Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 11:1-15) transports me to a dark dungeon of a Palestinian prison, where John the Baptist is feeling the discouragement of death row weighing heavy on his mind and heart. Here is John, a prophet, a seer, someone who has had the capacity to recognize Jesus since before either of them were born, leaping in Elizabeth’s womb when his expectant Aunt Mary came to visit. And then John grew up into prophet-hood, making his way to the desert to preach repentance and to prepare the way for his cousin, the coming Messiah. He was there baptizing in the river Jordan when Jesus showed up, and John could see that he was not worthy to unloose Jesus’ sandals, much less baptize him, but Jesus insisted. John was present when the heavens opened and God gave the great confirmation, this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. John had eyes to see. Because of his vision and insight, he stuck his neck out on the line for his Savior. But prison changes things. It shifts perspective. It’s hard to see in prison. The prison walls and cell bars limit one’s line of sight. John’s eyes are cloudy now, and he begins to be plagued by disappointment, discouragement, and doubt. He sends a message to Jesus, a haunting question: Are you the One, or should we expect another? Are you the real deal, Jesus? Did I stick my neck out for the right person, for the right cause? What’s happening out there? What’s happening around the corner, where I can’t see? Give me a word, give me a sign. Do you think heaven could let its light shine down into the dark corner of this dungeon cell?
Jesus gives John some signs: the blind are receiving sight, lepers are being cured, the lame are walking, the dead are being raised, the poor are getting some good news. What do you think, cousin? Do you think this is enough to lose your head over? And then Jesus concludes the message with a curious commentary; From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. That dose of reality takes me back to a Baptist church I visited once in Birmingham, Alabama. The church, on the corner of 16th Street, had stuck its neck out back in 1963 as a rallying point for the civil rights movement. Early one Sunday morning white supremacist terrorists planted 122 sticks of dynamite with a delayed time-release just outside the basement of the three story church, and four young girls were killed during the Sunday School hour. The explosion blew out all but one stained-glass window. When I visited the church, I saw that lone remaining window that survived the violent bombing. It was portraying Jesus knocking on a door, but Christ’s face had been blown away by the blast.
I wonder, do we have eyes to see the bombarded Christ in our midst? Do we recognize Jesus with a blown out face knocking on our door? Are we willing to stick our necks out for that Jesus? What signs of the Kingdom can we look for to confirm that we’re losing our heads for the right cause? In a culture that is blinded by power, dis-eased by wealth, and deadened by addictions, the rejected poor and despised prisoners of our world need signs of the Kingdom more than ever. So do the folks who are sticking their necks out for them. But those signs don’t come easy. The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away, as the Douay-Rheims Bible puts it. Kate Campbell, a great singer-songwriter, used that phrase to create a haunting tribute to the four little girls who were born away by that Sunday morning Birmingham bomb blast. She sings, Who can explain such ignorant hate, when the violent bear it away? Bear it away, bear it away, merciful Jesus, lift up our sorrow upon your shoulder and bear it away. That sounds like a good Lenten prayer to me.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Seeing the Signs.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.