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A Leader, thinking…

#14: Tuesday, 19 March, 2019.

Tuesday, 19 March Luke 7:18-35

Written by Dr Graham Leo. ©2019.

You will recall that John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod. We must try to imagine him, languishing in a dungeon in Herod’s palace at Masada. This palace is well-preserved in the desert near the Dead Sea. In winter it is bitterly cold; in summer, unbearably hot. John will have been hungry, sore, uncomfortable, lonely and in deep despondency. Self-pity and self-questioning will have been his constant temptations.

What if I got it all wrong? What if I’ve wasted my life? What if I've spent my whole life trying to be faithful to God, promoting the coming of the Messiah, and the whole thing is just a crock of nonsense?

Have you ever been tempted to wonder that? I have, and I’ve not had to suffer a tenth of what John had. It is a very low place to be.

So John has some visitors – I don't imagine he got them very often. And through them he sends a message to Jesus. Read it in v20: Are you really the Messiah? Or have I got it all wrong? Please tell me the truth.

What would ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ do when he got that message? What would you do? I’d go and visit John in prison and try to encourage him. What did Jesus do?

He tells John’s disciples to go back and tell John what they have seen happening. ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News (Gospel) is preached to the poor.’

Jesus knows that John will understand this. John knows what the prophecies have said about the Messiah. He knows that when John is told this, he will smile, bow his head, give thanks, and shed a little tear of thankfulness. He didn't need a ‘Get well soon’ card, or a ‘We missed you last week’ message in the mail. He needed to hear the truth.

But then Jesus adds something that when you first read it, you sort of wish Luke hadn't mentioned it at all. Jesus doesn't say something like, ‘I'm so sorry that you have had to suffer for me, John. I'm praying for you every day. Stay strong, and I hope you enjoy the bunch of grapes and flower basket that I'm sending.’ Instead of that, Jesus says: ‘Blessed is the man who doesn't fall away on account of me’.

You have to admit it. This sounds like pretty cold comfort. Was Jesus being unkind?

A man called Sheldon Vanauken wrote a book called A Severe Mercy. The title comes from a phrase in a letter written to Vanauken by C. S. Lewis. Vanauken’s wife had died prematurely from cancer, and in what Vanauken described as a ‘severe and splendid letter’, Lewis told Vanauken that God had granted him ‘a severe mercy’.

There were lots of reasons for that, not relevant here. But Lewis goes on to tell Vanauken that the ‘severe mercy’ that God has granted him in his bereavement is the grace to learn how to go on from merely being US (i.e. living his life as a husband and lover), to being US AND GOD (i.e., recognising that God was in their relationship and learning to live as husband and wife within the daily grace of a relationship with God as well).

Now, said Lewis to his friend, it only remained to go on to being GOD AND US. Do you see the point he is making? When we put ourselves before God in any way, however right and legitimate it might seem to be that we do so, we disorder our lives and destroy our true selves. There is only one order: God first, then us. Anything else is an idolatry.

I think that here we see Jesus offering to John the Baptist just such a severe mercy.

John had been (not unreasonably) tempted with self-pity. He had doubted his mission. Which is the same as saying that he had doubted God. We dare not for a moment sit in judgement on John. His was a terrible condition and his fate was about to be even worse.

But Jesus could not give in to soft-soaping John’s failure. As Lewis goes on to say in his letter, ‘There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare to write so plainly. … To fools and weaklings one writes soft things.’

John was not a fool nor a weakling; and Jesus was not a soft-soaper. If it needed to be said, he would say it.

His message to John was stark, but true. ‘You’ve done most of the hard yards, John. Don't give up now. Yes, to follow me is hard, and it will probably end in your death. I'm not going to rescue you from that, even though I could. But remember this: the one who does not give up on me when they are tested to the hilt and feel at their weakest, is the one who receives the Great Reward. Stay true, John. Don't give up. Never give up on me. I'm the One who is always True.’

There are times in my life when I need to hear that. Mostly you won't find anyone who’ll tell you. They’ll faff around with ‘I'm sure God knows how you're feeling’; and ‘Trust God; he understands our doubts and will forgive us for them’; and ‘God knows that we’re just human – he understands when we just can't go on sometimes’.

These are all Job’s comforters. They are not telling the whole truth. What they say may be half-true. But something that is half-true is also half-wrong. The full truth is that God calls us to trust him; he cannot put up with you rejecting him. That’s actually what Jesus called the sin against the Holy Spirit that can't be forgiven, if the rejection is carried through to the point of death. Best not start down that road!

Saying that Jesus was not the Messiah would have spelt the absolute failure of John’s mission of salvation – even perhaps his own. Jesus was not about to let John do that. ‘Look at the evidence John,’ he says, ‘and don't give up on me. Blessed are those who go on believing even when the way is hard, the night is dark, when the rain is so strong it blots out the path, and the cold winds of doubt and death penetrate through to your very soul. Stay with me John, because I’ll be staying with you – even if you can't see me for a while.’

Prayer: Thank you Lord Jesus Christ, that Luke recorded your words to John. With far less cause than John had, I’ve sometimes been tempted to give up. To think that the game was not worth the candle. But I hear your words, now. You alone are the Truth, and I must hang on to that, no matter what. Help me please.

Show me, just occasionally, the light I need to see to keep on going, and I’ll call up my courage and my determination to keep on keeping on. Amen.