Matthew 11:2-15, Mark 6:14-29
Voices from Prison: John the Baptist
We almost didn’t hear about John the Baptist today. Last week, as I started thinking about Jeremiah, and about this whole sermon series really, I realized that most - not quite all but most - of the people who we read about who are detained, jailed, or imprisoned in the Bible are people whose law-breaking included some form of speaking up, speaking a truth, speaking out that was not allowed, or seriously not appreciated by the leaders of the day. Remember, Jeremiah was imprisoned multiple times for saying things that the King didn’t want to hear - namely that the war would fail and the King himself would be captured. Well, John the Baptist also ends up in jail for speaking out in ways that the King does not want to hear, and I was worried I would have two sermons in a row on the very same themes. But as I started digging in more to the text last week, I felt the real message I wanted to share was about God’s redemption and our struggle to accept it for ourselves and others.
That leaves us free to talk about John this week, thankfully, and spend time with one of I think the most fascinating figures in the Bible. We have two texts today that focus on John and his time in prison. In our first reading, we find John in prison already, and Matthew tells us that he has heard “what the Messiah was doing.” What Jesus had been doing was teaching, sharing parables, healing, and sending out disciples to do the same, announcing the good news: God’s reign was at hand, here on earth right now. So John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Remember, when John was doing his own preaching, when he kept talking about this coming Messiah, he kept describing someone very different than Jesus seems to be. John talked about the wrath to come. He described a Messiah arriving with a winnowing fork, ready to separate good and bad, tossing what wasn’t needed into the fire. And then Jesus arrived showing compassion at every turn, spending time eating with them, visiting in their homes, showering people with love. John needs to ask: Are you really the one? Or is someone else, someone with a little more fire and brimstone going to come along soon? I think this question is critically important for John. He’s in prison. He can’t do the preaching and calling for repentance that he had been doing. But if Jesus is the Messiah, as John hoped, then it is ok. His task is complete: he prepared the way. If Jesus is not the Messiah, then being in jail is not something John can endure, because his work would not yet be done.
Instead of answering directly, Jesus describes the results of what he’s been up to. He says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John: 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.” Jesus’ words are practically lifted from the prophet Isaiah describing a messiah, and so John can be comforted: Jesus is the one, even if he has not arrived quite as John was expecting.
Once John’s disciples leave, Jesus talks about John to the crowds. He calls John a prophet, likening him to Elijah, a most-revered prophet. John is more than a prophet, Jesus says. He’s the one who announced the way of God’s salvation in the Messiah. No one is greater than John. But, Jesus says, “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What a verse - powerful and confusing! See, John marks the transition from one time to the next. All the prophets were setting the stage for the arrival of God’s reign on earth. But with Jesus, God’s reign on earth is here, and what we can do knowing that we live in God’s kin-dom right now is even more wonderful than the work of the prophets.
Then, in our reading from Mark, we hear how John ended up in prison in a flashback scene. King Herod is hearing reports about Jesus, and some of the reports suggest that Jesus is really John the Baptist, back from the dead. Indeed, Herod, who ordered John’s execution, believes this too. John was in prison for very publicly criticizing the king: Herod had married his brother’s wife, Herodias, after Herodias divorced him. This was not allowed according to the law of Moses, and for someone as important as the King to blatantly disregard the law was setting a very bad example, and just further illustrated how Herod was nothing more than a pawn for the occupying Roman government, not a spiritual leader for Israel. If it hadn’t been this particular bold speech, though, something else John said or did would have landed him in prison. John stirred people up, and the leaders didn’t want anyone causing unrest, anything that might challenge their power and authority.
Still, Mark tells us that Herod is taken with John. Herodias wants him put to death, but Herod protects him. Herod knows that John is righteous and holy. He’s confused by the ways John calls him and others to repent and change their ways. A man who is as ostensibly successful as Herod feels like they’re doing everything right, and to be told in fact they need to change everything is not welcome news. But, Mark tells us, he likes to listen to John nonetheless. Then an opportunity comes for Herodias to get rid of John at last. At his birthday banquet, his stepdaughter comes and dances for the guests, and in thanks, Herod promises her whatever she wants. Working with her mother, she seizes the opportunity, and asks for the head of John the Baptist. Herod, we read, is grieved, seeing too late the trap that’s been set. But, he’s made an oath in public, and he can’t - won’t - refuse it. A guard goes to the prison, and beheads John.
