Mandela and John the Baptist: When Jesus Doesn’t Come to the Rescue
There are some moments in life that just make your heart ache.
That is definitely the case for me when I read our gospel story today.
John the Baptist, the mighty, fiery, wild man John, has finally been brought low.
The physical deprivations of living in the wilderness on nothing but locusts and wild honey couldn’t do it. The hoards of desperate people begging him for baptism couldn’t do it. The jeering remarks of the Pharisees couldn’t do it.
But at last, the being on death row in prison has done what nothing else could do.
John’s fire has been put out.
He is at his absolute lowest point, probably in his entire life. And at that moment, suddenly everything seems worthless and the premise on which he has built his entire life seems questionable at best and absurd at worst.
How many of us have been in his exact spiritual shoes before?
And it doesn’t take death row to bring us there.
The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the simple daily grind of life can bring us to a point where we’re not sure it’s worth it anymore.
And that place can get very dangerous, very fast.
Part of what makes this story so painful is what doesn’t happen.
Jesus doesn’t come to rescue John from prison.
John is his very own cousin, rotting away in prison and fearing for his life.
How could Jesus not go and knock the prison walls down and break open John’s chains and help him escape and go free?
John must surely be asking himself these questions.
He is asking on behalf of Israel, but he is also asking for himself: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Are you going to help me out of this, Jesus, or not?
We know the answer is “not.”
And with the benefit of the retrospective of history, we understand why.
Jesus had to have time to impart his teachings before he gave himself up to the cross. If he had gone and broken John out of prison, there would have been a tremendous uproar with the Romans and they likely would both be back in jail and executed immediately.
Well, didn’t Jesus have the power to stop that too?
He could flatten an entire Roman legion with the lift of one eyebrow.
I always thought if I were a follower of Jesus I would never wonder why he didn’t just sweep out the oppressors and declare himself king, but here for the first time John’s pain is making me long for that.
But Jesus only used his power in very specific ways.
He did the great big showboating miracles like walking on the water and the Transfiguration for the very specific purpose of getting people’s attention long enough to teach them something important, and he did the healing miracles because his heart so overflowed with love for suffering people that he almost couldn’t contain the grace and strength flowing out of him into them.
He never used his power for any military or political purpose. That wasn’t why he came to Earth, and that’s part of why he didn’t rescue John.
It makes sense, but it still hurts.
It still hurts to think of John in that prison cell trying to keep the fire of his faith alive but feeling it start to flicker and die.
What happens to us when we are in that situation?
What happens when we ask if Jesus is going to rescue us from something and the answer appears to be no?
There is someone who understands what John was feeling perhaps better than any of us.
His name was Nelson Mandela, and we celebrated his life and legacy this week.
What is it like to be a prophet in prison?
John the Baptist knew, and Nelson Mandela knew.
Mandela was a Christian. I wonder if he ever sat in his jail cell on Robben Island and wondered why Jesus didn’t come and break him out.
I wonder if he asked the questions of doubt and faith that John asked, that we all ask when our backs are against the wall.
Mandela had a happy ending, praise God.
Justice was eventually served. He got out of prison, went on to become South Africa’s first democratically elected president, and lived to a fruitful old age, inspiring millions across the globe with his witness of integrity and equality.
John the Baptist did not have a happy ending.
Jesus did not come to the rescue and John was executed on a rash and stupid promise by a petty ruler.
It is so wrong that it hurts to think about.
We see John here at his lowest moment and we fear that his despair clouded and shadowed his last days on Earth and he went to his death full of regret and fear.
But I don’t think it happened that way.
I think he had this human doubting moment like any of the rest of us have, but I think the strength of his passion for God and preparing the way for Jesus won out in the end.
We don’t have the luxury of knowing what happened, what his emotional and spiritual state was in his last hours.
But I have a feeling that John went to his death still preaching that we must prepare a highway in the desert for our God, that the Lamb of God is here to bring the kingdom in.
The question we have to ask ourselves is not whether we have the lows of doubt and despair that John had, because we all do.
We have two questions to ask ourselves.
First, are we willing to work and sacrifice and pour ourselves out for Christ even if we don’t get a happy ending?
And do we believe that redemption and new life will shine through even if it comes in unexpected ways, even if we never get to see it ourselves?
That is the prophet’s way, not just John the Baptist but Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Isaiah.
They all lived in extremely hard circumstances, with complicated, painful personal lives along with their nation falling apart around their ears.
They knew that the price of their integrity might be their lives.
But like Mandela, like John the Baptist, like Jesus, the message that they carried was worth any burden they had to bear, any trial they had to endure.
Though the struggle with oppression was long and hard and seemed to have very few rewards at times, think of the passion that shines through these prophets, their words, their deeds, their lives.
They lived for God and it shone through them like a blinding light.
So maybe we’re stuck in prison from time to time.
But that has no power to dim the light of our witness to Jesus Christ.
Sometimes our task is as big telling the world the good news of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes our task is as small as simply keeping the flickering flame of our own spirit alive when it is sputtering and dying.
But as Jesus tells John the amazing things that are happening because he hung on through the tough times to keep proclaiming Christ, so too may we look back one day and see that our hard-earned devotion has changed our small corner of the world for the better.
It was true for Mandela. It was true for John the Baptist. It can be true for us.