It must have been really hard for John the Baptist. The first we hear of him in any of the books after his birth is some thirty years later when he is out in the wilderness ranting and raving and calling for the people to repent, to change their way of seeing the divine. But something he said must have hit a chord within the people because they came. Maybe they came because they thought he was a little weird and they wanted to see the weird guy ranting and raving in the hair shirt eating the locusts with honey. But a lot of them stayed. So we can guess that a lot of those people felt the same emptiness that many people today feel.
And John must have been pretty damn important too. He is an important figure in at least four different religions, Islam, Christianity, Mandaeanism (where he is considered the messiah), and Bahai. It is the gospel of Luke that declares that John and Jesus are cousins. Of the four gospels, only John does not give an account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. It is often regarded that both John and Jesus were at one time among the Essenes who lived at Qumran, a small monastic-type community, not far from Las Vegas, uh, Jerusalem.
But, as I say, it must have been hard for John. All these people began to follow him and listen to his teachings. And most of them wanted to see him as the long awaited messiah and he had to say that he wasn’t. He had to tell them that another guy was coming. And once this guy came, they were all supposed to follow HIM. So John was a falling star of sorts. He had to know that his fame and followers weren’t to last. Once Jesus came on the scene to be baptized, he had to know that it was he was to decrease and Jesus was to increase. Lucky for him Herod Antipas threw his ass in prison.
John had been making King Herod mighty unhappy with his comments about his marriage. It seems that Herod had married his brother’s wife. Now why this should be so bad is not clear because it was according to Mosaic Law that should a brother die without child, it was the duty of the remaining brother to marry his wife in order to produce children. But clearly this woman was no Lady Diana because she had that shrewish little daughter Salome who, thanks to her terpsichorean skills, manages to bring about the death of John. Although the historian claims that Herod had John killed to avert an uprising. Either way, John ended up in prison for a little while, and that must of bothered him.
He obviously had a lot of time to think in that cell, to think and to have doubts, because he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus just who he was really (which leads me to believe that maybe they weren’t cousins after all):
When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why 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: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.’ Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.
“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”
At that time Jesus said in reply, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.
So John was worried that maybe Jesus wasn’t the one. He had to ask. But it is interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t say, “Tell him not to worry. Tell him I’m the one.” He says to look around. The blind see. The lame walk. Jesus knows that it is a matter of faith. John has to believe because he believes, not because Jesus or anybody else says so. You don’t come to believe in God because people tell you to believe. That isn’t faith. That will fall aside at the first bad moment. You have to believe because you have come to believe. You have found the divine within yourself. And you can’t find it without looking for it. Even if Jesus had said to tell John not to worry, that he was indeed the messiah, that wouldn’t have made John believe. Belief is actually a step of faith when you make that leap from uncertainty to certainty. Belief is knowing the cars will stop at the red light so you can walk across the street. Faith is actually stepping off the curb.
Some say that John knew who Jesus was all along. Some would say that John sent his disciples on that mission so they could hear it from the lips of Jesus. But somehow I think it’s more likely that John was sitting in jail and wanting to be sure that it wasn’t all for nothing, that he wasn’t going to lose his head for another false spiritual bozo. Even the Beatles fell for the Maharishi. I think he wanted to be sure, just as we all do. Even for people who think they’ve found their way, there are those moments you just wish God would give you a sign or something that you’re heading in the right direction. And the only sign we ever get is the same sign Jesus gave John. Look around you. What more do you need to see?
When I think of the number of times God has pulled my ass out of the fire, I feel ashamed that I could ever have any doubts, but they spring up all the time. And I mean to tell you, there are events that have happened in my life that are surely miracles. There is no other way to explain them. I guess it’s just the way we are. No matter how sure we think we are, there are moments. Even Jesus cried out to God on the cross feeling lost and forsaken. And like the man in the gospel story, I ask the divine to help me in my unbelief.
