I really like John the Baptist.
He’s fascinating; he’s the forerunner of Christ, one of the most important prophets ever, and yet, the Bible only has a few paragraphs about him. Almost all the other prophets get entire books. I mean, look at Jeremiah. He gets a book. Ezekiel gets a book. Isaiah gets a book. John the Baptist doesn’t get a book.
But, and here’s why I am so drawn to him, I think—he really doesn’t care.
John the Baptist was not in it for the glory (at least not his own). He just did his job—paving the way for the Messiah—and he did it well. He was laser-focused on his mission and didn’t care about going down in history. He didn’t care about making a name for himself. He didn’t care about being recognized as an industry leader, as being named one of LinkedIn’s Top 40 Prophets Under 40. I bet, if he were here today, he wouldn’t even have a LinkedIn.
And that’s why he’s so fascinating. I can hardly conceive of someone who so clearly played an important role being so utterly unconcerned with recognition. John the Baptist exemplified humility, and that’s not something we see a lot these days.
I, myself, struggle a lot with humility. I want to be impressive. I want people to look at my LinkedIn profile and be wowed. I want people to think I’ve done a good job, that I’m a good problem-solver, that I add value.
But enough about me; let’s talk about John. John had the humility that we so often lack. He knew that his life’s work was to prepare the way for Christ, that his job was part of something so much bigger, and that he was not the main character in this story. And yet, he still questioned Jesus. Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Is this what I’ve been working toward? Has the Messiah finally come? Am I done now?... Is the world saved?
Was that what John was thinking?
I don’t know. I’m not a New Testament scholar. I went to business school. That means I know a lot about LinkedIn and laying out your assumptions and identifying frameworks to arrive at optimal solutions to your problems, but not a lot about the contemporary consensus on John the Baptist’s motivations.
But I don’t think John was looking for a Job-Well-Done, and I don’t think he was looking for proof, either. He did ask for an answer—and Jesus sent one, listing out data points that most analysts would agree indicated a positive trend.
As someone who likes data, who likes spreadsheets and certainty and solving problems, this is a tempting way to interpret this passage. Statement of the problem: Pave the way for the One who is to come. The One comes: Problem solved. John—and I—are happy.
But life is not just a series of problems to be solved. Somehow, though, we’ve turned it into one.
I mean, think about it… Most of our To-Do lists are framed as problems to be solved. Sales are down? Implement a new marketing strategy. Congregational growth has slowed? Get the Welcoming Committee to work double-shifts. Have a homily to write? Easy—just do all the Homily Things: Pick out one line of the Scripture readings to riff on, connect it to something contemporary, define a word in the original Greek, and then name-drop a prominent theologian or Christian thinker.
Now, I don’t know Greek, but, as mystery writer, apologist, and recent addition to the Episcopal rota of Lesser Feasts and Fasts Dorothy L. Sayers says in the Mind of the Maker, “the careless use of the words ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ can betray us into habits of thought that are not merely inadequate but false.”
The lens that we look through, where everything is a problem and we need to solve it, is a problem in itself.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we don’t have problems. I’m not making light of any of the issues that we’re facing—of anything that’s going on in the world or that any one of us are going through at the moment. There are problems…God knows we have problems… but that’s just it. God knows we have problems. We’re not in it alone. The responsibility, the weight of solving them, doesn’t rest 100% on our shoulders. Sometimes, thinking that it does—and that we can—can border on hubris.
That’s the danger in this problem/solution lens, because when we start thinking that everything in life can be broken down into a problem and a solution, it doesn’t take long before things turn dark. We quickly get to the really big problems, the ones we’re facing right now. Poverty. Injustice. War. We see huge, global, overwhelming problems—and we assume they need huge, global, overwhelming solutions. And we assume that we have to find them.
The thing is, there are no global solutions. No policy, no program, no multinational set of goals, is going to save the world. They can inform, they can encourage, they can lay out a framework—but the work-work is done one person at a time. One human at a time. One moment at a time. And that is something we can do.
That, I think, is what Jesus was getting at when he responded to John the Baptist’s question. He didn’t send back the message that he had put into place a policy of redeeming the world. He didn’t enclose a glossy brochure of his Future World Vision, proclaiming his ambition to lead 100% of the world’s population to salvation by the year 40. He didn’t talk about a global solution at all; he listed individual cases. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. These are actual people, actual instances. The deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
This is the evidence that Jesus offers John the Baptist: Individual acts of healing, of hearing, of new life.
The Bishop of Minnesota, Craig Loya, said recently that “We won’t fix the world and the church by simply trying harder. And in fact, trying harder is part of the problem. But,” he goes on, “neither are we called to just give up and sit on the sidelines. The world and the church will be saved by God and God alone. Our job is to yoke our lives to God’s living power, moment by moment by moment, so that what we do flows from that source, not our own limited wells.”
Our wells are limited. God’s is not. We must yoke our lives to God’s motive power, using that momentum, that direction. We still do our work—we plant the seeds, and furrow the fields, and… whatever else one does when plowing—but we’re the hired help. We’re not in charge.
That, right there, is the biggest temptation, and the reason that John the Baptist is so fascinating. We all—I say, extrapolating from one data point, which is me—want to be in charge. We want to solve the problem. We want to find the huge, global, one-size-fits-all strategy and then save the world.
But that’s not our job. We do have a job—like John, it’s to prepare, to usher in, to pave the way for Christ’s return… and to do so without any promise of recognition or even certainty.
Most of us, in all honesty, probably also will never have a book written about us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make an impact. We can follow John’s lead—and Jesus’ lead—by helping, by healing, by bringing the good news. I like to think that, at some point, John the Baptist did get his Job-Well-Done… and on our last day, on the last day, we’ll get ours, too.
May God grant us the strength—and the humility—to wait until it comes.
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