The Slow Work of God
Topic: Luke Passage: Luke 7:1–7:35
I want to start with what was for me the strangest part of our Gospel reading: the riddle that Jesus states at the close of his comments on John the Baptist.
I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
It was strange to me because I have heard it (and maybe you have too) read as a kind of backhanded compliment. Jesus creates two heaps of people. In one you heap all those who have, up until now, been born of women. Turns out that includes... everyone. And John is the top of that particular heap. But that whole heap is then brushed aside as insignificant. The least in the kingdom that Jesus is bringing into the world is greater than John the Baptist.
At least one writer I was reading acknowledged that in this view, which he approved, John the Baptist is excluded from the second heap. He's the greatest in the one heap, but isn't in the other.
That way of reading sounds attractive for patting ourselves on the back. The greatest figure in all of Israel, and I get to be even greater. Maybe you can start to see some of the problems in larger questions: the Christian contempt of Israel and all things Jewish can be found in one little statement. But that's also a very poor reading of what is actually here. We should recognize that's a bad reading by the response: those who had been baptized by John and were his followers responded with praise. To declare God just is a fancy way of saying "Amen!" They loved what Jesus said. And that should already put us off the track if we think it a declaration of John as not a part of the kingdom or denigrating John in any way.
I know this is a little analytical, but bear with me. Two immediate problems plague the reading. One is that the riddle does not say "among those born of women to date, none is greater than John." That's not the statement. It's open-ended. The first heap that Jesus creates is the whole of humanity. Raise your hand if you were born of a woman! The contrast is not about people born up til then, but people born—period.
Second problem is that the "kingdom of God" is not something Jesus is just now bringing into existence. That would have come as a shock to the writers of the psalms, the prophets, and every other writing in Israel. God has always been king, and the kingdom over which he reigns has always existed. Jesus teaches us to pray, "thy kingdom come on earth as it (already) is in heaven." Jesus bringing that kingdom to earth is not the same as Jesus starting that kingdom, or that no one belonged to it until Jesus. We have to throw out the entire rest of the Bible for that reading to make sense.
Jesus gives us a riddle that helps us to unsee the world a little bit, like a camera lens that makes the scene blurry so that we can re-focus on it. We could change the terms here and maybe it will help. I could say:
I tell you: among all plants that live in the ground, none is greater than the California Redwoods. Yet I tell you that a stalk of wheat is greater than these.
Now, we don't hear that and say: "Redwoods used to be impressive; now we have a new thing, a stalk of wheat, that is more impressive." No. We hear it and know we are being invited into another way of focusing on the scene. The Redwood is the largest, most impressive and astonishing of all plants, but a stalk of wheat feeds your family. We unsee a little so that we can see something else.
John was the greatest figure in Israel; no one was more famous, more widely honored, or lived with such integrity. And we think that is so impressive; that is the thing we focus on; that is the thing we pursue and honor and recognize.
Billy Graham was without doubt the greatest of American preachers and pastors. He preached to rich and poor, great and small, kings and homeless—and preached the same thing to them all. He was, by every account, a man of integrity and courage. Yet Billy Graham, for all that, would be the first to tell you (and he said it repeatedly) that it's all a bunch of rot. I mean, it was good and great work. But what was greater honor, to do all those things or to be found a child of God? To be found one who takes the lowest seat in the kingdom of God?
John's greatest honor was not his celebrity status, the power of his eloquence and courage. What did you come into the wilderness to see? Great power and celebrity? Luxury? $500 shoes and designer t-shirts? no. You saw one whose real worth was found as a part of the kingdom of God.
Now, re-seeing the world like this would probably be worth saying in a hundred different moments. But Jesus says it right after John has sent these messengers, some of his friends and disciples to ask Jesus:
Are you the one who is to come? Or should we wait for another?
Are you the one who is going to set all things right, or was I wrong about you?
There's a kind of joke in Jewish-Christian relations where the first question, the main one that divides us, is when the Messiah comes we'll ask if it's his first or his second visit. But the hard edge of that joke is that Jewish rabbis and believers have asked John's question since that generation onward. The Messiah was supposed to set all things right: and yet here we are, in a world that could be on the cusp of the nightmare of a world war once again; a man so intent on glory for his nation that he is willing to kill and threaten millions of lives. We are in a world with young men like Deshaun Hill—a 15 year old YoungLife kid shot and killed just down in North Minneapolis because, at least it appears, he brushed shoulders on a narrow sidewalk with someone who didn't like it. So he shot him. The Messiah was supposed to set all things right. Should we wait for another?
Matthew tells us that John is in prison when he sends these messengers. John feels firsthand the injustice of Roman oppression. He had been arrested for speaking out against the ruler (Herod, not the same Herod as when Jesus was born). He would be senselessly killed in prison, beheaded privately in a way so disgraceful and awful. A pure example of senseless violence.
Are you the one for whom we have waited to set all things right? I know you are healing here and there. Some are receiving sight, others can walk, and others no longer have psoriosis. Sure, that's amazing and wonderful. But that's a trickle in the face of an ocean. Rome is tearing the world apart in war and oppression; the worship of God has been corrupted by priests who loved themselves more than they loved God. Do you not see how much this world is in need? And you are healing a few here, a few there. Are you going to take up your throne and end it all, or should we be waiting for another?
I have felt some form of John's question burning in my own heart more than once. It is another form of what we find in the saints before the throne of God itself in the Bible, crying out:
O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge the earth? (Rev 6:10; cf. Psalm 6:3; 13:1; 35:17; 74:10; 90:13; 94:3; 119:84)
It's a line from the Psalms, sung by generations before Jesus and every generation since. How long? Will you not act? This is John's way of saying it. Maybe he's even trying to get Jesus to act, to take on Rome with its injustice, with its soldiers tearing homes apart. How long? Or should we just wait for another?
