The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


John the Baptist Is the Anti-Christ.

Is it possible that the point of this text is that John was waiting for the wrong kind of Messiah?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Matthew 11:2-11

For Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010: Year A – Advent 3

John the Baptist is the anti-Christ. Or the Bizzaro-Christ. Put less hyperbolically, Jesus is not the one that John was waiting for. Maybe.

Imagining Jesus

My co-pastor at House of Mercy, Debbie Blue, preached a great sermon on last week’s Advent lectionary encounter with John, where she said (more artfully than I will here), that John the Baptist has spent his life proclaiming himself hoarse about looking forward to one that is more powerful than he. Power being the key here.

Jesus, however, is just not wielding the power the way John looking for, longing for, hoping for. John is imagining a rebel leader that breathes fire (and maybe a little brimstone), unquenchable fire.

Taken Aback

John is taken aback at his first encounter with this Messiah. Jesus comes to John to be baptized and John is so…what? Embarrassed? Confused? He is talking to Jesus out of the corner of his mouth, hoping the crowds won’t notice, “Get out of the water! This is not what I told the people would be happening! Where is the fire? I thought you were bringing fire!”

Jesus doesn’t seem to care that submitting to a baptism of repentance by John doesn’t fit with the story John’s been proclaiming. It doesn’t make him look very, well, powerful. And then Jesus just leaves. Sure he is taken away by the Spirit, but maybe John was thinking he would get to come along too.

Never Invited

I always wondered why John was not one of Jesus’ disciples. He seems like he would be the number one candidate. In the past I always put it on John, like he wanted to keep his gig going, but now it seems clear that he was never invited.

Of course things might have turned out differently if John hadn’t gotten arrested for taking on Herod. Did he take on Herod, because Jesus didn’t? He probably thought that was the logical first step in the revolution and Jesus was just wondering around healing people and worse yet teaching. Where was the inciting? The rallying? The storming of the gates?

So, when John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one they have been waiting for it is because he has serious doubts, he is going to lose his head he mistook Jesus for Messiah. Jesus answers them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed…and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Is that last part directed at John the Baptist?

The Hardest Question

When his disciples return and report what Jesus told them, does John the Baptist conclude that Jesus is not the one he was waiting for? Is it possible that the point of this text is that John was waiting for the wrong kind of Messiah?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Russell, I think that is a fascinating question. And if we answer in the affirmative, that John was indeed waiting for the wrong kind of Messiah, doesn’t that make him, well, pretty much like all the rest of us? Or, more precisely, it makes him like almost all of us modern, American Protestants.

    We protestants have divided and divided ad infinitum, perhaps mostly because we are searching for a Messiah that acts like we want Messiah to act. That is, we’re searching for Messiah that doesn’t ask us to change anything about how we treat people, what we believe, whom we hate, etc.

    Now I don’t know that I should disparage John in this same way, but perhaps, as you ask here, John really does fit that description too. Perhaps John is, in this way, not that dissimilar from the Pharisees, Zealots or other groups at the time who wanted Messiah to be whom they wanted *him* to be.

    Anyway, I’m preaching from the Magnificat this week, but this is still helpful. John might end up providing a foil for Mary. Perhaps Mary’s vision for what God would do with and through her child was so foreign to everyone’s expectations that even John misunderstood.

    At the risk of engaging in dualistic thinking, perhaps this text points out that, unless we share Mary’s vision, we too are waiting for the wrong kind of Messiah?

  2. Casey Goslin says:

    Wow!?! Having gronw up in the church and attending private faith based education from 3 years old through high school graduation with daily Bible classes never once have I looked at John this way. I too have wondered why John wasn’t called as a disciple, but never looked deeply at the reason why.

    With the amount of turmoil in the church I would agree we are looking for a Messiah that fits to our interpretation of scripture. wehn we don’t find it we change synods, create new denominations, or become our own expression of faith.

    The older I get, the ripe old age of 31 now, the more I realize Jesus will use what inspires us. For some it is the fire and brimstone Jesus showed in the Temple Marketplace, for others it’s the modern relational buddy Jesus approach as he had with his disciples and close friends, and yet for others it’s the blond hair blue eyed surfer Jesus who doesn’t smile unless there are kids around as pictated in modern art.

    The fact that Jesus did come, regardless of how, is the main thing. We can’t change Jesus to be what we want, but we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, become what Jesus wants us to become.

  3. Rev. Russell says:

    Dave, I think it would be great to run with the idea that we have the wrong Messiah. We have installed the Messiah John seemed to be looking for, on the alter. I think a “God with us” is very different than a “God fighting for us” like John would have. I have to admit,however, in this season of corporate driven consumption, I would love a savior to storm the office towers of the kings of the system that enslaves us.

  4. Thinking of the wrong Messiah(s) we follow reminds me of a talk Brian McLaren does on the (at least) 6 different Jesuses present in our current American cultural religious market. And thinking of that makes me realize that what I wrote before was inaccurate: we aren’t *waiting* on anybody! Most of us Christians, myself included, are already following whichever Jesus we prefer: Ticket-to-heaven Jesus or Warrior Jesus or Nice-guy-who-makes-youth-into-nice-kids Jesus, 6lb, 8oz Baby Jesus, etc.

    I want to follow the Jesus of the gospels: Liberating King Jesus who started a new kingdom, not a new religion. In other words, the Jesus about whom Mary sings. So I guess now my question is, how do I know that’s the Jesus I’m following? How can I avoid the trap of just following the Jesus that is most like me? The Jesus made in my own image by me? (Or perhaps better, how do I extricate myself from that trap?)

  5. I think it would be a great way to preach, talking about the different Jesus’ we are all waiting for.

    Also, another thing that has got me about this text is when Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” That seems kind of crazy, since he has made a point of being kind of offencive. Just look at the chapter previous. Maybe there is non of us, no not one that is not offended. It makes me think of Kierkegaard’s Great Offence. How do you read?

  6. Beth says:

    I read vs 6 “blessed is anyone…” as I read the beatitudes…as an indication of how the kingdom of God IS, not an individual moralistic directive. And the Greek for offense (skandalizo) here can be literally translated as “Blessed are they who are do not stumble over me.” I think Jesus is saying, “You can ask your questions…and then let them open your hearts and minds to my answers, because the answers aren’t going to match your expectations.”

    And then his answer to this challenge isn’t a speech about his identity, or a questioning of John’s intentions, or an outright claim of divinity…but a call to “go and tell what you hear and see”, of hurting people receiving gifts of healing and grace. It seems so simple. So doable. Not something to stumble over, but to embrace.

  7. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several e-mails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks a lot!

How do you read?