During a church trip to Israel eight years ago, my husband Charlie and I visited Herodium—a site named for and built by King Herod the Great about 20 years before Jesus was born. The Jewish King Herod was a master architect. His projects included renovating the Jerusalem Temple, the fortress of Masada, and the harbor city at Caesarea. At Herodium, Herod forced thousands of slaves, to move millions of tons of soil and rocks from a nearby hill, forming a human-made summit. Herod was known as a king who moved mountains. Seven stories up, Herod built a grand palace, the third largest in the Roman world. With an amphitheater, Olympic-size pool, and a fancy tomb for himself. A desert castle for an evil king.
During our Herodium tour, we climbed a steep path to the top. After exploring the site, our Palestinian guide led us down through the middle of the structure by a long, dark, rickety staircase. A dizzying descent made even worse by my fear of heights. I went last, thinking that if I slipped, there’d be plenty of people to break my fall! Herod built his palace on the site of a military victory, eight miles south of Jerusalem. You can see it from Bethlehem, where according to Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod ordered the genocide of innocent Jewish children in his scheme to kill the baby Jesus.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is talking about Herodium, when he says to the crowds, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?.... Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.” Which sounds a lot like a critique of King Herod and his descendants, and their conspiracy with the Roman Empire. A royal family so decadent and conniving, they’d be perfect characters for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Jesus contrasts these rich tyrants to John the Baptist. In our Gospel lesson, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question. For John was not in one of Herod’s palaces, but in his prison. Before this, John had an exciting ministry—baptizing thousands of people. Then King Herod Agrippa, son of Herod the Great, arrests him. It’s clear that this King Herod wants John dead. And sitting alone in a dark prison cell, John the Baptist is deeply discouraged. For John believed God had sent him to proclaim redemption—a new dawn rising for the people of God. John believed what the prophet Isaiah says in our first lesson: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. [Who] will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. [God] will come and save you." (Isaiah 35:3-4) John believed that Jesus was going to set his people free from the Romans. That God would impeach Herod and install a just ruler over Israel.
Then Jesus started his ministry. But the apocalyptic coup predicted by John never happens. And John has serious doubts. John doubts whether Jesus is the “coming one.” John doubts the path he has gone down. John doubts his own voice. With all these doubts, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus a crass question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” But Jesus doesn’t give a simple reply. Jesus doesn’t say that he’s the Messiah. Jesus doesn’t campaign against King Herod. Instead, Jesus tells John’s disciples to look around and see what’s happening. Jesus offers glimpses of the Kingdom of God and the best summary of his ministry found in the Gospels. A list of promises fulfilled. Like a mission statement, Jesus lists his goals and accomplishments: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” But those words confused John. John expected Jesus to usher in a new divine government. A complete turnaround of the political situation. However, not long after this, John is executed by King Herod. John never saw what he hoped for.
Today, I think, many of us have similar expectations. We hope someone or something will change what’s happening in our nation. A lot of us are overwhelmed with apprehension and fear about what the future holds. Like John the Baptist, we want to see an end to oppressive empires and evil rulers. But Jesus doesn’t promise that kind of kingdom. Instead, Jesus promises that if we follow him, we will catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Jesus says that even the least of those in the Kingdom are greater than a prophet like John. Greater than any ruler like a Jewish King Herod or the Roman Caesar or any American president. For Jesus sees something John couldn’t see. Jesus knows that the rulers of this world are not the ones who make a nation great. Jesus says that the weakest in this world are those who are great in the eyes of God. That’s not the way the world sees things. But that’s where we as followers of Jesus find hope. Hope when we feel disheartened. Hope when we’ve lost our way in this world. Hope that even in the darkest night, the light of Christ will shine. Hope that Jesus will keep his promises.
Recently, I’ve caught some glimpses of that light. Even among the least of those in our world. One day this week, I had lunch with a gay man who shared with me that a few years ago he had a stroke and lost his sight. But the miracles of modern medicine—and a lot of prayers—saved him from blindness. So, he can still see the light of love in the eyes of caring people. On Tuesday, I saw more light with the start of our new mosaic project at Churches United for the Homeless. Of course, it was a bitterly cold day. The kind of day when you don’t want to get out of bed. I wondered if anyone would come. But we had 12 volunteers, who one after another, walked in and started working together. Kind of like the quilting bees that church ladies at St. Mark’s used to do—where you sit and talk and laugh. Where today we share good news in a place where the poor and homeless live.
On Wednesday morning, I glimpsed another shining light, when Greta Thunberg was named Time Magazine's “Person of the Year.” Which is really amazing—amazing that they chose a16-year-old teen—the youngest person to ever receive the award. Instead of more famous nominees like Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or Taylor Swift, or Rudy Giuliani. Time describes Greta as the “biggest voice on the biggest issue facing the planet.” Last December, the Lutheran Church of Sweden lovingly called Greta the “successor of Jesus.” Despite living with Asperger Syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder and selective mutism, last year Greta founded a grassroots climate movement. Greta calls Asperger her “superpower.” A gift that she says makes her different. It also means that she speaks “only when it's necessary.” And “now,” she says, “is one of those moments.” *
Greta has also demonstrated that she is a clever prophet. One who knows how to respond to this world’s most powerful critic. This week, she changed her Twitter account (with 3.5 million followers) to describe herself as:
“A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old-fashioned movie with a friend.” Like John the Baptist of long ago, Greta’s prophetic voice cries out to those who today are deaf to environmental issues. I believe that Greta is a one of the “least among us” that Jesus describes as truly great in the Kingdom of God. And like Greta, today Jesus is calling each of us to bring glimpses of the light of God into the dark night of this world. Until (as the old Advent hymn says) we see the day of earth’s redemption. That sets our people free. Amen.
*Brady, Jeff (28 August 2019). "Teen Climate Activist Greta Thunberg Arrives in New York After Sailing The Atlantic". NPR.org. Archived from the original on 2 October 2019.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “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.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 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. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”