And then Jesus turns to the crowd and shouts, “What did you people go out in the desert to see, anyway? It wasn’t for the scenery! Did you go out there to see some king? Hell no! You went out to see a prophet. And John was more than a prophet! He was that guy Isaiah was talking about. It’s been a long time since you guys had a prophet, and John was one.” Jesus knows. Why would you go out into the desert to hear some crazy guy? There were looking for something, that’s why. They were hoping for a messiah. That’s because we all want somebody ELSE to show us the way. And there’s only ONE person who can find the right path for you. And you know who that is.
So Jesus says to them all that they are like a bunch of people shouting they’d played the flute for him, but he didn’t dance and they’d sung a dirge, but he didn’t grieve. He wasn’t what they expected, or even wanted. They had bitched about John because he was so ascetic and they bitched about Jesus because he ate at feasts and had a good time. Nobody could be the person the expected. Certainly nobody could be the type of messiah that everybody expected. And their problem was that they were looking at the man and not the message. They didn’t listen to John because of who he was. They didn’t listen to Jesus for the same reason. But they never once actually listened to the message. They looked at the miracles. Oh, they loved the miracles. But they didn’t listen to what either of them was saying. And we do the same thing today.
Half of you out there, who don’t like Christianity, dislike it because of the people who practice it and preach it. And everybody LOVES to hold up the Jim Bakkers and the Pat Robertsons and the Jerry Falwells of the world to point out what is wrong with Christianity. But Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell aren’t the message. Neither is John. Neither was Jesus, really. The message was that we can all live in harmony with God and that God love’s us and that we should just have faith that everything is going to be just the way it is supposed to be, really it is. The message isn’t about rules and regulations. It isn’t about being good or bad. God is not some celestial Santa Claus.
I am the biggest fraud and hypocrite in the world! I am a total sham! I wish it weren’t so, but it is. I tell everybody else about being loving and forgiving and taking care of one another and I fail at it on a daily basis. I’m selfish and greedy and arrogant and patronizing and conceited and nearly about every kind of horrible thing I could possibly imagine, except cruel-I have to say I’m not a mean guy. At least I can say that much. But in spite of every failing I have, and they are many, the truth I speak is still the truth. The fact that I’m a royal son of a bitch doesn’t change the truth. There is an energy in this universe of love and creation. This energy permeates all things. We are a part of this energy and it is a part of us. It loves us, whatever love is. And the only real happiness comes from being a part of it, or more correctly, recognizing that we are a part of it.
And, as Jesus points out so well, “wisdom is vindicated by her works.” When I look at people, not just the famous ones, like Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr., but ordinary people like you and me, who spend their entire lives in service to others, I am shamed. And while the divine is present in those people, just as the divine is present in me, I don’t look for God in those people. God is in the things they do. God is in the love they share. God is in the comfort they give. God is present in every hug and every smile, every friendly touch we give. God is a verb.
Just like those people thousands of years ago, we all have expectations. We are all waiting for something to happen. And what happens, happens when we aren’t looking. And we don’t realize it’s happened until it’s already happened. But we didn’t see it because we were expecting something else. We are all out in the wilderness looking for that prophet, for that someone to show us the way. And we don’t find it because we’re all looking outside of ourselves to find it. But Jesus himself said the kingdom of heaven is within. If you are waiting for something to happen, you have to make it happen yourself.
Like John, we are all going to have those moments when we are going to wish we had just some kind of sign, some insurance. And the only message we get is to have faith, be patient. Look around you. The world is pretty fucked up. In all this chaos, however, there are still those people who share love, who make this miserable place beautiful.
I know a teacher who has her kindergarten students tell how to make a Thanksgiving turkey. Naturally, they don’t know how and the recipes they come up with are pretty funny. They have funny ideas about how that Thanksgiving feast is prepared. But I remember one in particular. One child wrote, “You go buy your turkey at the “turkey store” and then you take it home and cook it. Then you go and buy another one, and give it to someone who doesn’t have a turkey.” You read that, and then tell me that God isn’t present in the world. Go on. Tell me. It really is the childlike who understand.