So Jesus responds. He doesn't get angry at John, doesn't seem even surprised by the doubts or fears. He simply asks the messengers: "What do you see?" People are being healed; the blind can see; the lame can walk. Jesus refers to the great prophet Isaiah and the days of God exerting his power to make things right. This is what was promised.
Jesus was not weak in the face of all the oppression and terror. He was walking through Israel as one with absolute authority. He heals the centurion's servant (the centurion was a Gentile) by a word. He has absolute authority; not touching those he heals because that's his secret method. He holds authority over sickness. Then he walks up to a funeral procession, touches the bier and calls the young man back to life. No, we can't say Jesus is weak or without power in the midst of all the terror and oppression of evil in the world. The cross will be the moment that looks like such weakness; the resurrection will show that it was nothing like weakness.
What do you see?
Then to the crowds: When you came to see John, what did you come to see? Luke uses lots of different words for seeing in this short episode around John. To his messengers he asked it, and then to the crowd now he asks: What do you come to see?
It is really hard to trust in the slow work of God in the face of all the things that are not yet set right. We need to unsee the world; then see it anew. We need to see the kingdom of God and its patient, slow movement, not the dynamics of power and greatness that we—even those of us who know and love Jesus—pursue and go out into the wilderness to see.
The slow work of God can be frustrating. It has always been that way. God is not in a hurry; never has been. Read through the Bible and the only quick thing about it is the realization how slowly God is content to work. In one of the videos from the men's retreat a few weeks ago we heard about a book called Three Mile an Hour God, by the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who himself lived through the horrors of WWII in Japan and witnessed what he called the "destructiveness of idolatry." Three mph is more or less average walking speed. Jesus walked around Israel and Capernaum at a painfully slow pace. God worked slowly.
Koyama doesn't talk too much of Jesus' time in Nazareth, but he could. Jesus spent about thirty years in that small village, playing his own role in their small life doing nothing that anyone anywhere would notice because he lived in a place nowhere anywhere knew anything about.
Let's be blunt about it: How many suffered and died during those thirty years? We know of some famines, some public uprisings not too far removed, and then of course all the private and small-scale sufferings that never even make it into the historical record. The kind we all know ourselves. Jesus grew up slowly.
I talked to a friend whose research is in a new technology that will allow brain surgery (and other types) for cancer that requires no cutting people open, no chemo, no radiation: a super-precise kind of ultrasound. He's very excited because it is moving into human trials and could be approved for use within 10 years.
But we have friends whose son is dying right now from a brain tumor that could not be operated upon; exactly the kind this new technology will hope to address. I walked away both sad and frustrated. I'm happy for the progress of that technology; and I want it now.
Yet Jesus does not swoop in like some superhero, flying in and going to war and sweeping all away in his path. That, we think, is power. What this world needs is that kind of power wielded for good. And it's not what we find in the Gospels; not how Jesus lived or worked.
Again, Luke sets the story here to show Jesus was not powerless; there is great power. Yet it is the exercising of power in a mode that has no fear whatever. We grow impatient because we we fear lots of things: if that technology is delayed, if God does not hurry up, if...if... if. Then things cannot be set right. God will be too late to redeem. But God has no such fears. He does not work at the pace of fear. He will set all things right; the kingdom of God will prevail. And even the greatness of John is not what we should see when we look at John.
Do you see Deshaun Hill's family mourning at the funeral this last week? I hope so. And do you see his pastor and YoungLife leaders speaking of him?
Blessed are those who mourn.
You see Ukraine, and yet one more political leader with dreams of glory and honor at the cost of however many lives are required. You see churches hiding in shelters, praying and trusting and waiting.
Blessed are the poor; the hungry.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed: if you have ever watched a seed grow with your kids, you know it is slow work. They burst out in the morning to see the plant now grown! They see nothing has changed; for days, weeks even.
God works with the slow confidence that only real power can afford. Fear has to act now, quick, before it's too late. Love without fear, with full power—even over death, can walk more slowly. Here is Kosuke Koyama:
God walks 'slowly' because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed.... It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed... It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks. [Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God, 4]
God comes alongside us. He does not outrun us.
Simon Peter would later write:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promises as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance. (2 Pet 3:9)
God walks at the pace that love walks: the pace of patienc walking alongside us. We grow frustrated because we do not see. Jesus does not rebuke John, does not get angry at our frustrations and doubts; our demands of acting now out of our fears and vulnerability. He says: unsee the world a little, then look again. I know there are moments of great healing for individuals. There are lots of documented cases of extraordinary healing. Likewise, some have struggled with addictions only to have prayer and hands laid on them, and not even a craving remained even years after. I know some of those stories, and believe them.
Others of us know the slow work. And I'm ok with that. God's is not the pace of impotence, of not having the answer. It is the pace that love walks because it is the pace that we walk. In 12-step groups they say, "It takes what it takes." And on the recovery side it takes slow work. Even the suddenly-healed walk 3mph afterward. And they can find that God walks that with them.
This morning I received an email with a link to a house church in Ukraine, a family singing together "He Will Hold Me Fast" in Ukrainian. They are there with their city being shelled and set under siege. We will sing the same song in just a moment—a wonderful gift that we get to know ourselves with them when we could not have planned it. What do you see when you hear them singing? It looks like nothing; sentiment, perhaps. Too little. Not the "real" thing that needs to be done in the moment. But look again: the confidence and the hope in the slow work of God.