves. Making themselves stronger, bigger and richer is important. That may work pretty well if the institution is P&G or a bank. It does not work so well if the institution is the Christian Church, whose founder made it very clear that we only live by laying down our lives, by giving it all away, by letting go of what we hold most dear. And for two thousand years, the Church has struggled with that, wanting to live as Jesus told us and showed us, but way too often choosing instead, security, wealth and power. Pope Francis is showing us a different way to be the Church.
He doesn’t ride in a limousine but in a ten year-old car. He doesn’t live in the Papal apartments, but in a modest guest room. He doesn’t do what people expect of him. It even turns out that he has been sneaking out of the Vatican at night to spend time with people who are poor and homeless. What he does isn’t showy or flashy. It is just a Christian man trying to live the Christian life in the way he believes is most faithful And the world is hungry for that example. For people who have been turned off by the Church’s self-interest and selfish disregard for the poor, this is witness to something very different and quite wonderful. And again, like Nelson Mandela, this man is not a superhero. He is just like us, and he is making choices that any of us could make as well.
If we make the choices of the Kingdom – to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, to bring a new vision to the world – people may misunderstand or be threatened. But other people, people who are hungry for the Kingdom of God, will see what we are doing and respond. If we want to attract people to the Church, we cannot do it by being bigger or richer or more powerful. We CAN do it by doing acts of love and healing and reconciliation. If we want to prove that Jesus is real, we can do it by doing the things that Jesus did.
And the world is desperate for that. Let us celebrate the coming of Jesus by doing the things Jesus would have us do. In that way, we can change the world as powerfully as Nelson Mandela or Pope Francis. And that is what the coming of Jesus should be about.