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There’s something very human about buyer’s remorse.
In a few weeks we’ll be seeing that up close as the return lines get long after Christmas. Although less and less in retail stores and more and more in post offices and UPS Stores. A few months ago I made an Amazon return and discovered for the first time that I didn’t even have to box up my item—just to bring it to the UPS Store and they would box it up for me. Companies are realizing that making their return policies easier actually makes them more money, as customers get more likely to buy in the first place. Buyer’s remorse is all part of the business plan.
This Sunday we hear about John the Baptist apparently experiencing a case of buyer’s remorse. This time last week we heard John predicting that someone more important than himself was coming. Between last week’s gospel passage and this one, Jesus himself was baptized by John, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in a public display of God’s favor.
But since then John has been arrested. His ministry is over. His execution is imminent. And it seems he’s begun to wonder whether his successor is really what he’d hoped. Like a politician in primary season, he worries: did I endorse the wrong candidate? “Are you really the one who is to come? Or should we wait for another?”
We might wonder what the problem is—why the buyer’s remorse? As Jesus says, he’s healing the sick, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor. What more does John want?
And the passage doesn’t tell us directly. But I wonder if the answer has to do with John’s expectations about what the Messiah was supposed to do. Last week we heard John warning people about God’s wrath to come. He predicted that when the coming one appeared, he would fry sinners in, quote, an “unquenchable fire.” John’s motivational technique was centered around a heavy dose of threat. Whereas among all the good and exciting things Jesus is doing, healing the lepers and proclaiming good news and so forth … we have to admit there seems to be a conspicuous lack of frying.
It may be that John expected a Messiah with more teeth. Someone who would open up a can of heavenly rectitude and set sinners in their place. Israel is oppressed by the Roman Empire, and instead of overthrowing Caesar or setting fire to the unrighteous, the person John has put his hopes on is going around a small corner of Galilee doing some very nice healings and proclaiming some very nice good news to the poor.
It’s interesting that Jesus tells the crowd that John is both more important than anyone else who’s ever been born, and less important than the least important person in the kingdom of heaven. In one breath he praises John; in the next he puts him in his proper place.
And again, Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly what he means. But it might have to do with the fact that John the Baptist is the ultimate preacher of God’s commands.
There’s a stark and terrifying truth about God that we as human beings have to come to terms with. God is holy. God is incredibly holy in a way you and I will never be. God is good—in fact God is the essence of what it means to be good. And out of that holiness and goodness, God is pleased when we act in some ways. And God is saddened and angered when we act in other ways. Many of us might prefer a cozy God who winks at our failings. John yanks away any gauzy sentimentality we might have about God. Change your lives, he says to God’s people: live the way God wants you to live … or else.
And it might be that or else that shows what John still lacks. For John it means or else the unquenchable fire. Not for Jesus. In Jesus we see both God’s perfect commandments and God’s never-failing mercy all in one. Jesus doesn’t wink at sin. He calls out injustice. And yet his response to it is not to torture his enemies into submission but to win them over through undefeatable love.
It’s easy to be tempted to remake Jesus in the image John would have preferred. A few years ago the bestseller lists were topped by what was essentially a Christian fan fiction series about the end times. You may remember it; it was called the Left Behind series. The last book in the series climaxes with the second coming of Jesus. And this time he’s taking no prisoners. I quote:
“Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, … fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ. … It was as if Antichrist’s army had become the sacrificial beasts for the Lord’s slaughter.”
Now I can only call this a kind of Christ-as-Rambo theology. And, with respect to my more conservative Christian siblings, I have to say it misses the whole point of who Jesus is. As if the character of Jesus we see in the gospels, the one who forgives his enemies from the cross, was just a mask that he’ll take off at the end when he quits offering second chances and comes out with all guns blazing. According to that theology, Jesus is just another coercive, violent tyrant like any other—only with superpowers. And you’d better get on his side of things before time runs out, or else.
That may have been the kind of Messiah John was expecting. But thank God that’s not the Messiah who showed up in Jesus. And if Advent tells us anything, it’s that the Jesus who will come again in glory is the same Jesus who came the first time. The same holiness. The same goodness. And the same mercy. This is the one who chose not to be born in a palace, but in a manger: to parents who weren’t important enough to get a room at the inn. He chose to ride into Jerusalem not in a chariot to be crowned, but on a donkey to be executed. He chose not to destroy those who killed him, but to destroy death itself.
“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” says Jesus. May we never be offended by a God who is more merciful than we are. And at his coming, may we not cower, but rejoice.