Marathon runners talk about hitting the wall,
The 20th mile wall.
Both my sister and my brother-in-law
Talked of it
Even though it is only some six miles from finishing,
The 20th mile is like a sky-high brick wall.
The summit too high to see over
Let alone surmount.
Transcending this wall requires a little boost
A boost from the crowds
The crowds cheer—not just for friends and family—
But for all the runners.
My sister, Erin, talked about having her name on her shirt
So people could cheer for her by name.
Strangers cheering her forward.
Cheers that reminded her that the wall she saw was mythical.
The finish line within her stride–
Even if she couldn’t quite see it yet.
I think that’s a bit how we find John the Baptist today.
He’s hitting the 20th mile wall.
Think about it,
This is the faithful follower
Who has survived on honey and locusts
Who walked away from any kind of comfort
Who proclaims the coming of the Messiah regardless the personal cost
Who baptized Jesus in the Jordan.
Today we find him in jail.
I don’t think this is what he had in mind the day he washed Jesus in the Jordan.
I can’t help but wonder if he thought he’d passed the torch
Finished his job
And was ready to hang up his camel coat.
Or if not retire
He probably expected to find paved ground to walk on.
It can’t have been easy being the one called to prepare a way in the wilderness
Paving the way for all other followers
That is not an easy call.
So when Jesus finally shows up to be baptized
I can’t help but think John might have expected life to get easier
At least a smidge
Keep in mind, John believes that Jesus is the Messiah
The One to free the Jews from oppression
The One to bring salvation to them with power and might
God with us—almighty God with us.
Certainly that wouldn’t mean Jesus’ followers would be put in prison
Especially John, himself. John had already worked so hard. Sacrificed so much.
If Jesus is so powerful, where was Israel’s salvation? Where was John’s?
John’s question makes sense to me…
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
So here we have John—the Baptist, the first disciple
The prophet we like to keep in the attic like a crazy relative in a gothic novel
Asking the very question some of us might wonder as we nod off to sleep at night:
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
And Jesus’ answer is so Jesus
He doesn’t answer directly
“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.”
I can almost hear John’s inner monologue while he waits in prison:
These are all wonderful and miraculous
But in comparison to freeing an entire people?
Jesus, where’s your warrior might? Where’s your power?
I went all in for you.
Last week when the Pharisees and Sadducees approached me I spoke up and out.
Where’s the baptism of fire and your winnowing hook?
Why am I the one that feels burned?
I thought I was one of the ransomed that would be brought home to the Lord. I can’t believe I have spent my lifetime wandering in the wilderness for this.
I can understand John hitting the 20th mile wall.
There are definitely times in my faith journey where I feel like I’ve hit that wall too.
I imagine there are moments as a church community where you’ve felt that way too
You’ve gone all in
Given it your all
Set your sights on Jesus and followed
Only to discover that where you’re being led doesn’t look or feel a thing
Like the Hallmark Christmas movies playing twenty-four seven on TV.
Only to unwrap a future that looks nothing like what you planned…and what you truly thought God had planned for you.
Surely salvation is like a Hallmark Christmas movie, isn’t?
That’s what this season is all about…
Comfort and Joy
Rough places being made plain
Streams shall run through the desert
And there will be no more lions.
That sounds like a Hallmark movie to me.
So why is it that the Christian life isn’t a smooth highway to a golden palace in the sky?
Where is 8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus,
Who sleeps peacefully in his mother’s arms?
Where’s the scene from O Little Town of Bethlehem–
Are we doing something wrong?
If we really listen to Jesus in today’s Scripture
I think we might be looking for him in all the wrong places.
He reminds his followers
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.
John is not living a life of luxury
And neither is Jesus.
Jesus is not Santa Claus.
Salvation isn’t a commodity to be purchased, packaged, and delivered Christmas morning.
Faith isn’t an entrance pass into a life of luxury.
Does not come in on a white steed
Leading the Calvary to clear the land of lions.
Instead Jesus brings good news to the poor and individual healing and miracles
Small miracles when compared to the scale John expected.
Small moments of healing and grace
Amid the tumult of our world.
At first this might not seem like such Good News
But take a moment and think about it.
Would you really want to follow a God who answered prayers like Santa answers wishes on Christmas lists?
When you’re hitting a twentieth mile wall,
Would you find comfort in a God who only rode on a white horse and hadn’t spent time in prison?
The Jesus that John follows and questions
Is a Jesus who has the strength to hear hard questions
And the courage to live on this messy planet with both feet on the ground.
I believe this Jesus brings healing and hope in the midst of the heartache and poverty of real life.
He offers new life
Like the most recent school shooting this Friday in Colorado.
Another real life horror story.
In this story the teacher, whom the gunman sought, intentionally left the building to lure the gunman away from the other students.
In this story, the first responders entered the school immediately rather than waiting around the perimeter.
Responders have learned this lessens the likelihood of casualties.
Friday there were fewer casualties.
In the middle of a violent and horrific scene, there were glimpses of grace and Good News. Moments pointing to a God who dwells in the tragedy seeking any crevice to bring in healing and hope.
These moments might not be the first place we look.
They certainly are not the promise of a faith life walked on Easy Street
For we, like John, will have our own 20th mile moments.
Like John, we are free to ask—are you the one who is to come?
We are invited to listen for God’s answer and to seek the places
Jesus is born in our midst today.