Do you think John believed, given his time in prison, and whatever moments he had to reflect on his impending execution, that raising his voice was worth it? That he would have spoken out still, given the chance to do it again? Why do you think John felt so compelled to speak things that had such potential dangerous consequences? Are there issues or events or people who would inspire you to speak up or speak out in ways that might be dangerous? Risky? Maybe your words might not land you in prison, but they could still have consequences, for your friendships, your job, your standing in the community. When is speaking up worth it?
It is risky still sometimes, speaking up and speaking out. We take warranted pride in in this country in the right to free speech. This 4th of July week we might be thinking about the law-breakers whose acts of protest and stirring words laid the foundation for the revolution that formed our nation! Their words and actions had big consequences, didn’t they? We prize free speech. But, we also have a history that shows there are limits on just how that speech can be delivered. Thankfully hate speech can have consequences - sometimes limits are needed. But I’m thinking of protest actions - from our quest for independence, to movements for women’s rights and Civil Rights, to people today who are marching to bring attention to causes for justice.
Throughout the course of history there’s been a tradition of prophets and political prisoners speaking from prison - writing letters, sharing messages. We’ll be hearing about the apostle Paul next week, and some of our scriptures in the Bible are letters that Paul wrote while in prison. I find Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail to be one of the most powerful pieces of writing there is. You’ll notice in your bulletin worksheet a link so that you can read the whole thing. King was writing particularly to white clergymen in Birmingham, because they had refused to support his cause in the Civil Rights movement. They agreed, in theory, with his quest for equal rights, but they didn’t like his techniques. They didn’t feel like King needed to break the law, or encourage others to do so, to achieve their aims. If they were just more patient, they argued, change would eventually come without all the “upset.” King responded with this letter.
He writes, in part: My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely” … I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." … I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns … so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town... Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…
Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." …
I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws … I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all." …
And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” (https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)
Prophets, it seems, are not fans of lukewarm responses to injustice. John the Baptist was definitely an extremist for the cause of Jesus. Are we? I ask us again: What issue or event or person would inspire you to speak up or speak out? What is it, who is it that is so important that you would break some rules, or at least push at some boundaries, suffer some consequences? As we look at John the Baptist, speaking boldly to share the message of Jesus, I’d like to suggest some guidelines that might help us discern when God is calling us toward risk-taking action.
Sometimes, we know it is time to speak up when we see injustice because God won’t leave us alone! When you find that you’ve seen the suffering of others, and you just can’t get the images, the stories out of your head, God may be urging you to speak and act. When God answers your prayers by putting before you again and again ways that you might get involved in advocacy and action, when you find your heart stirred, when you feel yourself responding with that gut-churning compassion that always moved Jesus to action, God may be urging you to speak and act.
Sometimes, we know it is time to speak up and take action when we realize that we might have a unique platform. When our voices can amplify voices of people who aren’t being heard, we might have a responsibility to take risky actions and speak up against injustice. I think about our United Methodist history, when women were first given the right to be seated as delegates to General Conference, our highest decision-making body. Before they won that right, men had to speak up for the rights of women, because women had no rights to a voice there. The men who were delegates had a platform that the women did not, and so the responsibility to speak up for what was right was on them. How can you use your voice to amplify the voice of others?
Sometimes, we know it is time to speak up and take action when the risk to us for speaking up is discomfort, or being disliked, but the risk to others when we don’t speak is life-threatening. Is our discomfort when we have to speak up boldly more important than ending injustice? No. I’ve told you before that I’m a conflict avoider. I struggle with this. I want everyone to get along, and let’s be honest: I want everyone to like me too. But does that mean I shouldn’t say things that might be hard to speak or hard to hear? My discomfort is less important than the suffering of others. We know it is time to speak when by speaking up we’re embodying the commandments to love God and neighbor. As much as Jesus recognized John the Baptist as the greatest of prophets, we who find our place in the reign of God have more potential power, more potential greatness, when we’re workers in embodying God’s reign on earth. With our place in God’s heart secure, how can we but speak up for truth and justice? Friends, let us be bold. Let us use the power, the voice God has given us. Let us speak the values of extreme love we know to be true through our life-saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Maybe there will be consequences. There always are, when we speak and act, and when we stay silent and still. But Jesus, the one we waited for, has come, and is with us always. Let speak and act in his name. Amen.